‘The Village’ is a chapter from Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. The book details Thoreau’s decision to leave behind modern civilisation and live a simple life in the woods in Massachusetts.
In the chapter titled ‘The Village’, which can be read here, Thoreau describes his regular visits to the village near Walden Pond and how he enjoys hearing the latest news and gossip from the locals, safe in the knowledge that he can escape back into the woods and his home afterwards.
‘The Village’: summary
Thoreau tells us that ‘every day or two’ he goes into the nearby village to hear the gossip. In small doses, this kind of news is refreshing – indeed, as refreshing as the rustle of leaves or the noise of frogs in the world of nature.
Thoreau likens the people of the village to animals found in the natural world: the men and boys of the village are as fascinating to him as the birds and squirrels in the woods. The traveller – such as Thoreau himself – who visits the village has to run the gauntlet: in other words, the houses are so arranged in lanes, facing each other, so that a visitor cannot avoid being exposed to the gossiping villagers sitting outside their homes trying to attract the traveller to their shop or service.
Thoreau even states that those villagers living in houses and shops at the top of the street had to pay more for their properties than those further down the lane, where the traveller can dodge their scrutiny by leaping over a wall or turning off onto a smaller path. He usually avoids this either by proceeding very boldly and purposefully down the lane to put off anyone who might try to grab his attention, or else by suddenly making his escape into one of the houses, where he can learn the latest news before escaping out of a back door into the woods again where he lives.
Sometimes he makes this journey home from village to woods at night time, where he is guided more by his feet than his eyes, almost instinctively feeling his way through the trees until he finds his home. He likens this to our arm finding its way to out mouth without our consciously having to guide it there. When visitors have come to his house, he has advised them to find their way back to the village in a similar way, relying on their feet rather than their eyes.
This sometimes happens to people in the village, but Thoreau thinks it ‘surprising and memorable’, as well as a ‘valuable experience’, to get lost in the woods, even during a snowstorm when the snow renders a familiar route strange and unnavigable. It is only by being lost that we can find ourselves, Thoreau argues, and comprehend the true extent of our environment and our relationship to it.
Thoreau describes how one day, while he was collecting a shoe from the cobbler in the village, he was arrested and thrown in jail for refusing to pay a tax to the government which keeps slavery legal. Rather than resisting arrest, Thoreau decided to let the state do what it willed against him. He was released the following day.
He remarks that the only people who interfered with him were representatives of the government. He could keep his home unlocked and unguarded and not live in fear of burglary or theft. If everyone lived as simply as he does, he believes these things would not exist.
‘The Village’: analysis
Perhaps the most significant aspect of ‘The Village’ is what Thoreau’s sorties into the local village reveal about his attitudes. He views the locals in the village in the same way he views the animals in the woods: to him, there is little difference between observing a squirrel or frog and partaking of the tittle-tattle of the villagers.
Similarly, his telling use of the word ‘homeopathic’ to describe his approach to local gossip suggests two things. Homeopathy is the belief that ingesting a solution containing a small amount of a (normally harmful) substance can help to ‘cure’ you of the harmful thing. The implication of Thoreau’s use of this metaphorical term is clear: that exposing oneself to such chatter in small doses can be beneficial. However, the flipside is that too much of it can be dangerous and harmful.
It is easy, perhaps too easy, to make comparisons between Thoreau’s decision to remove himself physically from society for his own mental and emotional well-being and our modern-day concerns over imbibing too much social media, online or rolling news, or other relentless chatter and speculation. However, one can see some parallels between Thoreau’s regular (but brief) journeys into the village and a modern-day social media user’s commitment to logging on only sporadically, with a clear escape plan once they’ve updated themselves as to the latest developments. Such ‘gossip’ can too easily become an addiction, and stop being the servant and become the master.
In ‘The Village’, Thoreau doesn’t simply remain a detached bystander, however. He does willingly enter into certain villagers’ homes and allows himself to be entertained by them and to learn the latest news from them. This is a reciprocal arrangement: they are his source for the latest goings-on in the world, while they clearly see in him a willing audience for their speculations and opinions, which they are only too easy to provide.
Thoreau makes it clear that, whilst he undoubtedly thinks it a good idea to remove oneself from society and live simply among nature and solitude, shutting oneself off completely from one’s fellow humans is not good for one’s own personal peace of mind. We are social beings who require some degree of interaction with other people: or, as John Donne famously put it, no man is an island.
There is also, towards the end of ‘The Village’, a political point to Thoreau’s position. The only people who would impose their will on him (against his own will) are those who are acting on behalf of the state: tax collectors who would throw him in prison for failing to pay a tax, for example. Here, Thoreau’s objection to paying the tax – he is an abolitionist who does not agree with government-supported slavery in the United States – is what lands him in trouble, although he is released the next day. However, he uses this anecdote to suggest a broader problem with government overreach and to remark that the state is the only thing which would stand in the way of Thoreau’s utopia being realised.
In the last analysis, then, Thoreau is of the opinion that people are not inherently bad, and that a government which treated people as virtuous citizens would create a nation of virtuous people.