Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Self-Reliance
Four years before Thoreau embarked on his Walden project, his great teacher and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an enormously influential essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” It can be seen as a statement of the philosophical ideals that Thoreau’s experiment is meant to put into practice. Certainly self-reliance is economic and social in Walden Pond: it is the principle that in matters of financial and interpersonal relations, independence is more valuable than neediness. Thus Thoreau dwells on the contentment of his solitude, on his finding entertainment in the laugh of the loon and the march of the ants rather than in balls, marketplaces, or salons. He does not disdain human companionship; in fact he values it highly when it comes on his own terms, as when his philosopher or poet friends come to call. He simply refuses to need human society. Similarly, in economic affairs he is almost obsessed with the idea that he can support himself through his own labor, producing more than he consumes, and working to produce a profit. Thoreau does not simply report on the results of his accounting, but gives us a detailed list of expenditures and income. How much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847 may seem trivial, but for him it is not. Rather it is proof that, when everything is added up, he is a giver rather than a taker in the economic game of life.
As Emerson’s essay details, self-reliance can be spiritual as well as economic, and Thoreau follows Emerson in exploring the higher dimensions of individualism. In Transcendentalist thought the self is the absolute center of reality; everything external is an emanation of the self that takes its reality from our inner selves. Self-reliance thus refers not just to paying one’s own bills, but also more philosophically to the way the natural world and humankind rely on the self to exist. This duality explains the connection between Thoreau the accountant and Thoreau the poet, and shows why the man who is so interested in pinching pennies is the same man who exults lyrically over a partridge or a winter sky. They are both products of self-reliance, since the economizing that allows Thoreau to live on Walden Pond also allows him to feel one with nature, to feel as though it is part of his own soul.
The Value of Simplicity
Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau; it is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary. For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment and disadvantage. He builds his own shack instead of getting a bank loan to buy one, and enjoys the leisure time that he can afford by renouncing larger expenditures. Ironically, he points out, those who pursue more impressive possessions actually have fewer possessions than he does, since he owns his house outright, while theirs are technically held by mortgage companies. He argues that the simplification of one’s lifestyle does not hinder such pleasures as owning one’s residence, but on the contrary, facilitates them.
Another irony of Thoreau’s simplification campaign is that his literary style, while concise, is far from simple. It contains witticisms, double meanings, and puns that are not at all the kind of New England deadpan literalism that might pass for literary simplicity. Despite its minimalist message, Walden is an elevated text that would have been much more accessible to educated city-dwellers than to the predominantly uneducated country-dwellers.
The Illusion of Progress
Living in a culture fascinated by the idea of progress represented by technological, economic, and territorial advances, Thoreau is stubbornly skeptical of the idea that any outward improvement of life can bring the inner peace and contentment he craves. In an era of enormous capitalist expansion, Thoreau is doggedly anti-consumption, and in a time of pioneer migrations he lauds the pleasures of staying put. In a century notorious for its smugness toward all that preceded it, Thoreau points out the stifling conventionality and constraining labor conditions that made nineteenth-century progress possible.
One clear illustration of Thoreau’s resistance to progress is his criticism of the train, which throughout Europe and America was a symbol of the wonders and advantages of technological progress. Although he enjoys imagining the local Fitchburg train as a mythical roaring beast in the chapter entitled “Sounds,” he generally seems peeved by the encroachment of the railway upon the rustic calm of Walden Pond. Like Tolstoy in Russia, Thoreau in the United States dissents from his society’s enthusiasm for this innovation in transportation, seeing it rather as a false idol of social progress. It moves people from one point to another faster, but Thoreau has little use for travel anyway, asking the reason for going off “to count the cats in Zanzibar.” It is far better for him to go vegetate in a little corner of the woods for two years than to commute from place to place unreflectively.