Thoreau's Nonchalance in "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"

Katherine Gorman, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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A satirical writer, Thoreau looks at elements of his culture and society in "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" as if he is has not a part of it and has no prior knowledge of it. In his description of his one-night stay in prison, Thoreau relates to the reader a naïve persona and appears to be experiencing prison in an unaffected way.

The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners in their shirtsleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the doorway, when I entered... My room-mate was introduced to me by the jailer as "a first-rate fellow and clever man." When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there....He naturally wanted to know where I came from, and what brought me there... I saw that if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window. I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that even there there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail.

In this passage, Thoreau never reveals any personal thoughts or feelings about being in prison. He distances himself from the experience almost as if he were an anthropologist attempting to understand a foreign culture of which he is in no way a part. This tone of sage-like superiority continues when he describes leaving the prison

When I came out of prison...I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man. . . I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to get a shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party.

Thoreau's humorous anecdote about his visit to the cobbler adds to the sense that prison has no effect upon him whatsoever.


Thoreau presents prison in a relatively positive light. Is this representation convincing? Why might he have chosen to emphasize the good qualities of prison?

Why might Thoreau have wanted to take on this unaffected and naïve persona that comes though in his writing? What does it do for his overall argument in the essay?

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Last modified 22 March 2005