The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon

The play repeatedly wonders about civil disobedience, political action (and inaction), and protest. It asks: which forms of resistance are effective? What is the best way for a citizen to stand up against corruption? Must we work within the existing system to effect change or separate ourselves from the system and work outside of it? Early in the play, we see Henry struggle with how best to effect meaningful action. He is a teacher, and must temper his defiance against the school board in order to ensure he will retain his job and still be available to his students. But he is ordered to flog the students, and this violence disgusts him so much that he quits.

This question about working within a system or apart from it is one that endures throughout the play. Waldo (Ralph Waldo Emerson) wields an immense amount of influence, in part because he is careful about obeying rules and avoids being excluded by the community. Henry is the opposite—he is defiant, angry, and his retreat to Walden to live in and contemplate nature in isolation is criticized by Waldo as ineffectual and useless. How can he help people escape injustice if he is away in the woods? But Henry’s criticism of Waldo also has merit. Waldo is limited by his abstract thinking and desire for belonging and respect—all of which stops him from speaking out against the Mexican War.

Another issue raised by the play is the problem of community—is it best to work alone as Henry and James (self-proclaimed “celibates”) do? Or with others, as Waldo, the (admittedly inadequate) family man does? This discussion is yet again deeply relevant to Vietnam. Activists, artists and politicians were often at odds in their ideas of how best to effect change. A new culture of protest was forming, especially among young Americans and students who wanted to resist a war in which participation for many was, because of the military draft, literally compulsory? The play ultimately portrays resistance as not just lonely defiance (as it is for Henry) nor as merely removed and abstract (as it is for Waldo)—instead it is a complex combination of the two.

Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action appears in each act of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail related to the theme of Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action.
Act 1 Quotes

“Cast conformity behind you!”
“Cast…Conformity…Behind You…!”

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, we see Henry learning from his great teacher, Waldo, during his time as a student at Harvard. Waldo is an important role model for Henry because Waldo celebrates the value of free-thinking and counterculture. And yet even in this early scene, the limits of Henry's collaboration with Waldo are clear. Waldo tells Henry to ignore conformity and all its forms--but, paradoxically, Henry is literally conforming in the act of learning from Waldo and repeating his words exactly.

The passage highlights the paradoxes of education itself: is it ever possible, the playwrights seem to ask, to learn how to rebel from another person? Henry thinks that Waldo can teach him how to be free, but by the end of the play, the limits of such a model of education are clear. Only Henry can teach himself how to fight conformity.


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I want to be as much as possible like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry is still a young, idealistic man--flirting with the doctrine of transcendentalism as pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. And yet it's also clear that Henry doesn't really understand such a doctrine fully. Although transcendentalism and free thinking are all about individuality, Henry chooses to mimic a transcendentalist perfectly--he aims to be exactly like his teacher.

Henry, at this early point in the story, is something of an armchair adventurer. He likes Waldo's ideas about liberty and freedom, but only because he hasn't really thought them through--he's more interested in having a role model (Waldo) than he is in truly embodying the ideas that Waldo stood for. By the end of the play, however, their roles will seem to have reversed--Henry will have learned how to stand for his own beliefs, eschewing the empty comforts of role models, heroes, and self-described sages.

For you and me, deacon, the declaration of Independence has already been written. Young Thoreau has to declare it every day.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), Henry David Thoreau, Deacon Ball
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this revealing passage, Waldo, Henry's former teacher, arrives at the school where Henry teaches and makes some polite jokes with Deacon Ball, the head of the school. Waldo believes in freedom and independence, but he's more likely to accept the established social order. Henry, by contrast, needs to assert his freedom and independence every day, and isn't afraid to speak out against conformity even when it gets him into trouble.

The passage is important because it suggests the strengths and weaknesses of radicalism in America. America was built by radicals, who asserted their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet the very existence of a country founded on the principles of freedom has been enough to convince many people--including, it would seem, Emerson--that more rebellion and radicalism is pointless. 

Act 2 Quotes

I gotta git to Cañada!

Related Characters: Henry Williams (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flashback" passage, Thoreau gives aid and comfort to a runaway slave who's trying to get far away from his slave masters and move to Canada. Thoreau, a proponent of civil disobedience, believed that "an unjust law is not a law at all." Thus, Thoreau had no problem breaking the law to help runaway slaves--slaves who were, on paper, violating law and order. Thoreau exercised his own moral code, respecting the slaves' right to freedom and happiness. By 19th century standards, he was a criminal--by 21st century standards, he did the right thing.

The passage subtly underscores the similarities between the injustices of slavery and the injustices in Mexico that Thoreau is protesting in the play's present. With the Spanish tilde over the "n" in the word "Canada," the playwrights suggest that the American government's oppression of blacks is intimately tied to it's other bloody activities in South and Central America.

Always do the right thing, even if it’s wrong.

Related Characters: Mrs. Thoreau (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

In this nightmare sequence, Thoreau is forced to take up arms as a soldier in the Mexican-American War; the very war he's in jail for refusing to support in any form. As Thoreau is handed a gun, he sees his own mother, urging him to conform with the rest of society. Thoreau's mother sums up her take on right and wrong by telling her son to "do the right thing, even if it's wrong."

Thoreau's mother (in her hallucinatory form here, at least) makes an interesting distinction between socially-determined morality--the morality of obedience, respect, and conformity--and individually-determined morality--the morality of individual responsibility, free will, and choice. She seems to be saying that Thoreau--and all people--should obey their laws and orders, even if they personally believe such laws to be immoral. In short, Thoreau's mother symbolizes the exact opposite of what Thoreau himself stood for all his life.

Seems to me I’ve got several more lives to live.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
The play ends with a bold call to the audience: translate Thoreau's political aims into the present day. Thoreau tells us that he believes he'll live several more lives--and the quote is interesting for a couple reasons. It seems to make Thoreau into something of a Christ figure, a martyr who's continually celebrated ("resurrected?") by later generations for living a "just life." By the same token, the passage hints at the influence Thoreau has had on modern political methods--the civil disobedience of luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, and Malcolm X might be said to continue Thoreau's legacy. In all, the playwrights urge us to follow Thoreau's example and stand up for what we know to be right, even if that means going against all of society.