Thoughts on “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

 

Title: Economy (from Walden)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay, Philosophy, Memoir

First Published: 1854

 

Before starting the actual review, let me stress that this is just my thoughts on the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s acclaimed work, Walden. I find it necessary for us to have at least a brief overview of the main text; that way, we can have a fuller grasp of the reasonings behind the creation of this compelling piece of literature.

Now, Walden is essentially the byproduct of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘immersion’ in nature. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided to live apart from society and its stifling standards by erecting a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond—about two miles from his home. There, he sought to understand society and its workings by paring down life to its bare essentials. This act of ‘economizing’ life had tremendous impact on Thoreau and his views; and this shows, especially when the reader explores the philosophies introduced by the writer in this chapter.

These days, when we say economy, we often use it to refer to either the economic climate or conditions of a particular country or area, or to the prudent and efficient use of finite resources. In the chapter aptly titled: Economy, the reader is given both an accurate portrait of the economic mindset of early-to-mid nineteenth century America, and an extensive how-to on keeping one’s daily expenditures at the bare minimum.

Note that the previous paragraph reads: “an accurate portrait of an economic mindset,” and not an economic state. This is deliberate; because while Thoreau does touch on fiscal matters and household management, he focuses more on denouncing the notion of the common mode of living as being the only socially acceptable one. He recognizes the futility of laboring constantly to meet the living standards set by society; standards which are not so much suggested as they are levied on the common man’s head. This is a sentiment, which I still find relevant today. Let me qualify that statement by dissecting the text with you.

In Economy, Thoreau uses very strong pronouncements such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… but it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things (p.11),” and “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines or rather indicates his fate (p.10),” to illustrate what he thinks of man’s reasons for his laboring. Thoreau believes that man has begun to live according to lofty standards dictated, not by his personal nature, but by an external force which one can only surmise as the “popular opinion” of a society geared towards consumerist living. The following excerpt sums up the essence of the author’s beliefs regarding this particular mindset:

“When we consider what, to use the words of catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, 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. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (p.11)”

Thoreau urges the reader to reconsider this popular “meaning of life” by recognizing that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” further stating that “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor (p.15).”

He explains these statements by pointing out that man, like most other animals, need only fuel, heat, and shelter to survive. To attain fuel, man eats—but he does not stop at eating to nourish, he feasts to taste. To retain heat, man covers himself with clothes—but he doesn’t wear clothes just to stay warm. He must wear the latest fashion, to rise in the esteem of his peers. And lastly, he doesn’t settle for whatever shelter can protect him from the elements, he must decorate his home, lest it be deemed unacceptable by his neighbors.

Now, let us explore each category, for I fear I do Thoreau no justice with such elementary summations. [My personal thoughts contained in brackets.]

On Fashion:

“No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. (p.21)”

Though the statement may appear harsh, it must be understood that Thoreau’s views on fashion stemmed from his own experiences of having been prematurely judged based on his clothing or appearance. In Economy, he shared one such experience. While being measured for a new coat, Thoreau mused: “Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang a coat on?”

He offers the notion of freeing oneself from the pressures of fashion, to enjoy a certain liberty, as is enjoyed by “a man clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark…that if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (p.23)

[Though this particular idea may seem extreme, it’s one that I feel quite strongly about. For how many of us have been judged unfairly by our appearance or outwardly garb?  Being a woman of a particular color and stature, I cannot count how many times I have been subject to once-overs or been given a different brand of service inside certain establishments. While vanity has always been a shortcoming of mine, I have always believed in personal choice and personal style. I have always believed that if a man was to be judged, it would be according to his character, not his costume.]

 

On Shelter:

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. (p.30)”

In discussing the topic of shelter, Thoreau does not deny the necessity of having one, though he does make a case about how man has opted to rent “a larger and more luxurious box, (p.27)” when one of a simpler nature would suffice—such as the wigwams occupied by the Native Americans. The chapter discusses how the dwelling of the chief of a village offers little disparity when compared to the wigwams of his tribesmen; while in a ‘more civilized nation,’ less than half of the population can afford to own homes. People opt to pay annual tax to rent these luxurious boxes, ‘which would buy a village of wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. (p.28)”

He further illustrates this point through a poignant example of how a farmer tries to make a living using a “formula more complicated than the problem itself (p.30).” He speaks of how the farmer uses his skills ‘to catch comfort and independence,’ not knowing that he himself has been caught in his own trap.  Man thinks that by obtaining luxuries he can attain freedom from a life of strife, and yet he spends his entire life working hard to maintain what luxuries he’s got .As Thoreau puts it, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. (p.30)”

 

On the Perpetual State of Discontent:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have… Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? (p.32)”

In man’s pursuit for something greater, “Men have become the tools of their tools. (p.33)” That is the truth that Thoreau preaches throughout Economy. Man’s constant state of discontent propels him into action—but it is that very action that keeps him in a rat race that can only be broken by a change in perception. This feeling of dissatisfaction and the limitations it produces extends beyond the citizen’s private life.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. (p.48)”

 

On the Practice of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. (p.63)”

Thoreau offers an unconventional and somewhat unpopular view on the idea of charity. With staggering declarations like “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. (p.60),” and “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. (p.61),” it is easy to misconstrue what the writer is trying to say. While he expressly states that philanthropy is an exercise that is not for him, he also explains that he would not stand in the way of genuine charity. He only asks that the intentions be pure and that the acts of charity be true. He believes that goodness should not be transitory or incomplete, rather, that the do-gooder would also spend himself alongside his money and would persevere even after public or private discouragements.

 

Verdict: All in all, Economy is a solid introduction to an extremely powerful piece of literary history. The persuasive and sound nature of Henry David Thoreau’s arguments guarantees his place as one of the greatest American writers and philosophers of all time.

Book Review: Persuasion – Jane Austen

Persuasion - Jane Austen

Title: Persuasion

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 254

 

Persuasion marks the last of Jane Austen’s novels—the completed ones, at least. It starts in media res (in the thick of things). In it, we follow the life of our lovable heroine, Anne Elliott. At 27, Anne is still unmarried. Her youth and bloom having disappeared early, Anne is the shell of her former self. As the story progresses, we soon learn the reason behind her resigned air and fading good looks.

About eight years prior to the start of the novel, Anne had entered into an engagement with a handsome navy officer, Frederick Wentworth. Though she loved him, she reneged on her word after her family and close friend expressed their disapproval of the ‘imprudent’ match. To them, Frederick was most unworthy of Anne. She was, after all, the daughter of a wealthy baronet, and he was a poor navy officer with little to offer. The two part ways with much ill-feeling between them.

Though the years soon pass, Anne’s feelings for Frederick remains unchanged. This becomes most apparent when the two cross paths again. But Frederick, now a successful and wealthy Captain, appears to want little to do with Anne. Will the two end up together? Well, considering this is a novel by Austen, the answer shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. And there lies the central story of Persuasion.

Despite its seemingly simple plot, Persuasion is made interesting by its plethora of unforgettable characters. In it, we have the incredibly vain and selfish trio that composes Anne’s family—her father, Sir Walter Elliott, and her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. We also have the scheming duo of Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Clay. But my favorite of all peripheral characters is the kind-hearted and romantic, Captain Benwick. In him, I see this sanguine personality that no amount of melancholia can completely sink. His natural disposition is to find love and give love, and though there is no disputing the appeal of the manly and handsome Captain Frederick Wentworth, there is much to love about Benwick, as well.

Beyond my usual praise for Austen’s incredible ability to infuse excitement in the everyday, what I love about Persuasion is that it showcases Austen’s growth as a writer. Many consider this final novel as somewhat unpolished compared to Emma and Mansfield Park, to me, however, the relative absence of the author breaking the fourth wall only heightens the subtlety and wit of Persuasion. Also, who doesn’t love the massive rewards delayed gratification brings?

All in all, Persuasion is a fine book which I would gladly recommend to all Classic readers and romantics.

Favorite Line: “He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.” – Captain James Benwick

Grade: A+

Book Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

northanger abbey-jane austen

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 236

 

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland, an unexceptional young woman from the country, who finds herself suddenly a part of the elegant and complex society in Bath. Under the ‘guidance’ of the vapid, though not cruel, Mrs. Allen, Catherine finds herself acquainted with the wrong crowd.

When she is befriended by the deceitful and coquettish Isabella Thorpe, our unlikely heroine falls under the manipulations of Isabella and her brother, John. For a while, she is bullied into participating in indiscreet activities that could make an impact on her reputation. Take note, reader, these activities are by no means as racy as the sentence might suggest. It is, basically, the reputation you get when you quite literally, ‘ride in the car with boys.’

Mercifully, she is saved from further social mishaps when she joins the company of the handsome, though somewhat unromantic, Henry Tilney, and his lovely sister, Eleanor. As would be expected, she falls for Henry, and there is reason to think that he begins to feel the same for her. The only setback lies in the meddling of Henry’s father, General Tilney. Therein, is the real story, and it starts quite late in the novel.

Although the rest of the novel is pleasant enough to read, Northanger Abbey is a lot like Emma, in the sense that the story is not as rich or eventful as Jane Austen’s other works. Notably, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. What gets the reader through the piece though, is the strength of Catherine’s character.

Yes, Jane Austen does take pains to establish how Catherine is unremarkable in almost all aspects—but she also makes our heroine incredibly interesting. Austen infuses her with youth. Catherine’s curiosity and naivety makes her relatable—and that is the mark of a good character.

Northanger Abbey is often regarded as Austen’s earliest work. This shows, especially in Austen’s immense presence in the text. The author makes her thoughts known in a very direct manner throughout the book. In her latter works like Persuasion and Mansfield Park, you get less of the author in the story.  Some critics regard Northanger Abbey as one of the keys to Austen’s mindset. With little else to go by, Austen having requested that all her letters be burnt upon her death, such personal works as this one becomes crucial to historians, literary professors and majors, and Janeites alike. This novel gives as a clue as to what Austen’s mindset was during the period when she wrote this story.

As a parody of Gothic literature, this book also succeeds in being possibly the most lighthearted and easy-to-read novel from Austen. This is why I highly recommend this book to all first-time Austen/Classic readers.

Rating: A-

Austen Marathon: Pride and Prejudice

 

Title: Pride and Prejudice

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Fiction; Classic, Romance

First Published: 1813

Pages: 480

Rating: A+

Status: Reread (for the 4th time!)

 

Pride and Prejudice is, arguably, Jane Austen’s most popular work—and rightfully so! There is much to love about this novel. At its worst, it’s one of the wittiest, sweetest, and most heartbreaking romantic novels out there. At its best, it’s a stunning critique on nineteenth century etiquette and vanity. There is a reason why Austen’s works endure—why they’re still well-read and well-loved til now. Despite containing a plethora of archaic customs, these works are timeless when it comes to their relatability.

To demonstrate Austen’s wit, Pride and Prejudice starts with one of the most unforgettable lines in Fiction—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Let’s take a moment to appreciate the perfection of that line. It sets the tone for the entire novel. It lets the reader know what to expect from the book—a heavy dose of romance laced with just the right touch of comedy.

To sum up a good book in a few lines, Pride and Prejudice follows the unlikely romance between the story’s main character, Elizabeth Bennet, and the immensely wealthy and seemingly proud, Mr. Darcy. Throw in Elizabeth’s meddling and sometimes-scandalous family; a failed romance between Jane Bennet (Elizabeth’s sister) and Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley; and the sly machinations of the charming, Mr. Wickham—and what you have is an engaging and heartwarming piece of Literature.

Obviously, to say that I enjoyed the novel would be an understatement. Pride and Prejudice is, actually, one of my go-to novels whenever I feel colossal disappointment over one thing or another. That’s why this novel gets an A+ for me.

 

PLOT

Pride and Prejudice begins when a charming and wealthy gentleman, called Mr. Bingley, moves into Netherfield Park in Hertfordshire, where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live with their five daughters. The Bennet family isn’t rich, and their estate will be passed to their closest male relation upon Mr. Bennet’s death. To ensure that their children will be provided for, Mrs. Bennet has made it her duty to marry off each of her children to a wealthy young man. She rejoices when her eldest, Jane, catches Mr. Bingley’s eye. The two seem to form an attachment, but before much could be done (or celebrated), the pair is separated by Bingley’s best friend, the handsome and affluent Mr. Darcy, and his sisters.

The twist comes when Mr. Darcy falls for Jane’s younger sister, the fiercely independent and witty, Elizabeth Bennet. And while I would love to go on a blow-by-blow account of how the two eventually fall in love, that would ruin the book’s buildup for you. (See? I learned from my last post!) And I would love for anyone to read this literary masterpiece, so I’ll stop right here.

Plot-wise, the story is tight. Like its predecessor, Sense and Sensibility, this story contains a series of ‘surprise’ turns. But it deals with each turn well. Although circumstances do change the characters’ mindsets, these changes aren’t dubious or unexplained. These changes are the obvious reactions to specific situations. In short, you won’t find any OOC (out-of-character) moments here.

 

CHARACTERS

Once again, Austen aces character development (and relatability). Her characters are, by no means, two-dimensional. Their personalities are distinct, their actions apt according to their respective natures. Austen also demonstrates her wit through the likes of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth.

Top 5 Characters from Pride and Prejudice

  1. Jane Bennet. I know that a lot of people identify with Elizabeth more, but to me, there’s much to love about Jane’s agreeable nature. Like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, Jane epitomizes grace under pressure.
  2. Elizabeth Bennet. This list just isn’t complete without the novel’s lovable and opinionated heroine. Elizabeth, much like Marianne, is high-spirited, intelligent, and attractive. However, she also displays tremendous maturity, especially upon realizing her prejudices.
  3. Mr. Darcy. Alright, I’ll admit it. Mr. Darcy is, undoubtedly, one of the most swoon-worthy men in fiction. He’s quiet, reserved, handsome, intelligent, and incredibly wealthy. He’s the whole package. Why it took Elizabeth so long to come around, is beyond me. Okay, so maybe she was insulted at the ball, but how can one not love Mr. Darcy?
  4. Lydia Bennet. Lydia Bennet is the character you’d love to hate. She’s pigheaded and vapid, shameless and selfish. And yet, there’s something about her foolishness that’s perfectly attributable to her upbringing and age.
  5. Mr. Bennet. It’s easy to see which parent Elizabeth takes after. Mr. Bennet is witty and amusing. He’s also a bit cruel, sometimes—but he eventually gets his fill of humble pie (as does everyone else in the book).

 

OVERALL: Definitely worth a reread.

There’s a reason why Pride and Prejudice is considered the quintessential love story. It has all the elements of a great romcom with a dash of drama. I think that’s also the reason why there are countless literary adaptations to this piece. This is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s looking for a good romance novel—or for first-time Classic readers.

 

FAVORITE LINES

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” – Ms. Bingley, Chapter 11

““In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” – Mr. Darcy; Chapter 34

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” – Mary Bennet, Chapter 5

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” – Mr. Darcy, Chapter 60. After Elizabeth asked him when he fell in love with her.

“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.” – Mr. Darcy, Chapter 58