Describe the main characters and primary events in Henry’s nightmare.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry's dream serves as a catalyst for his new philosophy about change.  Prior to the dream, Henry believes that he can impact social change by remaining apart from society in his refuge at Walden.  However, the dream demonstrates that in order for Henry's hope of social change to be realized, he has to go out into society and fight for such change.   It is here in which his dream becomes significant.  Different characters from the drama occupy similar roles in his dream, helping to confirm to Henry that all he does or does not do have larger implications. 

Henry's dream focuses on the Spanish- American War, against which Henry has taken a defiant stance in not paying taxes.  This is what has landed him in jail.  In the dream, there are individuals in the position of power making decisions that cause others to follow, eventually to their death or detriment.  For example, Headmaster Ball is an army general in the dream, reflecting of how Henry sees him as a tool of conformist society.  Bailey is a soldier, a reflection of his lack of power.  As a soldier, Bailey is going to die, something that Thoreau realizes becomes the sum total of the war.  Henry realizes that if he wishes this to change, he has to actively involve himself in society and not retreat from it.  John, Thoreau's brother who shares his love and passions, but is a bit more conformist than Henry is, appears in a soldier's uniform and is killed.  Emerson's son is a drummer boy, supporting a war in a silent manner, reflective of his own position of silent conformity.  He ends up being wounded in conflict.  Emerson is the President of the nation to whom Henry appeals to stop the war.  Yet, Emerson is silent.  Despite his son's injury and the fact that Thoreau is pleading to him that he can stop the war if he wants, Emerson wishes to write an essay about the situation.  In Thoreau's dream, it becomes clear that the consequences of withdrawal from society is an absence to be a transformative force. This becomes the reason why Thoreau understands that true social reform is where individuals immerse themselves in society, seeking to make what can be from what is.

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The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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