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Whether it is presented in a painted image or presented in a several hundred page novel, art can provide a profound reflection of the realities of life not only at the time that the novel is written, but also for future generations able to find meaning and knowledge within the text. Thoreau’s book Walden is basically a reaction to the increasing industrialization and materialism Thoreau saw occurring around him. As a result, he addresses issues of ownership, slavery and success in definitions that are opposed to the common conceptions held by his contemporaries and in ways that are still relevant today.
Thoreau concepts in the book
One of the first modern conceptions regarding the world that Thoreau questions in his book Walden is the concept of materialism or ownership as it exists in economic terms. He recognizes the conventional view of possession as being some form of ownership, “The nearest that I came to actual possession was when I bought the Hollowell place, … but before the owner gave me a deed of it, his wife … changed her mind and wished to keep it” (68). As he discusses the process of handing the farm back over to its owner, he illustrates the transcendental approach to the concept of possession. “But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow … I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only” (68).
In detailing the costs associated with building his home, including such notes as the use of refuse shingles for the roof and sides and the purchase of two second hand windows, he rails against the inflated prices and costs of living found within the town or city as a part of the capitalistic process. “I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually” (40). Thoreau then indicates the unnecessary extravagance of the homes of others: “Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to be extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them” (116). He also indicates how living space isn’t just the empty rooms and built spaces of human creation, but should include the shared spaces of the outdoors, the connection with nature and the consideration of the ultimate creation.
While it was one of the more common causes of the transcendentalists, Thoreau’s position against slavery again illustrates a much wider view. As he discusses the slavery of mankind to the labors of the fields, “How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot!” (5). Consumed by the need to keep the property going or to earn the money necessary to pay off old debts, the individual becomes a slave to those to whom they are indebted and begin to lose their integrity, their souls becoming little more than compost to till in their land. However, Thoreau takes the concept of slavery even another step further, indicating that “worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself … See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion” (7). This being the case, Thoreau suggests one of the first steps necessary for men to live truly free lives is for them to realize that there isn’t simply one prescribed ‘right’ way to live a life. Obtaining one’s freedom not only from social constructions of the ‘right’ way to live but also from our own constraints of self-opinion to know our inner road to freedom is thus one of the most important steps toward a successful life.
Finally, Thoreau defines success in terms of a life fully lived. He acknowledges the traditional concepts of success as being material wealth, large homes and religious adherence but continues to point out the unfulfilling nature of such pursuits to the inner man. “I know of many systems of religion esteemed heathenish whose precepts fill the reader with shame, and provoke him to new endeavors, though it be to the performance of rites merely” (184). Rather than following an externally ordered course of prescribed actions toward success, such as the modern world’s insistence that children go to school, attend university, get married, follow a career, have children and make lots of money all while faithfully attending Sunday morning church services and the obligatory rounds of soccer and piano lessons, Thoreau indicates the only true way to successfully live a life is by following one’s dreams. This is in spite of the fact that following one’s dreams may mean working all night and sleeping half the day, living in a remote rural area where there aren’t enough children around to field a soccer team or choosing not to get married. Thus, Thoreau’s definition of the truly successful life is one in which the individual has dared to follow their own inner voice as it responded to the natural world around them.
While Thoreau was responding to the major social issues of his own time, his arguments are as valid today as they were then. It is still important that people figure out a means of redefining their ideas regarding the necessity of material possessions and what it means to be a slave versus what it means to be a success. Today, the constant pursuit of material wealth has led the world to the brink of destruction. Many people are just starting down the road to economic ruin after having purchased homes they can’t really afford and running up credit card debt to pay for all the other symbols of prosperity they see displayed by their neighbors. This is shown as many homes are now being foreclosed on, sending thousands of people into the streets and into massive debt with little or nothing to show for their efforts. In an attempt to hold onto these things that they can’t really afford, these people have now become slaves to the massive corporate giants, many of whom, in their own bid to display the greatest material wealth, struggle as hard as they can to keep as many dollars out of the pockets of their workers as they can.
For most of these people, they are forced to live lives of quiet desperation, having never fulfilled even the smallest of their dreams. By contrast, those able to resist the temptation of purchasing more than they need or can reasonably afford, not extending themselves to such heights that they are required to maintain a specific salary only attainable in their present occupation, are able to enjoy life to a much greater level. Because their expenses are kept small and their needs are provided for within this limit, they are able to use anything extra to help them in their pursuit of their dreams, which is the direction they’re working in anyway. They are not slaves to the corporate giant and are not as concerned about maintaining exorbitant monthly expenses should they happen to lose their position. With this knowledge comes the advantage of flexibility. If a person doesn’t like the way their company is moving, its business practices or simply cannot abide a new policy that goes against his moral fiber, he has the real option of leaving and finding another position elsewhere rather than being trapped in the position until or if he can find another one of comparable wages. Having real options is what makes a man free and a free man is a successful man because he can follow his heart.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.