Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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Please analyze the section in Thoreau's Civil Disobedience where he describes his experience in prison and particularly focus on his statement when he gets out that everything has changed.

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau discusses the night that he spent in jail as “novel and interesting enough.” He could have paid the poll tax at any time and voided the sentence but instead took a moral stand. When he leaves prison, he comes to view his neighbors as too afraid to take an active stand against government through civil disobedience as he did and as he advocates they do.

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In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau discusses the night that he spent in prison. He describes his experience as “novel and interesting enough.” Thoreau has the luxury of thinking of this as a "novel and interesting" experience because it lasted for only one night, as he admits in the essay. Moreover, he knew that at any time, he could pay the poll tax and avert the sentence.

He refers to the experience as both traveling to a foreign country and traveling back in time—it was so alien to him. Specifically, he likens it to

traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold

It is easy enough to see how he might have felt that way. This was good subject matter for his writing and philosophizing. He could afford to take a philosophical view of the experience because being there or leaving is entirely in his control. He could always pay the tax but he is taking a moral stand.

He goes on to say that it seemed as if he had never heard the town clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village. In part, this is probably because of the location of the jail in the center of town. However, he is also also referring to the appeal of the outside and freedom with which a prisoner perceives the world that a free person takes for granted. He also likens the experience to going back to the Middle Ages, with visions of knights and castles. Perhaps he means to imply that locking people up is medieval.

When he leaves prison, he does not perceive great changes because he was only in jail for one night. He notes this, saying that it was not as if he "went in a youth and emerged a tottering and gray-headed man." Even so,

a change had to my eyes come over the scene, the town, and State, and country, greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived.

He now views his neighbors as fair-weathered friends who

did not greatly propose to do right ... in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property.

In this essay, Thoreau advocates for people to express their opposition to government rules that are wrong by exercising their right to commit civil disobedience. His decision to not pay the poll tax was just such an act. He comes out of jail and sees most people as too afraid to take an active stand against government through civil disobedience and he disapproves of their inaction.

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