Rip Van Winkle



Escapism in "Metamorphosis", "Rip Van Winkle", and "Brazil"





Get Me Out of Here: Escapism in Metamorphosis, “Rip Van Winkle”, and Brazil

By Catherine Lacharité Mueller

Most human beings seek refuge or relief from the tortures of their daily lives in activities such as warm baths, vacations, movie theaters, new curtains, or inebriation.When life becomes utterly impossible to bear and physical, palpable means of escaping are obsolete, the human mind and its indefatigable imagination can sometimes push itself to the limits, thus leading to cases of selective amnesia, split personalities, and other mental digressions. According to Yi-Fu Tuan, escapism can be described as the inaptitude of an individual to face reality and to adapt to it, no matter how distressing or uninviting it may seem. Humans usually escape their unsatisfactory lives by either migrating, or changing their surroundings (Tuan 8). In literature, we frequently encounter forms of escapism. They often go beyond clinical, definable forms and are removed from reality, authors delving into the fantastic or the surreal. Not only do their characters escape a harsh reality, but they migrate to a whole other world that either exists alongside their own, or only in the confines of their subconscious.

In Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka made the protagonist escape from his modernist, dark world devoid of personal meaning, by surrealistically transforming him into a giant insect.Seventy years later, Terry Gilliam had the main character of his dystopian and strangely modernist film, Brazil,escape torture by fleeing into his own daydreams and nightmares.In “Rip Van Winkle”, Washington Irving helped Rip escape his wife through fairy tale ghosts and enchanted alcohol.

In the surrealist setting of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a man whose life is defined by work, awakens to a new, harsher reality than the one he went to sleep in the night before. Kafka’s imagined world is a nightmare where anything can happen, and Gregor has mysteriously been transformed into a giant insect greatly resembling a cockroach. Even so, Gregor’s first thoughts are of his being late for work, the train schedules, and how if he had a choice, he would tell his boss just what he thinks of him and quit his job. In short, Gregor hates his employment. Nevertheless, he continues, in bad faith, for the sake of providing a comfortable lifestyle for his family. As readers, we can suppose that these feelings are not new and that he has wanted to escape this meaningless lifestyle for some time.So far, Gregor’s only libation was doing fretwork, but that was not going to liberate him from his job or give his life any sense of direction. But becoming an enormous cockroach was probably not what Gregor had in mind when he thought of escaping. Though not consciously planned, his transformation implies that he never has to go to work again. His family must begin providing for themselves and making their own money. The burdened has become the burden.
Strangely similar to a Kafkaesque nightmare, Brazil is set in a modernist, existentialist, and confusing world where an administrative monster aggressively rules over everything. A dead cockroach falls into a typewriter and causes a spelling error, which in turn, causes the death of an innocent man and the protagonist’s love interest to be wrongfully accused of terrorism. Sam Lowry, who conveniently works for the Ministry of Information, attempts to prove Jill’s innocence, but only gets caught up in the works himself. He eventually gets arrested, Jill dies, and his best friend is about to torture him. Sam escapes torture by dreaming of a dissonant world parallel to his own. For viewers, the beginning of his fantasy is realistic and comprehensible, but it slowly makes less and less sense and turns into a confusing nightmare. Nevertheless, the Ministry will never get any information out of Sam: “‘He’s got away from us Jack’. ‘I’m afraid you’re right Mr. Helpmann; he’s gone.’”Sam is left on the torture chair, quietly humming to himself.

“Rip Van Winkle” is much more a fairy tale than it is a nightmare. The story is set in picturesque New-England, on the eve of the American Revolution. Rip is someone who prefers to “putz around” town, tell stories, help neighbours, but despises any type of work especially if it must be done at home or for his wife. Henpecked Rip Van Winkle would do everything and anything to get away from his domineering wife; he just wants to be left alone. His prayers are answered and colonial ghosts from the past give him a drink resulting in a twenty-year slumber. He escapes both his present and his immediate future. Upon awakening, the war has come and gone, his children are grown up and, above all, his wife has passed away. He escaped fighting in the war, the tumultuous change of government, he never has to deal with his wife again, and he is old enough to retire. Furthermore, his ghost story is said to be plausible. After overcoming the initial bewilderment at the changes in his village and family life, he began to live the rest of his life in peace and quiet, telling stories at the inn.

Escapism is most likely a practice that has been in existence since the first human being sought a better homestead elsewhere or painted the first cave wall. Being so common a phenomenon, it should come as no surprise that escapism is present in literary genres ranging from romantic, American regional tales to surreal, European existentialist novellas. The advent of cinema has added visual and aural media to these fantastic nightmares, and has become, in itself, a prized form of escapism.


Works Cited

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin. 1985. Film.

Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. 12th ed. Ed. James H. Pickering. Pearson Education, Inc. 2010. 670-680. Print.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 1915. The Literature Network. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Escapism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Print.