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.

Austen Marathon: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen - 2008 BBC edition
Emma by Jane Austen – 2008 BBC edition

 

 

Title: Emma

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1815

Pages: 495

In Emma, Jane Austen deviates from her usual course, where the poor though lovable heroine falls in love with a wealthy gentleman or clergyman. Instead, Austen chooses to flex her writing skills by creating a character which the author, herself, has described as, “a heroine whom no one but myself [Austen] will much like.”

And true enough, unlike her predecessors (the Dashwood sisters, the Bennet sisters, and Fanny Price), Emma isn’t the type of character that pulls on one’s heartstrings. Emma is privileged, independent, outspoken, and beautiful. She’s stubborn and, though good-intentioned, meddlesome. She has little inclination or interest to fall in love or marry.

Though wealthy on her own, Emma is, in a way, held captive by her love for her father. Her father’s fragile nature, (although hypochondriac also comes to mind), prevents Emma from straying too far or too often away from home. Bored by the simplicity of small town life, Emma finds real passion and excitement in matchmaking.

This becomes most apparent when she takes Harriet Smith under her wing. Harriet is a beautiful and amiable young lady of unknown parentage. Despite her numerous good qualities, Harriet’s station in life greatly limits her prospects when it comes to love and marriage. This, however, does not stop Emma from attempting to elevate Harriet’s status by finding the latter a respectable and acceptable suitor. She sets her eyes on the handsome and well-liked local vicar, Mr. Elton. In the process of bringing Mr. Elton and Harriet together Emma separates Harriet from a growing attachment with the young farmer, Robert Martin. She even dissuades the other young lady from accepting a proposal from Martin by emphasizing the farmer’s lack of finesse and lowly station in life.

Emma’s plans eventually backfire when it becomes clear that Mr. Elton has been trying to impress her all along. Desperate to make things right with Harriet, Emma digs herself a deeper hole by becoming even more meddlesome and scheming in her matchmaking. In the end, the result of her efforts prove satisfactory, though not because of her doing but in spite of it. Harriet finds true love with her farmer friend, and Emma ultimately rethinks her stand in marriage when she realizes her true feelings for her close friend, George Knightley.

Like Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, there is enough comedy in Emma to excuse any meanderings in Austen’s part. Although Austen has always exerted tremendous attention to detail, Emma’s circumstances, her lack of actual freedom because of her ‘ailing’ father, makes it necessary for the writer to make the most out of Highbury. The reader becomes immersed in Emma’s everyday life. This is a dangerous technique. One runs the risk of boring the reader with the ‘details’. But as usual, Austen manages to pull everything off with her wit and her lovable characters.

 

Favorite Character/s: Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax. Though vastly different in temperament and behavior, both women exhibit strength in character. For Ms. Fairfax, fortitude. For Emma, willfulness—the good kind, mostly.

Favorite Quote: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” – Emma

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