The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

A Jungian Exploration of Thoreau’s Sexuality

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Queer Theory on June 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

by Chris Snellgrove

The goal of my larger research concerning Thoreau is to use Jungian psychoanalytic techniques to examine Thoreau’s Walden, which helps to explore the connection between Thoreau’s notion of transcendence and the Jungian notion of self-actualization. This subsection focuses primarily on the Jungian anima archetype (in Jungian terms, this is the feminine aspect of man, and the avenue by which he accessed his soul, or spirit), and how Thoreau, existing in relative physical and sexual isolation, encountered that archetype during his time at Walden Pond. The ultimate goal of both Jungian therapy and transcendentalism is that of actualization, in which a person has accessed their unconscious mind and found truths concerning both themselves and the larger world around them. The importance of the anima to this process cannot be overstated, as it represents man’s ability to access his own unconscious mind—essentially, to begin the entire process.

Such self-actualization can be understood in terms of removing a mask: Jung considered an individual’s persona as a representation of how they wished to be viewed by the world: individuals can only wear one mask (and, thus, embody one aspect of their personality) at a time, limiting not only their interactions with others, but their ability to access their unconscious mind. Self-actualization occurs when an individual eliminates the need for the persona at all, finding a way to dynamically embody the entirety of their self—as Thoreau emphasizes so powerfully, when an individual is able to revere both their spiritual and their savage side, they are more fully actualized than if they limit themselves to one perspective. Before they can embrace savagery, however, they must first pull back the veil of their unconscious world by accessing their inner femininity.

The Anima

The anima of Thoreau and his subsequent re-contextualization of the feminine is a central idea to this work, as an analysis of Thoreau’s “repressed” masculine side necessitates an examination of his anima. This Jungian examination offers a fresh perspective to the heterosexual/homosexual binary that splits critics, and unites several disparate elements of Walden—the carnivorous bloodthirstiness of Thoreau in “Higher Laws,” for instance, seems to have little to do with John Fields’ wife, until one considers the spirituality Thoreau sees in bodily taking what he wants from the land, as opposed to those whose adherence to capitalism keeps them poor.  Fields’ wife is portrayed as urging her husband to define success in worldly, material terms; the trappings of civilization are, to Thoreau, actually trapping civilization within a feminine framework.  The counterpoint, then, is masculine abandon, such as eating a live woodchuck; from a Jungian standpoint, Thoreau balances the best aspects of femininity and masculinity—forsaking the capitalistic repression of Fields’ wife while retaining his own sensitive appreciation of the natural world. Similarly, he does not condemn nor regret the urge to eat a woodchuck, yet implies that such beastliness is a necessary precursor to spirituality, just as hunting is ironically necessary to teach children to value the natural world (Thoreau. Walden 214). This exercise—liberating restrained femininity and restraining masculine abandon—allows Thoreau to perceive transcendental truths without being held back by his persona; in Jungian terms, he is individuating himself by overcoming his own mask.  The Persona is best understood as the aspect of Thoreau that helps him integrate into the collective consciousness—the so-called “mass of men” in Concord who Thoreau seeks to impress even as he distinguishes himself from them.  This is significant in this analysis, because the notion of such a mask extends to both the public realm of perception (how Thoreau desired others to regard him) and the archetypes of unconsciousness controlling how he views himself—one can actually view the process of Thoreau’s individuation by reading the transition between the teacher/student dichotomy of Walden’s first chapter and the open arms with which he greets a fraternity of free-thinkers by the close of the book.  By this point, the mask of superiority has genuinely dropped; a fully individuated Thoreau is presented as a changed man.

Regarding the feminine aspect of masculinity, it is unmistakable that Thoreau related to women more than men in relation to nature; of his visitors, he writes that “Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods,” contrasting them with businessmen and farmers who “thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which [Thoreau] dwelt from something or other” (Thoreau 148). Despite the readiness with which Thoreau’s female visitors took to his social experiment at Walden, his attitudes towards women remain mixed throughout the work: some are helpless pawns of fate, like John Field’s dutiful wife and the black woman named Zilpha whose house was burned down by British soldiers in 1812.  Others are wise and little spoken of, like the red-faced elderly woman who visits Thoreau and tells him of the forest from years gone by—a sort of post-Edenic Eve figure, reminiscing about paradise even as she tempts Thoreau with an apple he can’t resist: knowledge of a time before industry came to Concord.  However, the most prominent female in Walden is nature itself: Thoreau takes the romantic trope of feminizing the natural world to another level by offering nature consciousness, personality, and even a voice.  Witness the scene early on in “The Pond in Winter,” in which Thoreau awakes after a “still winter night” convinced that “some question had been put to [him].” Looking out his window, however, Thoreau could see “there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight” (Thoreau 275).  We see nature serving as the intermediary balance to the paired opposites of day and night (such paired opposites are important to Jung’s idea of actualization, as they help symbolize the disparate personas that a person separates from when they actualize—when they are able to fully embody their unconscious self), and Thoreau’s projection of his anima onto the external world sees nature as a maternal educational figure who provides the quizzical Thoreau with the answers he so desperately seeks.  Interestingly enough, this maternal teacher role is the aspect of his anima that Thoreau enacts the most—it is evident with every person he attempts to teach his philosophies to: the primary theme of his transcendental philosophy is to redefine individuals’ reliance on economy, labor, and religion, simultaneously glorifying earthly work (such as gardening) and emphasizing that simple food and housing can help one create a self-sustained economy.  His declaration of the Canadian woodchopper as child-like crystallizes this maternal anima aspect: Thoreau wants the inhabitants of the world to mature and learn to live effectively and sustainably.  This feminine aspect of his psychology—the same that fuels the teacher addressing himself to his “poor students” (Thoreau 2) has given false rise to some critical impressions of Thoreau as a homosexual[1].

It is my belief that Thoreau’s pre-Jungian exercise of his anima archetype is responsible for many claims regarding Thoreau being a homosexual.  Personally, I do not believe Thoreau was homosexual: I believe that asexual remains the best description of Thoreau. His sexuality was repressed by a combination of seclusion and contempt for the natives of Concord.  Nonetheless, many passages exhibit homosexual overtones that are a direct result of Thoreau exercising this anima aspect: it is not difficult to understand a queer reading of Walden’s sixth chapter, “Visitors,” which begins with Thoreau proclaiming that he’s not that much of a hermit, and that when company comes around he is “ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way” (Thoreau 136).  Not content with telling his readers that he is ready to suck on any full-blooded man that comes his way, Thoreau expresses concern that when 20 or 30 people gather in his small house, there may not be enough physical space for conversations with other men, which is necessary for “all of the animal heat and moisture” (Thoreau 137) between them to have a chance to evaporate.  After mentioning the “animal heat” of the men around him (which, for the pun-happy Thoreau, could easily be a play on animals in heat), Thoreau goes on to tell us about entertaining an overly masculine woodchopper by reading to him from The Iliad—specifically, a scene between Achilles and Patroclus which begins with Achilles asking the younger man why he is in tears “like a young girl” (Thoreau 140). This gender-mixed sample exchange between two characters who, as Henry Abelove pointed out, are “often read as gay” (Abelove 36) is certainly a curious passage.  Thoreau neglecting to print the strapping woodchopper’s name may also seem suspect to a queer reading of Walden, yet it is in line with the anonymity of other withheld names throughout the novel—with the notable exception of John Field, whose episode specifically feeds into Thoreau’s projected persona.  However, the instances mentioned—far from confirming Thoreau’s sexuality—provide a fascinating glimpse into the archetypal anima of Thoreau.

These three instances—particularly the extended passage regarding that rugged woodchopper—form compelling circumstantial evidence regarding the homosexuality of Thoreau.  I maintain, however, that in each instance Thoreau’s was projecting femininity via his anima: as Jung writes, “Possession caused by the anima presents a different picture. Above all, this transformation of personality gives prominence to those traits characteristic of the opposite sex “(Jung, Four Archetypes 67). Thoreau’s readiness to latch on to social men and be a bloodsucker continues his earlier thread regarding how women and children are able to enjoy the world around them, whereas men simply worry about their solitude from the civilization of larger cities.  His gregariousness is simply a magnified feminine sociability attempting to bring the civilization of his visitors to his own remote habitat.  Similarly, his concern with the proximity of conversations has less to do with concern for his guests’ comfort (or his own relative comfort in the midst of “animal heat”) and more to do, as Thoreau says, with having room for his “thoughts to get into sailing trim” (Thoreau 136).  This aspect of his archetypal anima exhibits the aforementioned nurturing teacher role—an integral element of his persona that becomes psychologically sublimated into more of a maternal role.  Thoreau’s transcendent philosophy being dependent on his feminine aspect is not surprising—in a Jungian framework of psychology, it is inevitable: Jung wrote that “in order to establish an absolute or unconditioned connection to the world”—a phraseology that echoes Thoreau symbolically positioning himself as the connecting link between “wild and cultivated fields”—that connection can only occur “when I am both passive and active at the same time—this only occurs for a man through a woman” (Jung, Analytical Psychology 108).    Thoreau accessing his own anima archetype throughout Walden, then, is another form of archetypal invention—he creates the paired opposite to his own masculinity (sensitivity and introspection), and embraces the femininity that Jung insists “links man to earth” (Jung, Analytical Psychology 108) by opposing feminine appearances within Walden with his radical ideas, symbolically tied to his own masculinity.  The first step, then, towards a sort of reconciliation with his feminine aspect is for the Emersonian stoic within Thoreau to embrace his emotions.

One of Jung’s characteristic criteria for the anima-magnified masculine persona is that of being uncontrolled and emotional, and we see this in the passage of Thoreau overcompensating for his secluded life (note his abhorrence at being labeled a hermit): he switches gears from the man of chapter one who believed the residents of Concord were living “lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, Walden 6) to the man who is delighted to have a 30-person party in his 3-chair house.  He has unconsciously taken on both social and maternal aspects of his own anima; he is concerned with his own archetypal persona, which Jung insists has “a compensatory relationship with the anima” (Two Essays On Analytical Psychology 192). The relationship of persona to anima cannot be overstated: Thoreau finds himself caught between iconoclastic personalities, as the myth of his self-made solitary persona (the apex of Emersonian individuality) is at war with his urge to prove “I love society” (Thoreau, Walden 136), as he wishes to not be regarded as a hermit, but a gregarious teacher whose work can only be processed by “poor students.”  This urge to teach others his own philosophy, whether they want to hear it or not (as every single woodland neighbor of Thoreau’s would be able to attest) becomes sublimated into Thoreau exhibiting maternal aspects of his anima archetype: even as he employs clever rhetorical inversion to describe his home (its small size means that his visitors won’t feel like vermin, which is the invariable result of living in a oversized home) Thoreau is embodying the role that he earlier ascribed to a “good housewife,” who he saw as responsible for “sweep[ing] out the greater part” of the American man’s reliance on luxurious housing “into the dust hole” (Thoreau, Walden 33).  And an integral part to this maternal turn of Thoreau’s anima is his caretaking of the child-like intellect of the masculine, as he seeks to balance overt masculinity with the inevitably feminine aspect of intellectuality.

The Canadian woodchopper is, without a doubt, Thoreau’s concept of the masculine ideal.  This woodchopper, in fact, would not be out of place within our own modern-day stereotyped conception of masculinity: he is a voracious meat eater, relentless hunter, and a skilled tradesman who, nonetheless, works only as much as he desires to.  Despite these masculine tropes, Thoreau notes that the “intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant” (Thoreau, Walden 142-143).  Though the incident is brief, Thoreau takes it upon himself to try to rekindle the man’s spiritual development, picking up where the priest who initially taught the woodchopper how to read had left off.  Again we see paired opposites, now in the context of Thoreau’s anima: Thoreau picks up on the man’s education in matters of divinity and spirituality by reading to him from a story of violence and visceral physicality.  He mediates between both the higher laws of spirituality to which men aspire and the realm of worldly physicality by reading from a story in which everything miraculous and divine is intertwined with violence and death.  Placing himself in the center of these paired opposites—as a caretaker of this man who has been kept a child—Thoreau actually becomes a Mary-like figure to the divinity he hopes to see the woodchopper develop.  Jung notes that in some Christian traditions, Mary (who, as human mother to divine spirit, is the eternal anima) has been regarded as both the mother of Jesus and the cross upon which he was hung (Jung, Four Archetypes 16); it is this dichotomy of maternity and persecution in which Thoreau’s anima plays both nurturer and torturer, as he both fosters alternative divinity—Thoreau writes of his attempt “to find a substitute within him for the priest without” (Thoreau, Walden 145)—yet is ultimately the crucifix to which this animal man is hung; the woodchopper notes how attempting to write from his imagination “would kill him” (Thoreau, Walden 143-144), and as a writer Thoreau seems to do just that. After many attempts to make an intellectual man out of this rugged child, he ultimately leaves him for (intellectually) dead—the work makes no further mention of this man; Thoreau declares the subject of his failed maternal experiment as “a poor weak-headed pauper (Thoreau, Walden 147)” and moves on to describing more visitors.  Thoreau’s archetypal anima led him to heightened sensitivity to nature, a sort of forced sociability, and an urge to nurture humanity into its own philosophical development; yet the same archetype of persona that forced Thoreau’s hand at sociability ultimately kept his feminine aspect—as well as those handsome paupers and choppers—at arm’s length.

It is fortunate for Thoreau that, ultimately, access to his anima allowed him to experience a fuller range of his unconscious mind, and to eventually actualize by the end of the text. His remains one of the more intriguing Jungian studies because it supports the necessity of the anima as a psychological force: Thoreau, even as he downplays the women in his life (primarily comprised of various visitors and esoteric neighbors) goes so far as to sexualize nature into a woman with whom he communes. As such, a large part of his transcendental endeavor can be read as an attempt to explore and understand the feminine aspect of himself that was often pushed aside by his mentor, Emerson. Instead, Thoreau helped create the notion of a self-reliance that does not abandon key aspects of the self. For him, then, transcendence was a matter of transcending limitations themselves, and exploring femininity within himself and within the larger world was part of Thoreau’s quest for wholeness and, indeed, actualization.

Works Cited

Abelove, Henry. Deep Gossip. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Harding, Walter. “Thoreau’s Sexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality, 21.3 (1991): 23-45

Jung, Carl. Analytical Psychology: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1925. Trans. Cary F.  de Angulo. Ed.  William McGuire.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Jung, Carl. Four Archetypes. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Ed. Gerhard Adler. London: Routledge, 1953.

Jung, Carl. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology.  Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Ed. Gerhard Adler.  London: Routledge, 1953.

Thoreau, Henry. Walden: An Annotated Edition. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1995.

[1] Harding, 23-45.  Harding offers a cautiously homosexual reading of Thoreau, noting that while the author seemed attracted to men in his written works, no evidence exists that Thoreau was ever in a physical relationship with men or women.  While Harding’s account remains the most thorough, Michael Warner’s “Thoreau’s Bottom” (Raritan, 11:3 [1992], 53-79) provides a queer reading of Thoreau in concert with his politically radical ideas and his Lacan-like exploration of sameness (equated with Thoreau’s proto-queer-theory) and the Other.

About the Author:

Chris Snellgrove is currently completing his PhD in English at Auburn University. He specializes in 20th-century American Literature and psychoanalytic theory, and enjoys exploring the intersection of these techniques and other cultural movements, such as feminism.

  1. […] the Jungians, we have this fascinating article which examines Thoreau’s sexuality from a Jungian perspective – both the man and his […]

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