Written by Mikhael Kowalak


The American Revolution and the Story as Allegory

 Setting “Rip Van Winkle” in the state of New York before and after the American Revolution, Washington Irving uses allegory to create an American Romantic folktale that strengthens the national identity of the newly formed country.

The protagonist Rip Van Winkle goes through a crisis of identity when he wakes up after the American Revolution wondering “whether both he and the world around him [are] not bewitched.” As soon as he can “[take] his place once more” in the changed society “making friends among the rising generation” (713)[1], his crisis is resolved. Following the classical plot for a male hero, he is reintegrated into the village. His new identity allows him to be free from “the yoke of old England”, and especially “the yoke of matrimony” (713). Talking about the two yokes in the same paragraph, the narrator suggests a parallel between the Americans becoming independent from England and Rip becoming independent from his wife. Just like Rip, the Americans had to free themselves to find their new identity.

This parallel of struggle for independence is the key for seeing Rip’s wife, Dame Van Winkle, as a symbol for England and Rip as a symbol for British colonies in America. So, according to the narrator, the British colony is “henpecked” (703) by England, but obedient. Since the sexist terms are, on the surface level, aimed against a woman, the author seems to assume that the reader will agree more likely with his opinion about women and masculinity than with his opinion about the American Revolution. The supposedly male audience of Irving’s generation must have felt some pity for the “simple good-natured man” (703) who is submitted to “domestic tribulation” and “curtain lecture[s]” (704). At the same time they would also have laughed about this lazy and effeminate anti-hero who, as opposed to his “chivalrous” ancestors, is not a “martial character” (703) at all. Instead, the narrator ironically mentions, Rip has successfully developed “the virtues of patience and long-suffering” (704) to endure being controlled by his wife. On the allegorical level, the author points out that England has made her subjects in America develop these rather ‘feminine’ “blessings” (704) in order to maintain her rule. This means he implies that developing their masculine qualities would have been more natural to them.

Although Rip, representing the colonists, is so nicely submissive, Dame Van Winkle “[keeps] continually dinning in his ears about his idleness [and] his carelessness” (705). However, Rip does not lack “assiduity or perseverance” (704). He simply has no interest in “keeping his farm in order”, which his wife wants him to do, but “would never refuse to assist a neighbor” (704). While she “always [keeps her house] in neat order” (709), Rip is drawn to “the outside of the house – the only side which, in truth, belongs to a henpecked husband” (705). Irving lets his readers conclude the obvious reason for this behaviour: since Rip is dominated at home, he tries in his very passive way to escape his wife’s control. He does not seem to regard his land as his property, but more as his wife’s territory. Therefore his motivation to work there is very low.

Rip shares his laziness with the ruling class of the village: “sages, philosophers, and other idle personages” (705) who, representing the society of colonial America, either talk “about nothing” or discuss with Van Bummel about “public events some months after they [have] takend place” (705). Instead of working or doing anything to influence current politics or free themselves, they just sit and talk.

This contrasts sharply with the “busy, bustling” (710) villagers he meets after his long sleep. The village inn, where he used to talk with his friends, is now filled with people who not only talk about current politics, but who vote, taking an active part in politics. Even Van Bummel has become very active, first as “a great militia general” (711), presumably in the revolutionary war against England, and “now in Congress” (711). Just like most of the society, the American Revolution has also transformed him. While Rip’s children “were ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody” (704) before the revolution, his daughter has now a “snug, well-furnished house, and a stout cheery farmer for a husband”, which shows that the new generation of Americans (with the exception of Rip’s son) is successful.

Nevertheless, Rip Van Winkle does not change. He is reintegrated into the village as a member of the old generation “at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity” (713). When he “[shrugs] his shoulders […]; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate or joy at his deliverance” (713) hearing his dead wife’s name, we can see how much he still has the same behaviour he had when his wife was alive.

Washington Irving contrasts the pitiful, grotesque, effeminate and passive anti-hero Rip Van Winkle as a symbol for the inhabitants of the British colonies in America with the active and successful generation of free American citizens. This way, he gives the Americans every reason to be proud of their new identity as ‘emancipated’ and not emasculated citizens.

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[1] All quotations are, if not indicated differently, from Pickering, James H. (Ed.) Fiction one hundred : an anthology of short fiction. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2004.