Discuss the symbolism of freedom in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Freedom occupies a central concern in the drama.  On the most literal of levels, Thoreau is in jail.  The implication is that his freedom is taken from him with being imprisoned.  Yet, Thoreau, through his musings, discussions, and dreams, demonstrates that freedom is in one's mind.  Thoreau in jail might be more free than those who are outside of jail.  He is certainly shown to be more free than someone like Emerson, who might have physical freedom but is imprisoned by how others see him and think of him.  In this, freedom is more of a state of mind, an internal and subjective condition that almost transcends physical considerations.  While Thoreau in in jail, he still possesses freedom.  Yet, freedom is also shown to be something that individuals must fight for and cannot remain content with when situations threaten it.  When Thoreau is free at the end of the drama, he comes to understand that his activism is rooted in the idea that all individuals should be able to experience freedom.  Thoreau has come to associate the war with a denial of this freedom.  Therefore, it stands to reason that Thoreau comes to understand that his freedom is no good if he does not defend it against external threats and if he does not do what he can do to help others experience it in the same manner or in a similar manner than what he does.  It is for this reason that he ends up leaving Walden.  His desire to enjoy his own freedom is what motivates him to leave its comfort and embark on a more active quest to make sure others experience freedom, as well.  In this, freedom is shown to be something that must be enjoyed, but also risked when it is threatened.  Accordingly, freedom is not seen as an individualistic quest as much as it is a communal entity whereby individuals cannot fully appreciate their own sense of freedom when it is threatened for others.


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