Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience Summary and Analysis of Section III

Section III: A Night in Prison


After refusing to pay the poll tax for six years, Thoreau is thrown into jail for one night. His contemplation of the prison walls leads him to reflect on the split between mind and body. Whereas the State considers physical confinement a form of punishment and assumes that the chief desire of the inmate is to "stand on the other side of that stone wall," Thoreau realizes that the punishment is woefully inadequate and useless in his case, since his thoughts are more threatening to the State than any possible action he could undertake outside of prison. The only advantage of the State is "superior physical strength." Otherwise, it is completely devoid of moral or intellectual authority, and even with its brute force, cannot compel him to think a certain way. Thoreau compares the individual conscience and the State to an acorn and a chestnut that "obey their own laws," and must "live according to its nature" or perish. He proceeds to insert a detailed account of his incarceration:

Thoreau is fascinated with his prison roommate, a man claiming to be wrongly accused of arson. He reads the various tracts and verses left by previous occupants of the cell. That night, looking out from his cell window, Thoreau feels that as though he has traveled to "a far country." Confinement gives Thoreau a strangely novel and intimate view of his hometown and its institutions. He overhears fragments of conversation in the neighboring tavern and listens to the ringing of town-clock bells, which evoke in him the image of a medieval town. But Thoreau also feels a sense of alienation upon his release from prison. The townspeople, once familiar, now seem foreign to him; neighbors seem to greet him with bewilderment.

Thoreau reiterates the logic behind his refusal to pay the poll tax: while willing to support other activities of government, such as the building of roads and schools, he is unwilling to "abet the injustice to a greater extent than the State requires." Thoreau realistically recognizes that it is impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State.


Used throughout the essay, the first-person narration lends an especially striking note of authenticity and personal conviction to Thoreau's account of prison. Presumably written earlier as a diary entry, this passage seems to document Thoreau's observations in the moment, and to capture the spontaneity of his imagination and feelings in contrast to the more logical, philosophical mode of writing practiced elsewhere in Civil Disobedience. Instead of presenting another carefully reasoned moral argument that the reader is free to accept or dismiss, Thoreau has chosen here to describe his own experience, whose validity cannot be called into question. As a rhetorical gesture, this passage serves to inoculate Thoreau against the accusation of self-righteousness or moral grandstanding, which he refutes in subsequent paragraphs. It attests to the fact that he has already put his words into action.

In general, first-person narration allows Thoreau to frame a complex and abstract political issue in a voice that personally bears witness to the human effects and consequences of government oppression. It also exposes the reader to Thoreau's own ambivalence and to the ongoing process of self-examination that he encourages his fellow men to undertake in their own conscience. While confident in his conviction that slavery is morally wrong, Thoreau generally avoids dogmatic, authoritative statements in favor of a more tentative, moderate first-person voice. He prefers cautious formulations such as "This, then, is my position at present" over more militant, definitive ones that might alienate or put his reader on the defensive.

In contrast to his repeated comparison of the State to a machine, Thoreau personifies the State "as a lone woman with her silver spoons." He casts government not as a mechanical agent of injustice but as a feminized object of pity. Thoreau's confrontation with the State proves to him that physical violence is less powerful than individual conscience. Bodies can be contained behind walls, but ideas cannot. During his stay in prison, Thoreau comes to the realization that, far from being a formidable brute force, government is in fact weak and morally pathetic. That he should choose the figure of a woman to make this point reveals an interestingly gendered conception of civil disobedience, given the constant emphasis on the virtues of men in relation to the State, here personified as a woman.