In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, what does the huckleberry hunting mean symbolically?

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The play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a fictionalized account of an actual day in July 1846, when Henry David Thoreau was kept in jail overnight for nonpayment of the annual poll tax. In addition to the text of this play, you can learn more about the experience...

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The play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a fictionalized account of an actual day in July 1846, when Henry David Thoreau was kept in jail overnight for nonpayment of the annual poll tax. In addition to the text of this play, you can learn more about the experience from Thoreau himself in his essay "Civil Disobedience" and also in "The Village" chapter of Walden. In the latter, he writes: "I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill." To us readers, it seems as though his brief imprisonment made no impact on him at all.

Playwrights Lawrence and Lee adopt this act of picking huckleberries as a way of showing Thoreau's hands-on approach to education. But it can also be seen as a representative symbol for nature in general.

When Thoreau retreats to the natural world, he can conduct his own business and behavior in comfort, away from the rules and laws of government and mankind. Nature may be the opposite of society and it ever persists, sometimes in spite of the regulations mankind imposes upon it. We need both society and nature, both guidelines and huckleberries, and the understanding of how to balance our attention to both in our lives.

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The huckleberry hunting enters this play at the beginning of Act II and is a powerful symbol that is used throughout the text to indicate Henry's approach to learning and education. Lydian sents Edward and Henry to go hucklberry hunting, and Henry uses this as an opportunity to teach the younger Edward about education and how it should be conducted.

The act of hunting for huckleberries acts as a perfect metaphor. For Henry, education is not something that should be delivered to us and pumped into us like a car is filled with gas. Instead, education is a process that we should become active participants of ourselves. Just as they are seeking out huckleberries, so we should seek out truth and find it ourselves, not leaving others to deliver it to us. Henry criticises the traditional system of education that seems to divorce students and learners from the process of seeking out the truth and finding it ourselves. Huckleberry hunting therefore becomes the perfect metaphor to explain and describe Henry's approach to education and his beliefs about it.

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