Rhetorical Analysis of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”
Directions: Read “Civil Disobedience.” As you read, underline examples of Thoreau using rhetorical devices and identify and explain the devices via annotation. Answer questions 1-4 to prepare for further work with a small group. The group will work together on questions 5 through 8. Be ready to explain your answers to the whole class. Even when you’re working as a group you should be writing the answers.
1. Based on your reading of “Civil Disobedience,” what kind of person does Henry David Thoreau seem to be? How would you characterize his state of mind and emotion as he composed this essay? Cite specific examples from the text to support your claims about Thoreau’s voice and persona.
Voice = textual features such as diction and syntax, that contribute to a writer’s persona Syntax and tone are formal, academic, eloquent. Sentences tend to be longer, complex sentences punctuated with frequent commas and semicolons (to indicate pauses) which lends the pacing of a speech, almost as if even though we’re reading a written word, it’s Thoreau himself speaking to us, lecturing even. Also, parallelism (more precisely in the following example, anaphora): Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished. (paragraph 2) (The last “It does not…” with the “The…American people has done” is antithesis) Diction is academic and intelligent, supporting the same tone mentioned above (“alacrity” is a lesser-known word for “speed”). Repeated use of the “machine” metaphor when referring to the government and politicians/lawyers who work for it. Sets up an “Us” (free-minded, free-thinking citizens who rebel against slavery) versus “Them” (the government machine and those who would support it, as well as those who talk but don’t act against it). He uses “We” a lot, further emphasizing this division against government, but also the unity of people who agree with his points, a “we’re in this together” kind of thing. Repeated use of words associated with honorable, positive human qualities as well as those associated with evil and guilt: “tradition…integrity...vitality…force” versus “complicated machinery” (paragraph 2); “a corporation has no conscience…agents of injustice…damnable business…at the service of some unscrupulous man in power” (paragraph 4) Persona – the character that a writer/speaker conveys to the audience Anti-authority (at least rebellious against corrupted power). Anti-government. In favor of the rights of all free-thinking people. A bit of a “maverick”. Angry and in some cases, bitter at the government for injustice. Critical and mocking of people who claim they disagree with slavery but do nothing about it.
2. What does Thoreau do in “Civil Disobedience” to urge his readers to believe in him as a trustworthy, credible person? Point out specific passages where you felt Thoreau was (or was not) particularly believable (this gets at the ethos of the piece). Other examples of logos or pathos?
A writer builds ethos (an appeal to the author’s credibility) by establishing himself as credible, believable, and trustworthy.
3. One device a writer can use to get a point across is metaphor. Thoreau uses metaphor extensively in “Civil Disobedience.” Notice, for example, what he compares machinery to or how he uses gaming metaphorically. Select two metaphors and explain, citing specific examples from the text, how they help Thoreau’s central idea become more vivid for his readers.
The “machinery” metaphor is extended—used throughout the work:
The “gaming” metaphor: (paragraph 12) “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong,...
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