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MonkeyNotes-Walden by Henry David Thoreau
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

Chapter One: Economy

Summary

Walden is a first person narration of the events in the life of Henry David Thoreau for the two years he lived in a cottage near Walden Pond. Thoreau begins his narrative by setting the scene. First, he explains, he would not have had the arrogance to write down the events of his life, except that so many people have asked him questions about his Walden experience. Now, no longer living at Walden Pond, he has decided to record the events of those two years for the benefit of young scholars and others interested in his life. Humbly, he maintains that he would write about someone else, but he knows himself best of all.

In this introduction, Thoreau explains that he built his own house in the woods on Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there in total simplicity for two years. His nearest neighbor was a mile away, and he supported himself entirely by his own labors. Thoreau, in observing people, has noticed, to his dismay, that they are too often enslaved by their "supposed" needs. They work in various jobs to earn a living; in the process, they become slaves to materialism and acquisition. They are not committed to their jobs out of genuine interest or passion, but are enslaved by the things they have grown used to having. Thoreau feels that such a state of bonded labor leads to desperation. Thoreau compares the degradation of the human spirit in general to the degradation of slavery in the South.


Thoreau states his belief that man would have more time for things of enduring value if he paid less attention to worldly gains and comforts; he suggests that man should focus only on meeting his basic needs of just enough food, clothing, shelter, and fuel to exist. Undistracted by luxuries and indulgences, man could concentrate on enriching his mind with learning and thinking. Thoreau considers unnecessary luxuries as "positive hindrances" for man's spiritual development. He goes as far as to suggest that any man with a secure path already laid out for him ought to venture away from the vicious circle of social comforts and widen the horizon of his life to include less comfortable stations in life. As for himself, Thoreau says he has always tried to avoid being too comfortable and too concerned with what he can buy and own. He explains that part of the reason he went to Walden Pond was to learn more about himself and mankind.

In terms of necessities, Thoreau explains that he existed for two years on the most basic of things. He took with him a small but functional wardrobe. With a borrowed axe and just under thirty dollars, he built a small house, 10x15 feet in size. His house had two large windows, one door, one closet, a fireplace, and a roof. The furniture consisted of a table, three chairs, a bed, a desk, a looking-glass three inches diameter, a pair of tongs and irons, a kettle, a skillet and frying pan, and other few things for cooking and eating. He planted a garden with beans, corn, potatoes, turnips, and other dry vegetables. During eight months, he spent less than $9.00 in the purchase of food; the next year he spent even less. Thoreau spends a great deal of time describing his work, his diet, and his belongings not out of pride, but out of a sense of personal accomplishment and economy. In the end, he sold some of his produce and did some day labor as a means to earn a small amount of money that he needed. Thoreau takes great satisfaction in earning only enough to live and spending the rest of his days in reflection and meditation.

Thoreau briefly describes his past careers, as a schoolteacher and as a businessman. In both careers, he found himself smothered by the work, unable to follow any other pursuits outside his job. For Thoreau, perfect happiness comes when a man works just long enough to make enough money to live, spending the rest of his time in pursuits that he truly enjoys. Thoreau concludes his first chapter on quite a strong note of appeal to be introspective.

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