John Field and Plato’s Cave: A Second Glance at the Images on the Wall.
“Poor John Field! — I trust he does not read this, unless he will improve by it, — thinking to live by some derivative old country mode in this primitive new country, — to catch perch with shiners. It is good bait sometimes, I allow. With his horizon all his own, yet he a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam’s grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in this world, he nor his posterity, till their wading webbed bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden argues the simple life is a happy one. In his estimation, life is not even soiled with the sweat from one’s brow. When read as an allegory, the chapter “Baker Farm” illustrates suffering in a life dedicated to the acquisition of extravagance, contradicting traditional American values while offering a bolder American dream.
The passage begins by describing John Field as “poor.” Indeed, the man lives in a shoddy, leaking home, a classic indication of poverty. However, Field’s deprivation stems from his unnecessary desires like milk and beef, the acquisition of which sends him to the bogs all day. As Thoreau explains earlier in the passage, “…he had to work hard to pay for them [milk, beef, etc.], and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system…” This life renders Field literally poor and poor of spirit, like the men who “lead lives of quiet desperation” referenced in “Economy.” They live to work until death, never feeling the passionate vigor Thoreau experiences in the woods.
Of course, the surname, Field, suggests John has a choice in the matter, for a literal field can either reap abundance or lay barren. In “Baker Farm,” Thoreau similarly offers Field two lives– he can abandon luxury and live well or continue on a down-trodden path. However, as Thoreau recounts, “It was sailing by a dead reckoning with them…” The Field family cannot grasp the choice or enact any change, leaving them eternally “poor.” At this juncture, frustration surfaces when Thoreau states that John Field will never read Walden, “…unless he will improve by it.” Indeed, the reader already recognizes the improbability of Field reading anything that contradicts his ingrained beliefs, a common symptom of the willfully ignorant. This stubbornness infuriates Thoreau, making the line reek of sarcastic lamentation. He cannot fathom why a man would choose Field’s life, especially after showing him a more fulfilling alternative.
Here, the reader may recall another famous allegory: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” After all, throughout Walden, Thoreau abandons society’s petty comforts, acquiring a greater understanding of his part in the physical world. By the time he reaches Baker Farm, Thoreau has achieved the rank of Plato’s philosopher. Wanting to share his newfound enlightenment, Thoreau drags Field into the proverbial light by cataloging a litany of improvements for the misbegotten farmer to consider. Thoreau’s extended sentences at this point, joined together by semi-colons and commas, build a poetic flow, creating a battle between logic and ignorance. However, this fight cannot last forever. While Plato’s escapee from the cave grew to perceive the outside world as a greater reality than that of shadows on a wall, Field ultimately refuses to open his eyes.
Instead, he chooses ignorance, as many others of his time chose ignorance, propagating a never-ending system of material acquisition that supported slave labor. This system frustrates Thoreau. He envisions an America devoid of extravagance “…where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.” In this case, Field represents the blind masses who, like the remaining hostages inside Plato’s cave, mock the possibility of anything better than their present state. In Plato’s allegory, ignorance and allegiance to tradition chain people to a wall, much like Field remains chained to tradition and materialistic values.
Likewise, Thoreau concludes, the farmer aims to live by some “derivative old-country mode in this primitive new country.” The terms “derivative” and “old” suggest an antiquated lifestyle that has grown stale. Field willingly lives as “a serf of the soil” at a time when many others remain trapped in slavery. As a free man with the ability to roam the country, tackling whatever enterprise may suit his fancy, John Field chooses a life in the bog for a spot of tea. Such absurdity belongs to a bygone era, for they currently reside on a “primitive,” or wild, “new” land. These terms spark with infinite possibility and hint at rewriting laws and conventions, perhaps even abolishing slave labor. Maintaining the status quo may seem as simple and comfortable as “catching a perch with shiner,” but this method is not the only way. Thoreau writes, “It is good bait sometimes, I allow,” but abruptly ends the sentence, indicating the reader must pause to reconsider. Gratuitous extravagance leads to slavery and war yet living as plainly as Thoreau brings peace. In turn, one starts to reevaluate the definition of the actual pursuit of happiness and how to achieve it.
Nevertheless, despite the possibilities, John Field still finds his happiness at the bottom of a coffee mug. Thoreau predicts Field will forever remain in a perpetual state of stagnation- “poor” for desiring the wrong things in life, pitiful for his lack of ambition, and perpetually impoverished for generations. However, one must note the difference between Thoreau’s America and the America of an Irish immigrant. At the time, hardly anyone would consider an Irish, and likely Catholic, immigrant white enough to enjoy the same opportunities as the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. By describing Field’s destitution as “Irish poverty,” Thoreau betrays the typical bias of the time. Field lives in a dirty home, cannot seem to grasp sound American logic, and even harbors gluttonous desires. This image does not align with the chaste, sophisticated monk Thoreau aspires to in “Higher Laws.” Instead, Field resembles a brute, one who may not even have the social capital to leave it all behind to ramble in the forest.
However, when seen as a symbol for the blind masses, John Field becomes a cautionary tale against yielding to societal conventions. Thoreau denounces Field’s “boggy” ways, harkening an image of a man “stuck in the mud.” Indeed, the marshy wetlands cannot support a person’s weight, and those who trod among them risk sinking. This life does not offer true freedom, something Thoreau advocates throughout the text. In his damning conclusion, he predicts John Field’s children and grandchildren may pass, all bound by ancestral habits. They will live in deliberate servitude on their never-ending quest for material possessions. Thoreau closes with an image of the family continuing until their heels turn into “talaria,” a type of winged sandal associated with Hermes, the messenger God of Greek Mythology. Perhaps at this juncture, when future John Fields have grown weary of work, they will sprout wings upon their feet, fly out of the bog, and be free.
In sum, Thoreau hopes his readers make better choices than their ancestors and explore the infinite possibilities offered them. He cautions against a shallow existence, urging his readers to seek more extraordinary things than wealth to find true happiness. After all, freedom is an evolving door of exploration. As Adam leaves Eden, Thoreau eventually leaves Walden pond to discover the rest of the world in which he lives. He encourages his readers to do the same, eternally seeking a better way of life than the previous generation.