Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The meanings of Walden Pond are various, and by the end of the work this small body of water comes to symbolize almost everything Thoreau holds dear spiritually, philosophically, and personally. Certainly it symbolizes the alternative to, and withdrawal from, social conventions and obligations. But it also symbolizes the vitality and tranquility of nature. A clue to the symbolic meaning of the pond lies in two of its aspects that fascinate Thoreau: its depth, rumored to be infinite, and its pure and reflective quality. Thoreau is so intrigued by the question of how deep Walden Pond is that he devises a new method of plumbing depths to measure it himself, finding it no more than a hundred feet deep. Wondering why people rumor that the pond is bottomless, Thoreau offers a spiritual explanation: humans need to believe in infinity. He suggests that the pond is not just a natural phenomenon, but also a metaphor for spiritual belief. When he later describes the pond reflecting heaven and making the swimmer’s body pure white, we feel that Thoreau too is turning the water (as in the Christian sacrament of baptism by holy water) into a symbol of heavenly purity available to humankind on earth. When Thoreau concludes his chapter on “The Ponds” with the memorable line, “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth,” we see him unwilling to subordinate earth to heaven. Thoreau finds heaven within himself, and it is symbolized by the pond, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” By the end of the “Ponds” chapter, the water hardly seems like a physical part of the external landscape at all anymore; it has become one with the heavenly soul of humankind.
As Thoreau’s chief companions after he moves to Walden Pond, animals inevitably symbolize his retreat from human society and closer intimacy with the natural world. Thoreau devotes much attention in his narrative to the behavior patterns of woodchucks, partridges, loons, and mice, among others. Yet his animal writing does not sound like the notes of a naturalist; there is nothing truly scientific or zoological in Walden, for Thoreau personalizes nature too much. He does not record animals neutrally, but instead emphasizes their human characteristics, turning them into short vignettes of human behavior somewhat in the fashion of Aesop’s fables. For example, Thoreau’s observation of the partridge and its young walking along his windowsill elicits a meditation on motherhood and the maternal urge to protect one’s offspring. Similarly, when Thoreau watches two armies of ants wage war with all the “ferocity and carnage of a human battle,” Thoreau’s attention is not that of an entomologist describing their behavior objectively, but rather that of a philosopher thinking about the universal urge to destroy.
The resemblance between animals and humans also works in the other direction, as when Thoreau describes the townsmen he sees on a trip to Concord as resembling prairie dogs. Ironically, the humans Thoreau describes often seem more “brutish” (like the authorities who imprison him in Concord) than the actual brutes in the woods do. Furthermore, Thoreau’s intimacy with animals in Walden shows that solitude for him is not really, and not meant to be, total isolation. His very personal relationship with animals demonstrates that in his solitary stay at the pond, he is making more connections, not fewer, with other beings around him.
Since ice is the only product of Walden Pond that is useful, it becomes a symbol of the social use and social importance of nature, and of the exploitation of natural resources. Thoreau’s fascination with the ice industry is acute. He describes in great detail the Irish icemen who arrive from Cambridge in the winter of 1846 to cut, block, and haul away 10,000 tons of ice for use in city homes and fancy hotels. The ice-cutters are the only group of people ever said to arrive at Walden Pond en masse, and so they inevitably represent society in miniature, with all the calculating exploitations and injustices that Thoreau sees in the world at large. Consequently, the labor of the icemen on Walden becomes a symbolic microcosm of the confrontation of society and nature. At first glance it would appear that society gets the upper hand, as the frozen pond is chopped up, disfigured, and robbed of ten thousand tons of its contents. But nature triumphs in the end, since less than twenty-five percent of the ice ever reaches its destination, the rest melting and evaporating en route—and making its way back to Walden Pond. With this analysis, Thoreau suggests that humankind’s efforts to exploit nature are in vain, since nature regenerates itself on a far grander scale than humans could ever hope to affect, much less threaten. The icemen’s exploitation of Walden contrasts sharply with Thoreau’s less economic, more poetical use of it. In describing the rare mystical blue of Walden’s water when frozen, he makes ice into a lyrical subject rather than a commodity, and makes us reflect on the question of the value, both market and spiritual, of nature in general.