Posts Tagged ‘civilization’

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?

Wilderness in Thoreau’s “Walking”

Wilderness in Thoreau’s Walking is portrayed as a pure, Eden-like world where the landscape is not tainted by civilization. He finds joy in walking through Nature and never coming across any signs of civilization. Thoreau feels his day is not complete unless he walks through the wilderness at least once a day. Nature in the “New World” seems brighter, more colorful, and the heavens infinitely higher in the eyes of Thoreau. He considers a human that is closest to nature to be the most alive. “How near to good is what is wild! Life consists with wilderness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him” (Thoreau 274). The closer to nature you were for Thoreau, the more alive and human you are. In Thoreau’s eyes, if you take the wild out of an animal, you are turning them into a slave, or you become submissive to a society that desires to tame you, to take the life out of you. Thoreau would argue that wilderness is sacred and a true human being is someone that is directly connected to nature.

I would argue that Thoreau considers civilized people to be less human than Native Americans because civilized people’s spirits have been broken, they have no connection to the natural world. “Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man, – a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit” (Thoreau 281). Thoreau seems to feel that civilization is akin to a cage for the savage within us all. He rejoices in animals fighting to stay wild, and likens our separation from nature to being separated from our mother at a young age. He doesn’t discriminate against gender and race, but he does show compassion to the working class people, wondering why they haven’t committed suicide because of their, in a sense, enslavement. He also pity women, wondering how they can stand the space they have been confined to within society. Instead of looking upon wildness as something beneath him like many other Europeans, he embraces the idea, considering it above the mundane lives of civilized people. He excludes civilization from nature, looking at it as the reason the untamed world will disappear to begin with. Every being that is still untamed is included in his conception of nature. The more connected to experiencing the natural world you are, the more alive and free you are in Thoreau’s eyes.

Thoreau also mentions European’s ancestors, saying that “Our ancestors were savages” (Thoreau 273). He goes on to state, “It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were” (Thoreau 273). He correlates being wild and connected to the natural world to being warriors, capable of defending yourself and conquering. With this statement, he is also proclaiming that without the savage within us, we will be unable to defend ourselves; we will become sheep to the preying wolves. He doesn’t seem to be basing his ideas off of a romanticized sense of nature so much as a need to be able to survive in an untamed world.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p5-70, 260-287. Pub. WW Norton 2008