Walden Summary and Review

by Henry David Thoreau
Has Walden by Henry David Thoreau been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Like many people, do you often feel drained from the hustle and bustle of city life? Do you sometimes find it easy to get frustrated by the noise, traffic, and rushing people surrounding you? Henry David Thoreau had certainly reached this point – and that was back in 1845! But rather than simply dealing with it like most people, Thoreau decided to do something about how he was feeling: he moved to the woods and settled into a home on the edge of a lake called Walden Pond. In this book summary, you’ll explore how Thoreau sustained himself while living at Walden Pond, and what he was able to learn about human nature while living a simple life surrounded by nature. Here, you’ll gain insight into both the practical and philosophical parts of Thoreau’s two years that he spent living a simple life, learning everything a quiet forest can teach you. In this summary of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, you’ll also discover
  • why it’s foolish to fully devote yourself to your work;
  • how so-called “savages” actually have very advanced housing; and
  • which of Thoreau’s Walden Pond visitors had a habit of crawling up his leg.
Walden Key Idea #1: Thoreau was growing concerned about how modern life was affecting his opportunities for gaining true wisdom and knowledge. In the spring of 1985, Henry David Thoreau decided to go out to the wooded shore of Walden Pond, which wasn’t a pond at all—but a lake in Concord, Massachusetts. He felt incredibly weighed down by the earthly worries of the city; he found modern life to be profoundly disturbing. In Thoreau’s eyes, the approaching new era was draining both wisdom and freedom. He saw that people were being crushed by the servitude of work, and were losing out on the chance to enjoy everything that life had to offer. As he famously put it, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He saw them doing nothing but laboring to make money so that they could buy houses just to fill them with useless stuff. Thoreau reacted forcefully. He saw such an existence as “a fool’s life.” To him, this was a life devoid of meaning and wisdom, instead full of exertion and drudgery. He saw part of the problem as the fact that people who worked so hard just didn’t have the time or energy to read anymore, and while so many people seemed to know the intricacies of accounting and bookkeeping, they knew hardly anything of classic literature. He believed that people who’d stopped reading during childhood were stunted intellectually, and that there is so much to be learned from literature. He believed that this learning could be exemplified even more for people who were able to read a work in its original language. One of Thoreau’s favorite works was Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, which became a source of comfort in his new environment. Reading, to Thoreau, was seen as a guide. So, perhaps, you’ll also be able to find works that breathe life and knowledge into your daily existence, offering answers to life’s big questions. The point of moving to Walden Pond, for Thoreau, was to show himself that there was more to life, and there is much for us to learn from his personal experience that can still be applied to today’s modern existence. Walden Key Idea #2: For Thoreau, moving to Walden Pond represented returning to the simple life. Thoreau met two responses whenever he mentioned that he was setting out to live in Walden Pond’s surrounding woods: people were either fascinated by his unusual decision, or they felt that he was becoming antisocial. Really, Thoreau had no intention of living as a hermit. He simply wanted to relocate due to his witnessing the fatigue that came from working people. His moving to Walden simply represented a chance for him to actually live, absorbing the wisdom that could come from a simple life. Moving to Walden Pond, for Thoreau, was about minimalizing his belongings down to the bare essentials, so that he’d be able to focus more on enlightened pursuits. In doing this, he wanted to devote himself to philosophical, spiritual, creative, and artistic endeavors. This simplicity came down to four essentials: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel for the fireplace or woodstove. Thoreau had faith that life at Walden Pond would allow him to meet these four basic needs easily. This meant that he would have more than enough time to think and write, so that he would finally be able to enjoy life. There was plenty of space at Walden for Thoreau to be able to grow his own plants, both for eating, and selling. His shelter would be a house he’d build himself, including a small shed for storing firewood. Thoreau knew prior to moving there that farming, building, and maintaining the house wouldn’t be easy. However, he also knew that it would be more fulfilling than a mind-sapping day job. These tasks would also allow Thoreau to sustain himself and think freely and clearly without being burdened by daily life’s pressures. He also decided to ditch modern ideas of clothing. There was no need to spend money on office clothes. So, instead, because of the kind of work Thoreau was now going to be doing, he realized all he would need was some good, long-lasting, functional clothing. Walden Key Idea #3: Building your own house and growing your own food is not only practical, but it allows you to learn. Thoreau saw the houses of his era as objects that acted as status symbols, rather than ones that had been constructed for function. And he was probably right: the average home could cost 10 to 15 years' worth of wages! Instead, Thoreau saw wisdom in how supposedly “savage” peoples, like the Native Americans lived. They’d kept their tent-like houses simple, functional, and practical. These structures were not only easy to build, but were also designed to withstand all types of weather. Thoreau saw value in the endeavors of these peoples. In contrast to “civilized” Americans who built boxy homes, leavingbehind homeless multitudes, Native Americans had practical housing and no homelessness to speak of. He also saw advantages to building a house on your own. Yes, it’s practical, but he also saw it as an excellent way to learn some valuable lessons about life. Look at it this way: who learns more, the student listening to college lectures on metallurgy, or someone who mines metal ore, and then heats, shapes, and hammers it to form a blade before fitting it to a handle? The latter, of course! Thoreau saw the same benefit to growing his own food. Not only would he experience the satisfaction of eating the crops that he had once sown, but he would also get to experience the process of gardening, hence learning about the virtue and benefits of patience. While farming was hard work for Thoreau, it was satisfying. To him, farming was a noble art and a sacred tradition; it had deep roots and tremendous complexity just beneath the surface. Walden Key Idea #4: At Walden Pond, nature was completely immersive, and became its own antidote to solitude. And so it came to pass that Thoreau, with the help of a few acquaintances, built a small house not far from the shore of Walden Pond. It was only 10 by 15 feet, with simply enough room for a bed, a desk, a small table, and three chairs. The house cost a total of $28 to build, an amount that, in 1845, would only have been enough to cover the cost of accommodation at the nearby Cambridge College for one year – but it only would’ve covered the cost of the room! Thoreau’s new home gave him everything he needed to simply observe and listen to the nature that surrounded him. Thoreau felt that he would be perfectly happy simply spending his day listening to the calls of the birds that lived nearby; like Thoreau, they too were building their homes amongst the trees. Thoreau saw the birds’ songs as full of joy, and he felt that nothing could better represent his own feelings. While inside his remote home, he was able to hear squirrels running across the roof, and other creatures digging and running beneath the floor boards. Rather charmingly, he records a hare who bumped the floorboards as it hopped around below. Due to the sonorous wash of nearby animal life, Thoreau started to see that his solitude was more than that—it was an immersive experience in nature. And this was no wonder—his nearest human neighbor was about a mile away and, when he looked out the window from his home, he could see no other nearby houses. When Thoreau looked out his window at Walden Pond at night, he could see the stars reflecting off the surface of the pond’s still water. During these quiet hours, he was finally content, and felt as if he was on a planet of his very own. He might have been alone, but he was never lonely, nor did he find this solitude insufferable—the sounds of the surrounding nature were his constant companion. Walden Key Idea #5: While Thoreau’s house was small, he had a surprising number of visitors. Thoreau was by no means a loner. He frequently made visits into Concord so that he could purchase flour to bake bread and sell bushels of the beans he grew. Callers came by the house too. However, it was often difficult for Thoreau to actually accommodate these visitors. His house was incredibly small, and it didn’t exactly make for the best conditions for serious discussions. Thoreau believed that big ideas needed bigger spaces to actually unfurl and reveal themselves – and this wasn’t exactly possible when people were trying to cram inside his small cabin. Because of this, he found it best to take the table and chairs outside, as long as him and his callers had good weather. There, him and whoever had come to visit would be able to debate and eat more easily, with only the canopy of trees above them. One of Thoreau’s favorite guests was a young Canadian lumberjack who had built his own home nearby. This man often walked his dog past Thoreau’s house and Walden Pond early in the mornings while you walked to work. Thoreau enjoyed this man’s company because he admired his simple and direct manner. He found it refreshing to encounter such a friendly person who was also such an independent thinker. He was excited to learn that his visiting friend also enjoyed reading Homer. This young man was actually so noble and dignified that many of the locals started to suspect that he might have been a prince in disguise! Thoreau’s other visitors included writer, poet, and philosopher friends, and even people who were simply curious about Thoreau’s experiment. Thoreau had a simple and rustic form of hospitality, which meant that he enjoyed sharing a small meal, such as a loaf of bread, while he and his visitor talked. In his accounts of his life at Walden Pond, Thoreau didn’t go out of his way to name his visitors specifically, but he was clear that he wasn’t living a life of a hermit. While it would be easy to assume otherwise, his quaint home actually appears to have been a frequently visited and very pleasant spot! Walden Key Idea #6: Thoreau never felt lonely because he was surrounded by all of the nature around Walden Pond. Despite finding comfort in human interaction, Thoreau’s true neighbors were the wildlife that lived outside his home. Thoreau particularly loved the company of the woodland mice. Thoreau was used to city mice, and these mice were different because they weren’t used to human contact—although, they soon got over this. Thoreau had a special friendship with one particular mouse. This mouse used to scurry up the leg of his pants and onto the dinner table, where he would dine alongside Thoreau and cheekily share a bite of his supper. Thoreau was also joined by a partridges who had built their home nearby. These ground-nesting birds intrigued Thoreau because they were generally quite shy creatures. However, once they had gotten used to Thoreau’s presence, they began to take their constitutionals right in front of him! Although these birds simply looked like tiny chickens, Thoreau firmly believed that they had true intelligence hiding between their eyes. He had to be sure to be careful while walking outside, though, due to the fact that it’s actually really easy to mistake baby partridges for leaves! One of Thoreau’s favorite past times was to sit outside in a comfortable chair. While he was sitting outside, tons of woodland creatures would show up and visit him. He would be visited by otters, raccoons, families of wild cats, and even some of the many birds around. Thoreau’s favorite visitor was the loon, a highly intelligent bird who would plunge into Walden Pond looking for fish. One of his other favorite neighbors was the red squirrel. When winter was around the corner, Thoreau would leave some unripe corn in the snow, sure that an animal would make good use of it. When he did this, the visitor who would show up was a red squirrel, who put on an adorable little show while he inspected the corn. While he was apprehensive at first, looking at the corn from the comfort of his tree, he soon bounded down over the snow to examine the ear of corn, draggingit off – and was he ever delighted when he got back onto his branch! Walden Key Idea #7: Winter was the cause of some of Thoreau’s biggest challenges while living at Walden Pond. On September 22, 1845, a month after the snow had settled, Walden Pond finally froze over completely. Winter’s freezing temperatures, with thick snow and a solid pond, the living conditions at Walden grew much more difficult for Thoreau. During his first November at Walden, Thoreau had to work quickly to ensure his chimney was built and ready before the winter got even harsher. Some of his winter renovations also included plastering the walls so that the heat would stay in and the icy winds would stay outside. By his second winter, he was even able to procure a wood-burning stove to keep him warm. The frozen lake also posed another problem: Walden Pond was Thoreau’s source of drinking water. In order to simply get some water, which he needed to survive, he would have to break through the thick ice. Regularly, he had to trudge down through the down, and before he could even start trying to crack the foot-think ice, he would have to clear all the snow off its surface. He found comfort though, in knowing that he wasn’t the only one having to go through this process—he also encountered fishermen out on the lake doing the same some early mornings. However, when it came to heating his home, Thoreau was lucky to have plenty of quality wood around his home. In fact, during the winter, his main task was searching for wood. Surprisingly, he discovered that the dead and frozen logs, which were waterlogged from the lake actually burned surprisingly well. Due to the fact that these logs were so full of water, the pine would burn far longer than other logs, and the hot steam that they let off meant that they grew far hotter than he expected. This made it easy for Thoreau to be content with his life in the winter, not only because these logs would be excellent fuel to heat his home, but also because he found that his home-cooked bread and meat seemed to taste sweeter when prepared over the wood he had recovered himself from the frozen wilderness. Walden Key Idea #8: Spring at Walden Pond was a treasure of delights for Thoreau. After the long cold winter, the reward of spring was especially sweet. Most of the reason spring was so rewarding was that Thoreau knew he’d have a front row seat for watching spring emerge at Walden Pond, which happened to be a large part of the reason he had embarked on this experiment in the woods in the first place. He was able to hear the thick lake ice crack and slowly melt back into the water. Soon after, a wondrous flow of muddy water cascaded down from the 20- to 40-foot banks that surrounded the lake. As the snow began to melt from the top of the slopes, the water would gush down into a channel of muddy sludge under the ice. It was like watching brown lava descending along the side of a volcano. This was the first sign that spring had, at last, arrived, and the birds announced the end of winter. By mid-March, bluebirds and red-winged blackbirds flocked nearby, making for some truly beautiful sights to behold. Then, Thoreau noticed the first sparrow of spring, who brought with him everything else beginning to bloom and flourish in a single moment. The verdant grass turned a darker shade of green, the oaks, hickories, and maple trees burst into life, and the frogs sounded their chorus. In the weeks that followed, the distinctive call of the whippoorwill could be plainly heard, along with that of the brown thrasher. All around, the grass grew thicker. One foggy spring morning, prior to the sunrise burning off the lake’s mist, Thoreau heard the lonesome and haunting cry of a goose far out on the pond, echoing for a companion. Thoreau saw spring as a symbol of the endless cycle of life. Nature had returned to full vibrancy, and he was part of it, feeling as energized as the forest. As someone who was used to city life, this change was incredibly transforming. Walden Key Idea #9: Thoreau’s Walden sojourn is filled with lessons. Thoreau’s last day at Walden Pond arrived after two long years. It was September 6, 1847, and he was beginning to wonder why there was any need to leave at all. But then it came to him: Walden was just one stop among many. Thoreau realized that he only had one life to live, and he wasn’t finished experiencing everything life had in store for him. It had also become clear to him that he’d learned quite a bit during the two years he’d spent there. The first lesson that his time in the woods proved is that if you simplify your life, you’ll find that things become less complicated. You can start to live as what Thoreau called “a higher order of being.” Another lesson he learned is that if you want to truly learn to express yourself and expand your thoughts, it can help to escape modern society. When you get stuck in routine, it’s easy to let your brain stand still and be lulled into thinking in only ways it finds safe. He was also able to learn that there’s really no good reason to rush around stressing about work when the only reward is money. It may seem odd, but life feels poorest when you are richest; in fact, seeking truth is far more rewarding than hunting riches or fame. The biggest lesson? What the soul needs doesn’t cost a dime. Instead, one of the most important rules to live by is to cultivate simplicity. Sell what you don’t need, because doing so will help you to nurture your intellect. Furthermore, materialism gets you nowhere. Modern life is full of novelty and distracting elements which can keep us from living a truly fulfilling life. If the life you’re living requires you to flaunt your income at every opportunity, your day-to-day routine is bound to feel somewhat trifling and distracting. As humans, we have the capacity for deep thought. This is, after all, what makes us human. The lives we live should allow us to act thoughtfully and think ambitiously – and if we can manage it for ourselves, maybe we can help others do the same. It’s truly a beautiful thing to live a simple and self-sustained life surrounded by nature. And as we’ve seen from this book summary, a minimalist experience can allow for clear and universal lessons to be learned. In Review: Walden Book Summary The key message in this book: In 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into the woods at Walden Pond, determined to live a life that allowed him to focus on the simple things and expand his intellectual pursuits. The results from his time in the wilderness living a sustainable and minimalist lifestyle are fascinating, and they offer lessons that continue to have relevance today. Actionable advice: Be ambitious and move with confidence toward your dreams. Don’t push your dreams away simply because someone else thinks they’re too ambitions or uncommon. The only way to make progress is with ambitious ideas, so shoot for the stars and start building a foundation toward turning your dream into reality. Once you reach that goal, you’ll feel that the success that comes from it is better than you might’ve imagined.