Thoreau in Prison

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

One favorite technique of satirical writing is for the writer to present familiar aspects of his culture through an unfamiliar lens, often through the eyes of an invented foreign or naive persona who appears to be encountering this culture for the first time and attempting to understand it. Thoreau, in his essay on "Civil Disobedience," discovers such a lens in the bars of his prison window, through which he claims to see his own country clearly for the first time. The figure of the prison stands in for the foreign land in Thoreau's essay; it is a space sufficiently remote from the rest of society to allow Thoreau's narrative persona to take on the role of the foreigner.

It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never had heard the town clock strike before, not the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me. They were the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn--a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.

In this passage, Thoreau not only distances himself spatially from the town, but temporally as well, comparing his contemporary society as he sees it from the jail cell to a Medieval shire town. Why does he make this comparison?

Thoreau romanticizes the prison, presenting it as a place of carefree contemplation that endows him with a superior clarity of vision. Is this representation of jail convincing, especially since Thoreau only spent one night there? Why does he choose to exaggerate the good qualities of what might be regarded as the lowest end of society?

With its very figurative language of clocks that never seemed to strike before and visions of knights and castles, why is this travel narrative of Thoreau's trip to prison inserted into a treatise on government and the rights of man?


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Last modified 8 October 2003