In the play titled The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, why does Henry not return to Walden?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Near the end of the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Henry David Thoreau and a fellow prisoner named Bailey discuss Thoreau’s future. Bailey hopes to be able to visit Thoreau someday at Walden, which he calls Thoreau’s “pond place.” But Thoreau says that he may not return to Walden. When Bailey asks why, Thoreau suggests that he doesn’t want to make the mistake of failing to explore as much of the world as he can during his lifetime:

When you buy a cabin ticket for an ocean passage, they give you the liberty of the whole ship. It’s a privilege that should be used. Man shouldn’t stay the whole voyage just in one place, below decks, no matter how dry and cozy it is. And warm.

Thoreau suggests, in other words, that one of the great opportunities of human life is the opportunity to explore as much of the world as possible and to live in as many different places as possible. Life is a gift, and gifts should be appreciated and used to the fullest. Like a true Romantic, Thoreau has a restless, enquiring mind. He is not satisfied with the familiar; he is an explorer, both literally and figuratively. He hopes to wander around in the physical universe just as he hopes to search out new frontiers of thought, feeling, and imagination. His decision not to return to Walden is a bit surprising, since we associate Thoreau with that place especially. His decision suggests, however, that it is precisely the places, thoughts, and feelings with which we are most comfortable that we must be prepared to leave behind if we truly hope to be discoverers in life. As Thoreau later puts it,

I think I’ll have to roam the whole ship. Go before the mast! Stand out there on the foredeck.

Thoreau obviously believes that in order to know life most fully, we must be willing to face discomforts and challenges. We must be willing to be buffeted by the winds of experience, and we should seek not simply to rest or to follow but to be active and to lead. Only thus do we show proper thankfulness for the splendid gift of life.




Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Henry ends up leaving Walden at the end of the drama because he realizes what it is that he must do.  Throughout the entire drama, Henry struggles between what he believes and its disconnect that exists in the world.  He experiences this on a social level with how others view his thinking, on a personal level with the reaction from his family, and on an intellectual level with his divergence from Waldo.  The ending of the drama is one in which Thoreau recognizes the need to fundamentally leave his own world of Walden and even his own intellectual approach, further distancing himself from Waldo, and go out in the world and actively campaign against what he sees as wrong.  Thoreau realizes that the war is a moral and political evil.  To not take an active and deliberate stand in the strongest terms against it is to be like Emerson and not represent what one believes.  Henry has developed his own thought to not want to be anything like Thoreau.  This means that his position on the war has to be deliberate and passionate.  In this light, Walden has served its purpose for Thoreau.  Like the huckleberries that fall to the ground and serve as fertilizer for future growth, Walden has come to operate as fertilizing Thoreau's own mind for future growth in the form of civic activism towards his own beliefs.  If he stays at Walden, Thoreau cannot embrace the change he wishes to see in the world.  It is for this reason why leaving Walden becomes imperative for him at the end of the drama.

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The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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