Themes and Characters

Since Walden is, on one hand, a sort of spiritual autobiography, Thoreau himself is its central character. The narrator of Walden resembles Thoreau in many ways, but is also a distinct narrative persona. The real Thoreau was a much pricklier personality than the sunny tone of the book indicates. Thoreau as narrator is an apologist for Transcendentalist beliefs and for the rights of eccentric personalities to live as they choose. But privately, as entries in his personal journal have indicated, Thoreau did not always feel that nature held the answer to most social and spiritual problems.

The Transcendentalists believed that the human mind had sources of knowledge-such as conscience or an inner light-that were independent of or transcended the senses. Emerson became the foremost thinker among those who endorsed such views, and helped found the Transcendentalist Club, a loose, informal group that often met at his house in Concord. Like other members of this club, Thoreau believed that humans were basically good, and that nature was benign and favored humankind. By keeping themselves pure, and through a close relationship with nature, people could perfect themselves and grow in the knowledge already granted them through the inner light. Thoreau set out to live according to this philosophy when he moved to Walden Pond.

In Walden, Thoreau’s most attractive characteristics emerge when he shows his genuine love for the world around him, treating even the tiny fish in Walden Pond with affection. But his attitude toward humans is less tolerant and loving; he is least attractive when he preaches to the poor people he meets near Walden. His attitude toward the Irish workmen he meets is self-righteously condescending, and none of the other people mentioned in the book are given more than sketchy treatment. Even Emerson, who owned the land the cabin sat on and who occasionally visited Thoreau, is never mentioned by name. Thoreau is interested primarily in his own consciousness and its development while at Walden.

Thoreau considers life a great gift bestowed upon humans, and he is distressed that people do not make proper use of it. He cannot understand why people enslave themselves by devoting much of their time to the attainment of material things when nature offers so much for nothing. Thoreau’s reflections on the proper way of living constitute a major theme of the book. Thoreau believes that people should reap the benefits of nature by purifying themselves, forsaking false values, and seeking to become attuned to the spirit pervading the natural world and themselves.

Self-discovery is another theme in Walden. At the beginning of the section entitled “Higher Laws,” Thoreau says that he has found in himself “an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.” Thoreau wants to develop spiritually, but at the same time he realizes that a degree of wildness is essential to human growth.