Summary – Chapter One ‘Economy’
This work is written in the first person and in this first paragraph Thoreau explains how he wrote the ‘bulk’ of these pages when he lived in the woods, ‘a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only’. He also tells how he lived there for two years and two months and is now a ‘sojourner in civilized life again’. There is then an explanation of how his original reason for making his ‘affairs’ known were instigated by the inquiries of local ‘townsmen’.
The discussion turns to local young men who inherit farms and how the inhabitants of Concord appear to him ‘to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.’ He compares such workers with machines and goes on to say how we do not treat each other ‘tenderly’. Comparisons are also made between a life that is all work and slavery and says it is worst of all ‘when you are the slave-driver of yourself’. He sees the majority of men as living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ and argues that what is called ‘resignation’ is ‘desperation’.
The necessities of life are then discussed and he points out that for some creatures this just refers to food. He argues that humans require ‘Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel’ and our bodies need to keep warm, ‘to keep the vital heat in us’. He goes on to say that the ‘luxuriously rich’ are not warm but ‘unnaturally hot’ and describes them as being ‘cooked’ ‘à la mode’.
He is speaking to the ‘mass of men who are discontented’ and could be improving their lives rather than complaining and the ‘seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, ...’ The idea of success is seen to be measured by money in this society.
He digresses to talk about clothing and how people are judged by what they wear. He then criticizes changing fashions and says how ‘we’ worship it. He moves on to discuss shelter and refers to Gookin’s account of houses in 1674 when he was the ‘superintendent of the Indian subjects to the Massachusetts Colony.’ Here, Gookin explained how the best were covered in tree bark and found ‘wigwams’ to be ‘as warm as the best English houses’.
Thoreau points out the irony that in ‘modern civilized society’ not half the people own their own homes whereas in (so-called) ‘savage society’ all Native Americans own theirs. Few farmers own their land outright and he says how houses are so ‘unwieldy’ that we are often ‘imprisoned’ rather than housed. This is especially so when trying to sell them on. He also discusses the squalor of the degraded poor in the United States, Ireland and England. He looks back to an account of the early settlers and how they made homes by digging into the ground.
The narrative turns to his ‘experiment’ and how he borrowed an axe near the end of March 1845 and ‘went down to the woods by Walden Pond’ and cut down some pines for timber.
By mid-April, his house was ‘framed’ and he bought a shanty for the boards he can take from it. He dug a cellar and in May he raised the frame with his acquaintances and began to live there on the 4th July.
The discussion turns to architecture and he then explains how the house was ten feet by fifteen and had a garret and a closet as well as windows and a fireplace. He itemises the cost of everything and in all it came to $28 12½.
Chapter One continues to discuss the price of this building and Thoreau points out how a Cambridge College student’s room is $30 a year and goes on to question education and the expense of it. He suggests we should live a life rather than just studying it as a way of learning and criticizes his education too. He reports that he was astonished to learn on leaving college that he had ‘studied navigation’. He then asks about the usefulness of the railroad and describes at as only ‘comparatively good’.
With regard to his home, he explains that he planted beans, potatoes, corn, peas and turnips and calculates that after outgoings he made $8 71½ and thinks in all he ‘was doing better than any farmer in Concord did that year’. He also outlines his sense of independence and how he had no animal working for him and owned his house.
He moves on to criticize the building of monuments, and the Pyramids, and says he would like to know the people who did not build such things, as these would be ones ‘who were above such trifling’.
A list is given on his outgoings on food and he explains he ended up spending $25 21¾, which is almost what he started with. He speaks of the adaptability of ‘man’ and questions the practice of having too many possessions, such as too much furniture, and point to Native Americans, such as the Mucclasse, who get rid of things like worn out clothes and burn them. He sees this as a form of purification and uses ‘the Mexicans’ as an example too.
He explains how for more than five years he has found that he can work for six weeks in a year to meet all his expenses. He tried teaching just for the income and describes it as ‘a failure’. He wanted freedom and found the work of a day-labourer offered this.
He goes on to advise people to find their own way in the world and knows that some in the town have said that his way of living is selfish, and he responds that ‘Doing-good’ does not agree with his constitution. He follows this up by arguing that philanthropy is overrated and adds that, ‘it is our selfishness which overrates it’. This chapter ends with a verse called ‘The Pretensions of Poverty’ by T. Carew.
Analysis – Chapter One
By questioning the work ethic that he sees as dominating the lives of those around him, Thoreau also questions the underlying puritanical strain that has considered work as bringing us closer to God. In this chapter, and throughout the book at various times, he turns this around and criticizes the way workers live like slaves rather than enjoying life.
This is also a practical guide to how he set about living as he did at Walden Pond and this part of Chapter One gives some details about how he created his home from very little. His example demonstrates that it is possible to do without luxuries such as changing fashion and too much heat and because of this it is possible to see that he also holds on to some aspects of Puritanism.
The narrative continues to reinforce the early part of Chapter One as the need for so many possessions is questioned more fully. By looking back to the example of Native Americans, he underlines how the so-called civilized society is inferior to that of so-called heathens.
His relationship to work, and the idea of working for freedom rather than for the sake of it, is explained in more depth as he relates how he has found that working for just six weeks has been enough to earn him the required amount of income. The criticism of philanthropy comes from a defence that he is not living selfishly.