In the spring of 1845, Henry David Thoreau builds himself a small cabin on a plot of land belonging to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson permits Thoreau to use the property in return for improving the land by building on it and planting crops or trees. Thoreau will live there, next to Walden Pond, for two years, two months, and two days, but the action of the book is condensed into one calendar year.
"I went to the woods," Thoreau explains, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach." He views the move as an experiment: he wants to test his theories about how people should live their lives: "It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left." Thoreau is determined to prove that there is a choice.
If one reads the first chapter ("Economy") as a portrait of Thoreau's self-regard, it's clear that feelings of failure and disappointment underlie his strenuously prescriptive tone. Thoreau doesn't mention that before he moved to Walden Pond—from 1841 through 1844—he'd been living with Ralph Waldo Emerson's family. Although Thoreau did household chores and tutored the children, Emerson and his wife may have made it clear that he'd been a house guest for long enough.
Thoreau may have felt out of place in 1844 when he and a friend accidentally started a forest fire that consumed 300 acres of virgin woodland and almost spread into the town of Concord. He claimed not to be sorry: "I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it," he says. Knowing how Thoreau loved the woods, though, it's hard to read this as anything but defensive. His townspeople were certainly upset; for years thereafter he was taunted as a "woods burner" in Concord.
As he begins to live at Walden Pond, he decides to reverse the common pattern of working six days a week and resting on the seventh: he will work one day a week and rest for the other six. He resolves to rely on money as little as possible. He will resist the temptation to buy things he doesn't need, including new clothes. He also plants a two-and-a-half acre plot with beans and other vegetables. He keeps careful track of his expenses, hoping to show that he can make a profit despite working only one day out of seven. Thoreau works on the cabin with great energy.
Near-constant solitude gives Thoreau plenty of time to cultivate his mind by reading philosophy, both Eastern and Western, and communing with nature. He firmly believes that life will be improved for anyone who follows his example. For him, a second serious path to learning comes from observing nature. On summer mornings Thoreau sits in his "sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories." The writer extols this time spent as "far better than any work of the hands would have been."
Walden is organized chronologically. The autobiographical narrative opens in early spring as Thoreau starts building the cabin and takes his readers through each season, ending again with spring. Each chapter offers a balance of Thoreau's activities, his observations on nature, and some philosophical classical and contemporary references. Though he regularly visits Concord and hosts visitors himself, he spends the bulk of his time alone. This practice sharpens his perceptions and heightens his senses.
Thoreau considers his trips to Concord as worthy of study as any natural phenomenon. On one such trip he's arrested for nonpayment of his poll tax because he has withheld the payment to protest slavery: "I was seized and put into jail," Thoreau states, "because ... I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle." Transcendentalists, with their beliefs in individuality, nonconformity, and divinity in each individual, opposed slavery and what they considered unjust and immoral laws that promoted it. In Thoreau's case, an anonymous friend pays the tax for him; but to Thoreau, the whole experience confirms the intrusiveness of the State.
Walden features meticulous details derived from studying natural phenomena. When Walden Pond freezes, Thoreau thoroughly investigates the structure of pond ice; when he notices a war between two ant species, he brings three of the ants inside to watch the battle more closely. Walden balances the author's keen sympathy with nature with the wish to observe his subjects dispassionately and truthfully. Thoreau never sentimentalizes, but his love of the natural world shines through all his experiments.
It is not completely clear why Thoreau leaves Walden Pond when he does. Thoreau doesn't bring up the topic until he's drenched his readers in a hefty dose of philosophy: "Perhaps," he says, "it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." He adds that he has at least learned that by advancing confidently toward one's dreams one will meet with unexpected success and "pass an invisible boundary."
The book ends with two famous and beautifully optimistic sentences: "There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."