Study Guide

Thoreau in Walden

By Henry David Thoreau


Actually, that's what makes Walden fun to read. It's written in the voice of someone who is fully aware that he's got a pretentious, elitist streak. Because of this, contradictions abound, but they're incredibly rich, and worth taking a look at."Simplify, simplify." It's one of the most famous sentences from Thoreau's Walden, but really jarring for people (like you) who have actually read the book. Sure, Thoreau declares that his sole purpose is to relate the discoveries and success of his personal experiment living for two years alone by Walden Pond – a pretty simple life. But what we actually get in Walden is a portrait of a man who is caught up in his own contradictions. There's nothing simplified about Thoreau's character.

Comedy vs. Sobriety

The process of "simplification," in one sense, is essentially a struggle between the seriousness of life and the comedy that comes along with it. Just as Thoreau seems to be getting seriously, intellectually pretentious, life (figuratively, but amusingly) bops him on the head.

A classic instance of such comic simplification occurs at the beginning of the "Brute Neighbors" chapter. The chapter title suggests that Thoreau is, once again, going to poo-poo his fellow man for being so anti-intellectual. When the chapter begins with a funny dialogue between a Hermit and a Poet, though, it is the serious Hermit who is portrayed as ridiculous, as he gets easily distracted from philosophical questions by... fishing.

In case you don't get the joke, remember that Thoreau describes time as "the stream he goes fishing in." Sure, you can put on a serious face and say, in an AP-exam-ish way, "the stream presents an important allegory for Thoreau's conceptualization of time as an a-temporal entity fundamentally divorced from worldly concerns," but that would be seriously missing the point of Thoreau's self-mockery. Not to mention, that's what we at Shmoop call pretentious gobbledy-gook. Correct gobbledy-gook, but pretentious still.

Mind vs. Body

A slightly less amusing tension is found between Thoreau's spiritual/intellectual side and his bodily, animal nature. This tension is written on the page, with chapters waffling between lengthy reflection on moral and social questions, and even more lengthy reflection on natural beauty. Nature metaphors pop up in the more intellectual sections, and comparisons to moral or intellectual ideas are often made in the nature sections. It's almost as if the poetic, metaphor-making side of Thoreau were trying to weave together and reconcile these two sides of himself.

Perhaps the two most outstanding instances of this mind/body tension are portrayed in Thoreau's description, first of Walden Pond, and second of the melting mud. In both cases, a simple appreciation for natural beauty shifts toward an allegory about some very human, spiritual truth. Whether Thoreau successfully reconciles the two is still up for debate by scholars – what do you think?

Man vs. Nature

Another contradiction: for a conservationist, Thoreau seems ambivalent (indifferent) about the way humans impact nature. Let's take a closer look. He is against abusing natural resources for material gain (think railroad, logging, and ice-harvesting). But at the same time, he acknowledges that his own farm takes its toll on the native species of the land. What's more, he celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit that led to developments such as the railroad in the first place. Listen, friend, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. Well, you can, but we will notice.

This tension between man and nature comes through in Thoreau's representation of Walden Pond. It is unclear whether the pond is an unchanging symbol of human goodness, or a symbol of the way humans abuse nature (he bemoans the changes that have taken place at Walden Pond since he was a boy). It seems like Thoreau sees it both ways, and you know what, that's perfectly okay.


All of these contradictions make Thoreau incredibly human, and that's a good thing. If the book were written as deliberately as he sought to live at Walden Pond (his words, not ours), it would be way too preachy. Instead, we have a man who's so completely honest about what's going on in his mind that he's even willing to lay out his weaknesses and contradictions. We get a clamorous and essentially joyful book, through the voice of a man who is intensely curious about everything from Hindu mythology to the name of an as-of-yet-unidentified species of pickerel. Perhaps the simplest truth that we get from the book – and more specifically, from Thoreau's character – is that man is essentially un-simplifiable.