The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Henry David Thoreau Character Analysis

Henry is the defiant, young, Harvard-educated protagonist and the play’s imaginative interpretation of the historical Henry David Thoreau, who was a leading thinker in the Transcendentalist tradition and wrote the book Walden. Henry is deeply passionate about resisting both the United States government’s war in Mexico and its segregationist policies in the North. He is imprisoned for refusing to pay his taxes because he does not want to contribute funds that will end up furthering what he sees as the slaughter in Mexico. The play dramatizes his thoughts and conversations regarding his ideas during the night he spends in jail.

Henry David Thoreau Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail quotes below are all either spoken by Henry David Thoreau or refer to Henry David Thoreau. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Hill and Wang edition of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail published in 2001.
Act 1 Quotes

“I’ve forgotten the name of my best friend!”

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

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

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

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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:

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I refuse to commit murder. That’s why I’m here.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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Act 2 Quotes

You might try getting yourself born in a more just and generous age.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

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I gotta git to Cañada!

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

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

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

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

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
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Henry David Thoreau Character Timeline in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

The timeline below shows where the character Henry David Thoreau appears in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
...center stage, with imaginary walls and windows. “Time and space are awash here.” A man (Henry) sleeps on a cot, and another man, in shadow, sleeps on a cot next to... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...has forgotten the name of his best friend. Lydian wonders if he is thinking of “Henry” and Waldo says he keeps wanting to say “David.” (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Henry’s mother appears on another part of the stage, asking her son, whom she calls “David... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
...appears younger. He takes his place at a podium. Upon seeing him at the podium, Henry sinks cross-legged to the floor to listen. Waldo orates: “Cast conformity behind you.” Henry repeats... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Henry stands and sees John, as if breaking out of a trance, and embraces him. John... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
In the jail cell area, snoring begins. It crescendos, and Henry gently wakes up his groggy cellmate. The man, whose name is Bailey, stops snoring but... (full context)
War Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Bailey asks how a man as educated and well-spoken as Henry ended up in jail. Henry says he has refused to commit murder. Bailey asks who... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Henry listens at the imaginary window and hears footsteps through the square. Henry asks Bailey where... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Bailey once again marvels at Henry’s intelligence. He remarks that he’d love to learn to write his own name. Henry teaches... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
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Bailey sinks back into the shadows, and the light comes up on Henry, who is teaching a classroom full of students (who are not actually present as actors,... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Henry goes on to explain that he was in the middle of answering a question of... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
...Waldo takes his pulpit and begins to speak about “the wonder of the Universal Mind.” Henry speaks quietly to Potter, asking him if he understands. Ball says he does not understand.... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
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Henry apologizes, but Ball is not satisfied. He orders Henry to flog his students. Henry obliges,... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
...the stage. John says a school doesn’t need books or a classroom—only minds. He approaches Henry and the two plan to open a new kind of school, one where class takes... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
A strikingly beautiful young woman appears on the side of the stage, listening to Henry. Henry tells her that she seems too old to take this class. The woman, Ellen... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
The lights fade on the “meadow” and Henry is back in the cell with Bailey, who is delighted that he has learned to... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
John enters and helps Henry pull an imaginary boat from an imaginary pond (they are back in the meadow). Henry... (full context)
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Henry, since he has no class to teach, asks Ellen if she would like to go... (full context)
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Henry starts getting intense, and demands that Ellen stand up to her father and be more... (full context)
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The lights come up on the cell again. Henry asks a sleeping Bailey what he thinks of marriage, and Bailey only snores in response.... (full context)
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Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The lights come up on Henry’s family in church. Ellen sits beside John. Suddenly, Henry’s mother sees with horror that Henry... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Waldo steps in with some good-natured jokes, and explains that for Henry, the American Declaration of Independence is not enough—he must declare his independence every day. The... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Lights fade and rise on Henry and John, laughing in the meadow. Henry assumes John’s laughter means that Ellen said yes... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
...there is the sound of church bells. A ministerial voice announces the death of John Thoreau. The lights come up on Mrs. Thoreau and Henry. Henry refuses to pray—he believes his... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Ellen hurries onstage and asks Henry what happened. Henry, with bitter wit, that his brother died a heroic, glamorous death. He... (full context)
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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
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The lights fade and then come back up on Henry and Waldo talking. They are making arrangements for Henry to work for Waldo—he wants to... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
The lights fade and come back up on Henry and Bailey back in their cell. Henry is telling Bailey about Walden, and Baily is... (full context)
War Theme Icon
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Lights fade and come back up on Henry walking down an imaginary street. Sam, the constable, approaches Henry deferentially and nervously about Henry... (full context)
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War Theme Icon
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Sam begrudgingly takes Henry into jail, where he collects his information. Henry makes a joke out of the simple... (full context)
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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
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Waldo says he must go help Henry, and rushes out. Meanwhile, Henry is telling Sam that to ask him to pay for... (full context)
Act 2
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Lights rise on Henry in the jail cell. Bailey is asleep. Henry is pacing and thinking aloud. He laughs... (full context)
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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Lydian enters, and tells Henry he should “go along.” Henry erupts angrily, shouting “GO ALONG” at her. Then Lydian asks... (full context)
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Edward is comforted, and tells Henry he wishes he were his father. The light fades on them and rises on Lydian,... (full context)
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
Things become awkward between Lydian and Henry. She says perhaps he should not work around the house while Waldo is away. Henry... (full context)
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
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...this can’t be possible, but upon inspection realizes the chicken is in fact wearing gloves. Henry explains that he’d heard her complaining about the chickens scratching at her rose plants, and... (full context)
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Lydian, pleading now, tells Henry to get married—to find someone to love. She doesn’t want him to be lonely. Henry... (full context)
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Lights fade and come back up on the cell, where Henry and Bailey once again sit. Bailey asks Henry to be his lawyer, but Henry says... (full context)
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War Theme Icon
As Bailey sinks back onto his cot, the lights come up on Henry and he moves out of the cell into the sunny meadow once again. A man,... (full context)
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Henry tells Williams that he is glad he has escaped. Williams asks Henry why he lives... (full context)
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Williams says he wants to stay here with Henry, where he feels free. But Henry says that in Massachusetts, his blackness is a red... (full context)
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The lights come up on Henry and Waldo in the midst of an argument. Waldo is insisting that he’s “cast his... (full context)
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Henry pleads with Waldo—he is an Emerson, and he can make a difference if he would... (full context)
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Lights come up in the center of the stage, where Henry is rallying a crowd of people, telling them that Waldo will be making an important... (full context)
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Henry shouts to the citizens of Concord, trying to get their attention, but there is no... (full context)
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The sergeant forces a musket into Henry’s hands. Henry resists, but his mother appears and tells him to “always do the right... (full context)
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Henry notices his brother John in the ranks, but just as he does, a volley of... (full context)
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Sam is waking Henry up from a bad dream. He tells Henry his taxes have been paid by his... (full context)