His experience in prison opened new doors to his perception. Discuss.
Why was the author imprisoned? How did he feel about his imprisonment?
Instead of making him loyal to the State, the author’s imprisonment increased his disloyalty. Discuss.
Answer: The writer, H. David Thoreau, was imprisoned for not paying poll-tax to the government. He spent one night in prison which was interesting, and opened new avenues in the world of his experience. When he entered the prison he saw the prisoners in their shirtsleeves enjoying a chat and the evening air in the doorway. The jailer told them to go to their respective cells since it was time to lock up. He has introduced his roommate as “a first-rate fellow and a clever man”. The door was locked and the writer’s roommate showed him where to hang his hat, and he managed matters there. The roommate wanted to know where he came from and what brought him there. The writer, in his turn, asked him the same questions. His roommate replied that he was accused of burning a barn which he never did. He was a clever man waiting there for three months for his trial to come on; probably he would have to wait much longer. But he seemed to have been domesticated and well-contented as he thought he was well treated.
The writer occupied one window, and read the tracts that were left there. He learnt all about the previous prisoners. He realized that even there was a gossip and a history which never circulated beyond the walls. Some young prisoners composed some verses though they were never published outside.
The night he spent there seemed to be a long journey to a distant country. He heard the town clock, and the evening sounds of the village. He had a very close view of the native town even from the prison cell—
“It was like travelling into a far country; such as I had never expected to behold; to lie there for one night… It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream and vision of knights and castles passed before me… I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn—a wholly and rare experience to me”.
In the morning his breakfast was put through the hole in the door. The bread that was left was kept for lunch, according to his roommate’s suggestion.
When the author got out of prison, he felt some change had come over the scene—change in the town, the State, and the country. “.. And yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene, — the town, and State, and country, — greater than any that mere time could effect.” He saw yet more distinctly the state in which he lived. He saw to what extent the people among whom he lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not propose to do right, that they were a distinct race from him by their prejudices and superstitions; This might have been a rather harsh judgment for his neighbors, but he believed that many of them were not aware that they had such an institution as the jail in their village. They saluted him in a strange way; as if they were saluting a man who had returned from a long journey.
Thoreau has expressed his attitude to imprisonment of a man by state in this section. He thinks that the state was foolish in imprisoning him, because the state seemed to have thought that he was mere flesh and blood, without any spirit. He did not feel confined for a moment. But paradoxically enough he felt much freer, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. Actually, the government could not reach his spirit, so they decided to punish his body. He wondered that the state should have concluded at last that this was the best use it could put him to, and had never thought to avail itself of his services in some way. The state is to the author’s mind, merely armed with superior physical strength, not with superior wit or honesty. It confronts only a man’s body, and never intentionally confronts a man’s sense. Though the author was imprisoned, he was free for he never was born to be forced. He thinks that a man is a free being and putting him into prison does not curtail his freedom; rather it increases his freedom. So the purpose of the state in curbing a man’s freedom by imprisoning him will be foiled; it will be absolutely foolish on the part of the state to imprison a man. Imprisonment aims at correcting the spirit by curbing his body, but this is an absurd idea; the spirit of a man cannot be corrected by punishing the body, by confining it within the walls of the prison. Thoreau thinks that imprisonment is meaningless because it only curbs a man’s bodily movement, but his mind becomes freer than before. He indulges in more thinking and philosophizing being within the prison.
So, the writer’s short experience in the prison was one of profound experience. It opened a new vista for his world. He found a transformed world before him when he got out of jail. He realized the place where the state and his friends stood. He formed a revolutionary idea about imprisonment and, like his other ideas; this idea goes counter to the conventional ideas about the matter. His imprisonment did not enhance his allegiance to the state, nor did it do anything towards creating a motivation in him towards paying taxes. He recalled with more acute consciousness his action and attitude towards it. He reckoned that it was for no particular item in the tax-bill that he refused to pay it. But he simply wished to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. He did not care to trace the course of his dollar, for dollar is innocent, but he was conserved to trace the effects of his allegiance. In fact, he quietly declared war on the state, after his own fashion, though he would still make what use and get what advantage of her he could.