The Relationship between Civilization and Nature in Thoreau’s “Walking” and E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

I chose this topic since the question of civilization versus nature is one that has interested me the most in our class discussions.  “The Machine Stops” (1909) is a science fiction short story that had a great impact on me when I first read it due to its predictive accuracy in describing a future society that lives completely separate from nature.  I felt that in Thoreau’s “Walking” (1862) essay, Thoreau voices, in a more straightforward fashion, many of the same concerns that Forster deals with in his short story.


I first read “The Machine Stops” for a class on science fiction literature, and in that class we discussed the way nature is represented in this and other science fiction literature.  In general, sci fi lit (particularly dystopian works like this) present a world that is so dependent on technology that it has ceased caring for nature; themes such as environmental degradation and conformity to rigid societal codes are common in such stories.  Both of these themes are key in both texts: Thoreau disapproves of societal codes in his text, while the character of Kuno in Forster’s text becomes ostracized for his refusal to conform to a technology-dependent society.  Also, Thoreau discusses the problems of building development in his text and how over-development can ruin nature, while in Forster’s text all human beings live in underground bunkers because of the massive environmental degradation.  Another major theme is spirituality: Thoreau discusses the spiritual value inherent in wilderness, while in Forster’s text, a religion that worships technology develops, and its deity is The Machine, a massive conglomeration of technology that supports life in the underground bunkers.




  1. How does each text address human society?  How does each is mindless conformity criticized in both?
  2. How is spirituality used in each text?  How is organized religion treated in each?
  3. How does each text deal with environmental degradation?  How does each use the “apocalypse trope?”
  4. Thoreau and Forster were writing approximately 50 years apart from each other.  How does each text’s intended audience influence their respective arguments?

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    While I think that your topic ideas are solid and I like your enthusiasm for the works that you selected, I did notice that some of your questions appear to be based off of possibly unstable assumptions (rather than inquires) that you may want to examine in order to make sure that you’re not overlooking facts.

    For example, you asked: “Thoreau and Forster were writing approximately 50 years apart from each other. How does each text’s intended audience influence their respective arguments?” In order to answer a question like this, you’d have to first define each text’s “intended audience” (which might be difficult, considering that most texts don’t have a specific, defined intended audience outlined by the author) and then answer the question of “how.”

    This is all just a matter of semantics, but hopefully my thoughts will prove helpful to you in creating a more air-tight research plan. Good luck!

  2. I have not read “The Machine Stops” but it sounds like a very interesting short story. I really enjoy your second question. The beauty of spirituality is that there is not simply one form of spirituality. I would like to maybe see what types of religions you will take out of these texts.

    5. This is not in a form of a question but it will ask you to predict the future. After comparing these texts you might want to make an argument in which you can predict with the advancement in technology in the 21st century, do you see technology hindering our connection to Nature or enhancing our connection to nature?

  3. Having not read the apocalypse chapter yet in Garrad’s book I have to say this is really interesting because I had not thought of Thoreau’s “Walking” as apocalyptic. Also I would have never pictured it being contrasted and compared to a future society, but that just goes to show how these themes are prevalent in all kinds of society. I really like that you’re writing about Thoreau’s use of religion too, especially, since in “Walking” he describes walking as a spiritual/holy act.

    6. What kind of outcomes do these texts predict? Do they offer any solutions?

  4. Posted by thelorist on October 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I haven’t read “The Machine Stops”, but I’ve certainly encountered similar thematic constructs in other stories, the most available and comparable being the video game series “Fallout”, which involves the apocalyptic scenario of nature’s destruction and the human retreat underground, followed by some instances of religious loyalty to the promises of technology. I want to comment and perhaps help you define your second question a bit. Instead of asking how spirituality and religion operate in these works, you could go further and say:

    Q: “What role does religion / spirituality play in each of these works in respect to nature? Is religion something that is inspired by nature, or is religion an antagonist to nature? How is the religious loyalty to technology in “The Machine Stops” construed, and does this assert that technology is the anti-nature?”

    Alternatively, you could explore why technology is marked as antagonistic. Why, for example, is technology not considered as an alternate nature? Why is technology, which can be used for “green” purposes just as soon as destructive ones, dismissed as inherently anti-nature, considering that it facilitates that which comes natural to humans?

  5. I would have never thought to pair those two texts together but your explanation ties them together nicely. I haven’t read The Machine Stops but it sounds fascinating and I appreciated the background information! Specifically, I really thought you could work a lot with this question:

    How is mindless conformity criticized in both [texts]?

    And I would propose adding another question such as:
    What do we loose when we give up societal codes? Is the loss of human companionship inevitable?

  6. Posted by al002 on October 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Great topic choice. I think the most interesting question you posted is “2. How is spirituality used in each text? How is organized religion treated in each?” Perhaps you should incorporate the chapter from Emerson about spirituality.

    How is spirituality/religion portrayed and evolved through nature in the texts?

  7. I like question #3 because I find that in a lot of dystopian science fiction works there tends to be this movement away from nature – the abuse and destruction of nature and the rise of machines and technology.

    10. How could it be implied in these texts that religion and spirituality are doomed along with the progression of a more technologically advanced society?

  8. Posted by christys21 on October 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    The comparison between civilization and nature is definately interesting. While discussing how over-development, according to Thoreau, will help your argument, I think analyzing soceity right now would help prove a point as well.

    Using the way society today can be almost said to be disconnected from nature in comparison to “pre-technological times” may be an angle that can help with developing your essay.

  9. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    This sounds like a very interesting proposal and kudos for choosing an outside work! I think that Q1 can be approached from many different angles. My question will expand on those angles.

    Q11 – How does a rise on the dependence on technology effect the dynamics of human relationships?

    What specific aspects of modern human nature would suffer from a technology-enslaved world?

  10. Part of thoreau’s critique of technology is it’s aim; instead of solving any ‘real’ problems technology simply perpetuates the cycle of production and consumption in civilization. I think it could be important to examine whether or not there is the possibility of technological progress coinciding with some sort of spiritual progress. Especially in the contemporary moment of technology always creating more problems than solutions. Each time we try and solve a problem through technological advance (action) there are inevitably unforeseen consequences. Considering todays issues of global climate change and ecological crisis: would thoreau be confident in the eventuality of a technological solution to these problems, or expectant of technology’s inevitable failure?

  11. A great topic and really interesting questions! I think you should particularly pay attention to the questions your peers have added that complicate issues of technology regarding both spirituality and the environment.

    Regarding your question #4, “Walking” was originally a lecture that Thoreau changed up for different audiences before it was published in The Atlantic Monthly. So Thoreau was very interested in target audience, and the Atlantic Monthly did (and does) have a target audience you can talk about (since this is the version you’ll be working with). Forster’s story was first published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review, so you have a specific target audience you can talk about there too. This leads to my question:

    13. Since Thoreau is an American author and Forster is a British author, how does each author respond to their particular culture’s environmental (and other pertinent social) issues? Are these shared or linked concerns, or are they separate but related concerns? Was Thoreau an influence for Forster? How does Thoreau portray America as distinctly different from England, and in what ways is it unable to escape its historical inheritance? In other words, historically situate each of these texts and then consider potential historical links between them.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: