Thoreau Walden Essay Questions

Thoreau's Walden

We’ll look at Walden from a number of different perspectives; one of them will be as the embodiment of Emerson's philosophy. How is Walden conceptually similar to Emerson's Nature? How does Thoreau's experiment to live alone in the woods draw on the principles of Emerson's “Self-Reliance"? How are the writing styles of the two men different?

In Nature, Emerson claims, "the instincts of the ant are very unimportant considered as the ant's: but the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, and the little drudge is seen to be a monitor, a little body with a mighty heart, then all its habits, even that said to be recently observed, that it never sleeps, become sublime" (1115). How does this passage relate to the "Brute Neighbors" chapter of Walden? How do this passage and Thoreau's chapter relate to Emerson's theory of nature?

One way to look at "Economy" is as an introduction to the rest of the book. How does Thoreau prepare the reader for the rest of Walden in this first chapter? What are his motives for going to Walden Pond? In his view, what is wrong with the lives of the other Concord "townsmen"?

Why do you think he chooses to name the first chapter "Economy"? The editors of our textbook focus on the "philosophy of living" sense of the word (see footnote on 1807), but perhaps we can get multiple layers of meaning out of it. Look up the various definitions of “economy” in an unabridged dictionary (I like Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (type "economy" in the "Headword" blank then click on "Submit Search," NOT "Browse") —if you can't access it, try the not quite as nifty 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary at the University of Chicago), and think about other connotations you associate with the word. Since Thoreau seems to evidence such disregard for property and inheritance in this chapter, why do you suppose he chose a word fraught with capitalistic associations?

How is Thoreau's list of house materials and their costs similar to Franklin's list of 13 virtues? Do Franklin and Thoreau have similar approaches to the idea of virtue? How about self-improvement?

In his epigraph to Walden, Thoreau proposes to "wake my neighbors up." This turns out to be a quotation from Chapter II (1852), where he also claims, "to be awake is to be alive" (1855). How does this epigraph set the tone for the book? Do you see other instances where the themes of morning and awakening (either literally or figuratively) are continued? How do the changes of seasons figure into these themes?

Why does Thoreau include so much specific information about the pond? He describes it during every season in a number of different ways, even including a highly detailed map. Why include this information? If we assume (thanks to Emerson) that every natural fact symbolizes a spiritual fact, what does the pond symbolize for Thoreau? One indication may be his assertion that every day he "got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did" (1854). What is religious or spiritual about this act, and how might we translate the meaning of this passage to a more general idea about what the pond meant for Thoreau?


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Walden, thought by many to be Thoreau’s masterpiece, contains the famous lines, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." What lessons does Thoreau learn, in your view, through his experience of living in simple near isolation at Walden Pond?

2. At the end of two years, why does Thoreau leave Walden? Does he himself provide or imply an adequate answer?

3. Discuss Thoreau’s ideas about living simply, without material luxuries. Do his ideas still apply? Is the kind of freedom and self-reliance Thoreau sought possible in societies other than the America of Thoreau’s time? Is it possible in America today?

4. In the essay "Nature," Thoreau writes: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil-to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." Discuss the meaning of this statement, and Thoreau’s relationship to nature, one of the great themes running through all of his work, as both "absolute freedom and wildness," and as something that has, for Thoreau, definite spiritual associations. What is to be gained by living as "part and parcel of Nature?" What is given up? Discuss other writers you’ve read that might be said to record similar attitudes toward nature.

5. The essay "Civil Disobedience" proved to be one of the most admired essays ever written; it influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, among others. In it, Thoreau distinguishes between "the law," and "the right," and here as elsewhere takes strong issue with government injustice, and even government altogether. In the essay’s first paragraph he writes, "That government is best which governs not at all," and elsewhere, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." Still elsewhere, he writes, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion." Discuss Thoreau’s attitude toward government, politics, and morality, in "Civil Disobedience" and elsewhere in his writings.


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