The Village

Return to the Thoreau homepage. Although the "Bean Field" does not lead into this chapter, it does talk about the village, and Thoreau, in first paragraph, suggests a connection to his work in his bean field by saying "after hoeing." This chapter ends without suggesting what topic will be covered next.

"The Village" is the shortest chapter in Walden and deals with three very different topics using different methods: 1) a humorous account of the behavior of the village people, especially their fascination with news, gossip, and visitors to their town; 2) a metaphoric description of the trip Thoreau had to make home at night in the dark if he stayed too late at someone's home and of other people's problems in traveling at night; and 3) not much more than a mention of his arrest for not paying his tax and subsequent comments about government which are more poetic than clear.

Thoreau mentions the name "Concord" many times in Walden, and he was evidently proud of his town in many ways. But it is not named once in this chapter, probably because Thoreau was not wanting to criticize Concord but human behavior.

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After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was absolutely free. Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle. In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor's to gossip. I went there frequently to observe their habits. The village appeared to me a great news room; and on one side, to support it, as once at Redding & Company's on State Street, they kept nuts and raisins, or salt and meal and other groceries. Some have such a vast appetite for the former commodity, that is, the news, and such sound digestive organs, that they can sit forever in public avenues without stirring, and let it simmer and whisper through them like the Etesian winds, or as if inhaling ether, it only producing numbness and insensibility to pain, -- otherwise it would often be painful to bear, -- without affecting the consciousness. I hardly ever failed, when I rambled through the village, to see a row of such worthies, either sitting on a ladder sunning themselves, with their bodies inclined forward and their eyes glancing along the line this way and that, from time to time, with a voluptuous expression, or else leaning against a barn with their hands in their pockets, like caryatides, as if to prop it up. They, being commonly out of doors, heard whatever was in the wind. These are the coarsest mills, in which all gossip is first rudely digested or cracked up before it is emptied into finer and more delicate hoppers within doors. I observed that the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank; and, as a necessary part of the machinery, they kept a bell, a big gun, and a fire-engine, at convenient places; and the houses were so arranged as to make the most of mankind, in lanes and fronting one another, so that every traveller had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveller could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax. Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller's; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoe-maker, or the tailor. Besides, there was a still more terrible standing invitation to call at every one of these houses, and company expected about these times. For the most part I escaped wonderfully from these dangers, either by proceeding at once boldly and without deliberation to the goal, as is recommended to those who run the gauntlet, or by keeping my thoughts on high things, like Orpheus, who, "loudly singing the praises of the gods to his lyre, drowned the voices of the Sirens, and kept out of danger." Sometimes I bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell my whereabouts, for I did not stand much about gracefulness, and never hesitated at a gap in a fence. I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news, what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer, I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again. As commented earlier, Thoreau bathed much more frequently than was custom.

Thoreau's favorite practice was to quit working at noon and to spend the rest of the day walking in the woods. Here we see him instead visiting town with the same attitude towards the townspeople as towards the animals in the woods. The behavior of people and of social animals is very comparable, suggesting that there are common rules governing both. Thoreau, by observing these behaviors, sets himself apart from them.

Homeopathy was a medical treatment in which the patient was given tiny amounts of substances causing the same symptoms as the illness. While homeopathy is generally discredited today, vaccinations and some allergy treatments are homeopathic. Note the message: Thoreau implies that gossip is poisonous unless taken in tiny doses.

As in "Where I Lived," Thoreau criticizes preoccupation with the news, this time more lightly. He uses deliberate, humorous exaggeration, making it seem as if the men's sole reason for loitering is to get the news (men used to gather in small towns to sit together and talk). Notice the light touches: suggesting that the men don't move because doing so would make absorbing the news too painful, that they are helping hold up the walls of a barn like columns carved in the shape of statues (caryatides), that they hear whatever is in the wind (an expression meaning to learn everything that is going on) because they are outside, and that they grind up the coarsest news to make it presentable for the more delicate souls (the women) indoors.

Thoreau continues with a humorous explanation as to why property is more expensive near the center of town, making it seen as if the whole village is out to get the passer-by. Thoreau compares the danger to running a gauntlet or to sailing past the Sirens and says he only survived by ignoring the people around him, by ducking through a fence, or going into a house and escaping out the backdoor; however, not without having been given all the news about the world and whether it would survive or not before leaving.

It was very pleasant, when I staid late in town, to launch myself into the night, especially if it was dark and tempestuous, and set sail from some bright village parlor or lecture room, with a bag of rye or Indian meal upon my shoulder, for my snug harbor in the woods, having made all tight without and withdrawn under hatches with a merry crew of thoughts, leaving only my outer man at the helm, or even tying up the helm when it was plain sailing. I had many a genial thought by the cabin fire "as I sailed." I was never cast away nor distressed in any weather, though I encountered some severe storms. It is darker in the woods, even in common nights, than most suppose. I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn, or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night. Sometimes, after coming home thus late in a dark and muggy night, when my feet felt the path which my eyes could not see, dreaming and absent-minded all the way, until I was aroused by having to raise my hand to lift the latch, I have not been able to recall a single step of my walk, and I have thought that perhaps my body would find its way home if its master should forsake it, as the hand finds its way to the mouth without assistance. Several times, when a visitor chanced to stay into evening, and it proved a dark night, I was obliged to conduct him to the cart-path in the rear of the house, and then point out to him the direction he was to pursue, and in keeping which he was to be guided rather by his feet than his eyes. One very dark night I directed thus on their way two young men who had been fishing in the pond. They lived about a mile off through the woods, and were quite used to the route. A day or two after one of them told me that they wandered about the greater part of the night, close by their own premises, and did not get home till toward morning, by which time, as there had been several heavy showers in the meanwhile, and the leaves were very wet, they were drenched to their skins. I have heard of many going astray even in the village streets, when the darkness was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, as the saying is. Some who live in the outskirts, having come to town a-shopping in their wagons, have been obliged to put up for the night; and gentlemen and ladies making a call have gone half a mile out of their way, feeling the sidewalk only with their feet, and not knowing when they turned. It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a snow-storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round, -- for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost, -- do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. Thoreau now begins a long analogy comparing navigating a ship to his trip home through the woods. In refering to "thoughts by the cabin fire," he is saying that he was preoccupied with his own thoughts during the trip home and did not pay any conscious attention to his surroundings, much as a ship's captain might set the sail and then just leave one man on the deck. "Tying up the helm" would be to fasten the ship's wheel, so the ship would maintain its direction with no one on deck. Thoreau is pointing out how our unconscious minds can "take over" and allow us to devote our thoughts to other matters. When driving a motor vehicle, people often drive on automatic and travel long distances without noticing the world around them.

The darkness of the woods is caused by the foliage of overhanging trees or by dark clouds which block the moon and stars. The night sky is much brighter now days due to the light pollution produced by outdoor lighting, which is reflected downwards by clouds. I used to find it possible to read by the light produced by one town while over a mile away on a mountain top. However, it is still dark under the foliage; sometimes I can touch my cabin without being able to see it, meaning the woods is as dark as a cave (I have been able to see my hand in front of my face in some caves).

One evening, after finishing exploring a cave, three friends and I had less than 100 yards to travel to get our camp, which was located on a forest road. Only one light was still burning, but we considered it sufficient for such a short distance. Instead we became badly lost, although moving over what we had considered to be well-known terrain.

Thoreau considers it an advantage to become lost because only then do we realize how large and strange the world really is.

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I 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. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run "amok" against society; but I preferred that society should run "amok" against me, it being the desperate party. However, I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill. I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time. I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough. The Pope's Homers would soon get properly distributed.

      "Nec bella fuerunt,
   Faginus astabat dum scyphus ante dapes."

      "Nor wars did men molest,
   When only beechen bowls were in request."

"You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends."

Thoreau supported the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement by failing to pay his poll tax rather than joining an organization. He was also upset by the Mexican War, which he saw as the invasion of an innocent country. He tells the story of going to jail at great length in "Civil Disobedience." Someone else, possibly his aunt, paid the tax for him, so he was set free. As Thoreau also explains at greater length in "Civil Disobedience," he did not consider it to be his task in life to right wrongs; however, he refused to contribute to wrongdoing, which he felt his money was doing.

Thoreau also didn't consider it very necessary to have a government, and so he is pointing out here that no one ever harmed him except the government itself. He even feels that perhaps his book got to be used by someone else and thus served a useful purpose, even if he lost it. He then suggests that burglarly and robbery would no longer exist if there were no large differences in wealth between people, especially if everyone lived as he did (wanting a simple life rather than wealth) and cites a poem that makes the same point.

Finally, he ends with a quotation from the Analects of Confucius which makes the argument that the way to end crime is to have virtuous leaders.

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WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude |
WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors |
WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion | | Copyright © 2001 Ken Kifer | March 31, 2001