Book Summary: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Are you looking for a book summary of Walden by Henry David Thoreau? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key insights from Henry David Thoreau’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this Walden book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Walden About?

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, was written in 1854 as a reflection on the simplicity and beauty of nature. Walden describes Thoreau’s experiences over a period of two years, two months, and two days during which he lived alone in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a wooded area just outside Concord, Massachusetts. 

Thoreau’s Walden blends the physical with the transcendent — mixing precise scientific observations of the flora and fauna he encounters and changes in the pond with poetic and metaphorical reflections on nature. 

Walden was a middling success in Thoreau’s own life, but it has now become a classic and one of the most celebrated works of 19th-century nonfiction literature.

Below are some of our favourite quotes from Walden:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Who is The Author of Walden?

Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience”, an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

Walden Book Summary

Thoreau describes his thoughts and feelings about living in the woods at Walden Pond.

CHAPTER 1, ECONOMY 

For two years and two months, beginning in 1845, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, lived alone in the woods at Concord, Massachusetts, in a house he built on the shores of Walden Pond, a mile from any neighbors. (Sadly, developers built condominiums around the pond in the 1980s.) 

He earned his living “by the labor of [his] hands only,” and explains to the reader that he wrote Walden in an effort to answer questions about his life in nature. He has returned to “civilized life” for a while, and hopes his book—a simple, sincere account of his life there—will wake up his “sleeping” neighbors about the true meaning and importance of life. 

By reading his book, perhaps they, too, will reassess their lives. Thoreau, who narrates the book, claims that most people are devoted to the false idea that they must punish themselves by their work. 

The result is that they are so consumed with work that they fail to enjoy life. Thoreau discovered that hard work does not always lead to pleasure, and that happiness is an internal thing, related to one’s innermost feelings of peace and satisfaction. 

These citizens are worse off than slaves, for they are the slave drivers of themselves. Having seen society from the outside, while living in the woods, Thoreau concludes that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation.” 

Their endless tensions and stresses turn their lives into an “incurable form of disease.” To make matters worse, even though they are miserable, such people believe that change is impossible. For Thoreau, change is an exciting “miracle to contemplate.” In an effort to convert his neighbors, Thoreau critically examines their beliefs and way of life —especially the high value they place on property. 

Rather than be “crushed and smothered” by the weight of possessions, Thoreau decides to reduce his belongings to the minimum necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. By simplifying his life this way, he is able to focus on the real problems and challenges of life. 

His goal is not “to live cheaply nor to live dearly,” but to live with the fewest obstacles possible. The fashion scene is but one example of where people have fallen asleep: “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.” 

On housing and real estate ownership, he says: “When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.” 

As for society’s traditional ideas about work, he notes that workers have no time to be anything “but a machine.” For the rest of this long chapter (it is approximately one-fourth of the book), Thoreau describes the economic details of building his house at Walden Pond (it cost $28.121⁄2) and of earning a living. 

Since he lived simply, he was able to reduce his expenses. This meant that he only needed to do farm work and some surveying for six weeks of the year in order to afford his lifestyle.

CHAPTER 2, WHERE I LIVED. AND WHAT I LIVED FOR 

Earlier in his life, Thoreau had been excited about buying property in the Concord area. He considered a number of farms, and even began negotiating for one of them. 

But he realized that owning land would tie him down, enslave him to monthly payments, responsibilities, and so on. Thus, he abandoned the idea. He could derive the same benefits by simply living on the land; he did not need to buy it. Thoreau describes the joy and ecstasy he felt after moving to Walden. 

Each morning, he got up early and bathed in the pond—an almost religious exercise, filling him with a zest for life. He concerned himself only with the basics of life and ignored the distractions that most people worry about. 

He realized that it would be horrifying to discover, at the time of his death, that he had not really lived, and he urges his neighbors to think carefully about this—to stop living like ants, to reawaken themselves to their native simplicity and happiness, and to cultivate this natural state. 

He hopes they will pursue the reality hidden beneath opinion, prejudice, tradition, and appearance, and depend on their natural instincts. “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent … existence.”

CHAPTER 3, READING 

Serious reading is the best form of mental exercise, especially when it makes the reader “laboriously [seek] the meaning of each word and line.” 

Most people “vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.” Serious reading requires that one “stand on tiptoe,” devoting “our most alert and wakeful hours” to it. Walden exemplifies the kind of serious reading to which he refers.

CHAPTER 4, SOUNDS 

There is pleasure in experiencing the sounds of nature. It is a symphony of birds and animals and wind in the trees, but the pleasure is interrupted by the rattle of railroad cars and the locomotive whistle that sounds “like the scream of a hawk.” Thoreau meditates on the benefits of the train and of commerce, but the longer he thinks, the more annoyed he becomes. Eventually the train passes and Thoreau’s tranquility is restored.

CHAPTERS 5–6, SOLITUDE, VISITORS 

In this pair of chapters, Thoreau contrasts his fondness for solitude to his experience with visitors. It is “wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” and company is often “wearisome and dissipating.” 

He loves to be alone, especially since “society is commonly too cheap.” But Thoreau asserts that he is no hermit and that he loves society as much as most, but that he prefers quality conversations with people who think (which does not necessarily mean “intellectuals”). 

He tells of his particular pleasure in the company of a Canadian wood chopper, a man whose simplicity and naturalness he admires. They read Homer together.

CHAPTER 7, THE BEAN-FIELD 

Thoreau discusses his bean-field, the length of whose rows, added together, is seven miles. He is determined to know all he can about beans and about the rewards of careful cultivation. He stresses the importance of “cultivating” a new generation of people and of planting not beans or corn, but the seeds of sincerity, truth, simplicity, and faith.

CHAPTER 8, THE VILLAGE 

In his daily visits to the village—a place that he calls “a great news room”—Thoreau pokes around town and notices that the centers of gossip are the grocery store, bar, post office, and bank. 

The houses are neatly arranged so as “to make the most of mankind.” One afternoon, at the end of his first summer, Thoreau is jailed because he “did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” 

He returns to the Pond the next day and eats a dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill; he notes that his house has no lock and that “if all men were to live as simply as I did then, thieving and robbery would be unknown.” 

He was never “molested by any person but those who represented the State.” He receives many visitors in the woods, but the only possession that is stolen is his copy of Homer, which was “improperly gilded” (had a lining of gold).

CHAPTER 9, THE PONDS 

In an extended description of his surroundings, Thoreau emphasizes the purity of Walden Pond. He bathes there regularly, not only for physical enjoyment and for health reasons, but as part of his spiritual purification and reawakening. 

The Pond is divine, inspiring, and a mirror into which one can look and see the personality (“it is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature”). The Pond helps Thoreau pull together the natural and spiritual sides of his personality. 

One dark night, while fishing, he began to feel “this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes, as it were, with one hook.” 

This was his experience with the Ideal, or Divine (he doesn’t call it God). For most of the chapter, Thoreau discusses neighboring ponds, and remarks that none of them is as pure or as splendid as Walden.

CHAPTER 10, BAKER FARM 

One day, on his way to go fishing in Fair Haven, Thoreau passes through Pleasant Meadow, a part of the forest that belongs to Baker Farm. He visits the house of John Field and his family, who lead a dreary, unimaginative life. 

They are part of the discontented masses, and when Thoreau explains his system of economy and simplicity, they are unwilling to heed his advice.

CHAPTER 11, HIGHER LAWS 

As he walks home in the dark after fishing with Field, Thoreau spots a woodchuck stealing across his path. He is strangely tempted to seize the woodchuck and devour him raw. The impulse leads Thoreau to consider his “savage” instincts and to compare them to his spiritual aspirations. Initially, he claims to experience them both. 

However, as the chapter progresses, it is clear that he prefers his spiritual side to his animal side. He claims that the animal in us awakens to the extent that the spiritual slumbers. 

As his thinking progresses, Thoreau praises purity and condemns all forms of gross sensuality. He condemns sloth (laziness) for the ignorance and sensuality it produces, and praises exertion since it leads to wisdom and purity.

CHAPTER 12, BRUTE NEIGHBORS 

After setting up an imaginary dialogue between a Poet and a Hermit—in which the Poet (who represents an aspect of Thoreau) prefers deep contemplation and the Hermit (another aspect of Thoreau) wants to go fishing—Thoreau describes the many animals, the “brute neighbors,” that live near Walden: mice, otters, raccoons, squirrels, and several others. He observes a war between red and black ants, then spends hours observing a loon.

CHAPTER 13, HOUSE-WARMING 

As autumn arrives and winter is not far off, Thoreau describes the process by which he prepares his house for winter. He takes particular pride in describing the construction of his chimney, and his enjoyment of watching the Pond freeze over. He spends countless hours observing the perfection of its fresh ice.

CHAPTERS 14–16, WINTER VISITORS, ANIMALS, POND IN WINTER 

In his first winter at Walden, he spends cheerful evenings alone by the fire and lives as “snug as a meadow mouse.” As time passes, winter takes its toll and Thoreau must force himself to keep his mind busy. 

The frozen ponds in the area afford some new views of familiar landscapes. He turns his attention to winter animals, including the red squirrels that awaken him at dawn.

At one point, Thoreau observes icemen extracting ice from the pond for sale in warmer climates. He takes pleasure in the thought that the sweltering inhabitants of New Orleans and Bombay might drink the waters of Walden Pond.

CHAPTER 17, SPRING 

As spring arrives, the Pond melts and the sun is strong. The days grow longer and the woodchuck ventures from his winter quarters. Thoreau is ecstatic about the new spring, for in a beautiful spring morning “all men’s sins are forgiven.”

CHAPTER 18, CONCLUSION 

In a summary of what he has learned at Walden, Thoreau explains that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” 

One need not conform to the demands and expectations of other people, for “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau’s final words of advice are “Love your life.”

Further Reading

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