Summary: The Village

Around noon, after his morning chores are finished, Thoreau takes a second bath in the pond and prepares to spend the rest of his day at leisure. Several times a week he hikes into Concord, where he gathers the latest gossip and meets with townsmen at the main centers of activity, the grocery, the bar, the post office, and the bank. Stores of all kinds try to seduce him with their advertised wares, but Thoreau has no interest in consumer splurges, and makes his way back home without lingering too long in the marketplace. He often makes his way back to Walden Pond in the dark, which is challenging. But with practice he grows accustomed to the way, feeling his path out by the neighboring trees or the rut of the path below. Other people, he notes, are not as adapted to nighttime walking. Even in the village itself, he says, many lose their way in the darkness, sometimes wandering for hours. Thoreau does not consider such dislocation to be a bad thing. Through being lost, he says, one truly comes to understand oneself and “the infinite extent of our relations.”

On one of his journeys into Concord, Thoreau is detained, arrested, and jailed for his refusal to pay a poll tax to “the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” After a night in jail he is released, and returns to Walden Pond, remarkably unexcited about his incarceration. Thoreau calmly muses about how, except for governmental intrusion, he lives without fear of being disturbed by anyone. He does not find it necessary to lock up his own possessions and always welcomes visitors of all classes. He says that theft exists only in communities where “some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

Summary: The Ponds

A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate between land and sky.

See Important Quotes Explained, p. 4.

When Thoreau has enough of town life, he spends his leisure time in the country. At times Thoreau takes a boat on the pond and plays his flute, and he goes fishing at midnight as well, drifting between waking and dreaming until he snaps awake when he feels a tug on his line. This fishing vignette allows Thoreau to segue into an extended meditation on the local Concord ponds, especially Walden.

Although Walden Pond itself is not particularly grand, Thoreau says, it is remarkably deep and pure. Depending on the point of view and the time of day, the water of the pond may appear blue, green, or totally transparent. It makes the body of the bather appear pure white, rather than yellowish as the river water does. Thoreau reports that Walden Pond is said by some to be bottomless. White stones surround the shore, allowing Thoreau to venture a wry etymology of its name (“walled-in”), and hills rise beyond. Other ponds, such as Flints’, have their distinctive qualities, and Thoreau’s emphasis is on their uniqueness rather than their generic similarities.

In exploring the outlying areas, Thoreau notes the well-worn paths of previous generations now long gone. He comments on the unpredictable fluctuations in the depth of the pond, and speculates on some possible origins of the name Walden. Thoreau muses about how his fellow townsmen think the pond resulted from the sinking of a hill into the earth as punishment for Native American wrongdoing that took place there. He says that his “ancient settler” friend, referred to earlier in the work, claims to have dug the pond. Thoreau says that he does not object to these stories. He notices that the surrounding hills contain the same kind of stones that surround Walden’s walled-in shores. Animals found at the pond, including ducks, frogs, muskrats, minks, and turtles, all make an appearance in Thoreau’s account. Growing more mystical by the end of the chapter, Thoreau focuses on the serenity and peacefulness of the ponds in a way that suggests a higher meaning. He says that they are beyond human description or knowledge, and are “much more beautiful than our lives.”

Analysis: The Village & The Ponds

On Walden Pond Thoreau is no misanthrope, but indulges quite freely in his taste for social interaction, as his interactions with the village indicate. He heads off to the village every day not for the practical purpose of gathering supplies, but simply “to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there,” which he finds “as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.” This statement is revealing, showing that Thoreau neither dismisses nor overvalues human society, neither rejecting it totally nor finding anything more important than gossip in it.

Instead, he places it on the same level as frogs and leaves, without much meaning but pleasant in its own limited way. When compared to nature, society seems nice and harmless. Thoreau makes himself a kind of naturalist of social life, perceiving humans as creatures in their native habitat. Men on the main street appear to him “as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow.” His remark that ordinary villagers strike him as “curious” echoes similar remarks that the townspeople make elsewhere about Thoreau himself: that he is a freak for wanting to live so far from town. Thoreau is showing that social existence also has its own peculiar strangeness and that being isolated on Walden Pond is no more bizarre than living like a prairie dog in town.

Yet social life for Thoreau is not always so peaceful and harmless. If the visitor loses his natural good sense within the village, and is seduced by its illusory appeals, it becomes a risky place to be. As Thoreau’s description of the village’s layout proceeds, it uses more and more words of aggression, onslaught, and danger. Every traveler has to “run the gauntlet,” he says, when exploring the place. The houses are arranged as if in a battle-line, so that the villagers “might get a lick at” the visitor before he can “escape.” Advertising signs “catch him.” In portraying the dangers of village life, Thoreau is indirectly mocking the villagers’ beliefs that it is nature that is hostile and threatening. Thoreau says that he has never been “distressed in any weather” out in the open, unlike the distraught townspeople who lose their way at night and stray far from the well-trod streets of the village.

For Thoreau, being lost in this way is neither dangerous nor inadvisable. Being disoriented with regard to society—losing the path to the village—is far less serious, implies Thoreau, than being disoriented with regard to our own selves. It is better to find oneself and risk one’s social standing, if need be, just as Thoreau himself does when as a conscientious objector he is jailed for nonpayment of a tax. In commenting on this point, he ironically reverses the idea that he is a wild rebel, saying instead that it is society that has “run amok” of him. His casual tone in reporting the jail incident (“One afternoon . . .” he begins coolly, as if relating another squirrel sighting or fishing trip) illustrates how unimportant it is in his life, which has generally been successful in “escap[ing]” not just jail but all social constraints.

Thoreau’s description of Walden Pond in the beautiful “Ponds” chapter hints at a symbolic significance to this mysterious, deep, and pure body of water. Blue or green when seen from different angles, yet “as colorless as an equal quantity of air” when a glass of it is held up to the light, Walden Pond is profoundly indefinable. Thoreau mentions that some people “think it is bottomless,” or infinitely deep. Other waters make the human bather appear yellowish, but Walden gives the human body an alabaster whiteness, like a figure by Michelangelo. Since Michelangelo was a religious artist, and white a Christian symbol of purity, Walden’s infinity and mystery makes it seem divine. Indeed, water, in Christianity, through the sacrament of baptism, is a powerful symbol of a higher life in Christ.

Thoreau is never an explicitly Christian writer, but subtly Walden Pond seems to perform some of the functions traditionally performed by the church. Its fascinating “glassy surface” reflects heaven, “a perfect forest mirror” of the sky above. It seems a little bit of heaven on earth, and the chapter’s last line suggests that it is better than heaven, because it can be found on earth: “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.” The living human has access to and may choose to live near the earthly pond, as Thoreau does. In a sense the pond may represent the natural soul of humankind, a bit of heaven we can discover within us, “walled-in” within our external social selves, just as Walden is walled in by its stones.