The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee

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Identify and explain the quote from "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail": "A man's conviction is stronger than a flame or a bullet or a rock."

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This quote is found in Act I, in my edition, page 20.  Here, Thoreau is speaking to Bailey, and thoughtfully commenting on Bailey's position that he is an honorable man who acts with conviction.  When Bailey says he would never burn down a barn, for such a thing was against...

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his principles, Thoureau cynically replies that he might as well be guilty of doing something if everyone is convinced beforehand of his guilt.

Henry:  I'll put it in plain Anglo-Saxon, Mr. Bailey.  You're an uncommon man.  You were protesting against the barn-builder who shut you down with clapboard and daily work hours.

Bailey: Don't say that to no judge!  If I burned down a barn, they'd throw me in jail.

Henry (thoughfully):  Good for you.  Fire inside burns hotter than fire outside.  A man's conviction is stronger than a flame or a bullet or a rock." 

Bailey is certainly less educated and thoughtful than Thoreau, and completely misses Henry's analysis: that is, that he is reacting primarily against the strictures of a set location and the hours prescribed for his working life.  However, while the subtleties may go over Bailey's head, Thoreau is convinced that the man's innate integrity will eventually cause him to rise up against this type of oppression, and in the end will be a tougher opponent than bullets or rocks, or barn burnings, ever could hope to be. 

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What does this quote mean from the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail:  "A man’s conviction is stronger than a flame or a bullet or a rock."  How does this relate to current times?

Henry's quote about a person's conviction in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail can relate to modern times.

Thoreau is talking to Bailey, his cellmate, about why it is essential for individuals to act in accordance to their beliefs.  When Thoreau speaks of "fire inside," he is talking about the convictions that people hold. He is trying to convince Bailey that the ideals in which people believe can be extremely powerful.  They can inspire people more than a "flame or bullet or a rock." Thoreau suggests that ideas last longer than these objects.  Fires can be extinguished while bullets die out, and rocks fall back to earth.  Yet, ideas never die.  They represent something "uncommon."  While Bailey does not fully understand what Henry is saying, he knows that Henry is inspired and passionate about his beliefs.

Thoreau's feelings about the power of ideas can relate to current times. Protests are one such example where "the fire inside" is powerfully compelling.  For example, this "fire" can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement.  The insistence on equality in American society represents the power of "the fire inside."  Around the world, when the Arab Spring took place, the power of liberal, democratic change was a "fire" that was not only potent, but contagious when so many people in different nations insisted upon change. When teachers in Detroit, Michigan, refused to go to work in protest of deplorable conditions in schools, it shows the "fire" of beliefs.  These situations help to relate Thoreau's ideas about people's beliefs being "uncommon" and they show "the fire inside" in current times.

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