The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

History and the Importance of Learning from the Past 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.
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail draws a parallel between the U.S. war against Mexico in the 1840s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s, which was being waged at the time when the play was written and first performed. One of the most prominent overarching suggestions made by the play is that violence, war, evil, and corruption will repeat themselves over and over if we do not take it upon ourselves to examine our history and learn from the past. Early in the play, for example, Emerson has trouble remembering Henry David Thoreau’s name. This opening gesture suggests that it is all too easy to forget Thoreau and the historical moment that produced him.

In Henry’s closing speech, he notes that he has “several more lives to live”—and cannot afford to spend too much more time at Walden Pond, where he has been living in relative isolation and writing his book Walden. The suggestion is that Thoreau, or a version of him, is also needed in the present moment. The Vietnam War (like the Mexican War) needs vocal, active people to resist it.

There is another parallel drawn between these wars and the treatment of African-Americans. Henry, when talking about escaped slave Henry Williams’s flight to Canada, pronounces the word “Cañada” with a Spanish tilde. This gesture links the enslavement and persecution of Black Americans with the violence and barbarity of the unjust Mexican War. Vietnam, the contemporary war of this play, is then implicitly added to this lineage. The suggestion is that Vietnam—a mid-20th century foreign war—is a product of America’s failure to learn from its worst mistakes of the past. Each new historical atrocity is a version of an old one.

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History and the Importance of Learning from the Past ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History and the Importance of Learning from the Past 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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History and the Importance of Learning from the Past 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 History and the Importance of Learning from the Past.
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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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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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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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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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