Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” as an Allegory – ENGL 201

Discuss Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” as an allegory – that is, as a self-sufficient narrative that nevertheless signifies more than what is said. You may choose to focus on the entire narrative, or on brief sections or episodes that you consider allegorical.

Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is one of the most renowned short stories in recent history. It is widely regarded as fundamental part of American literature due to the author’s masterful adaptation of a popular Dutch myth within the context of colonial America (Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture, 2017). The protagonist, Rip Van Winkle, falls asleep after imbibing purple magic liquor offered to him by an animated ghost and awakes twenty years later. He soon realizes that the American Revolutionary War has already been fought during his unfathomable slumber, and now has to contend with numerous societal changes. This short story, thus, elucidates the experience of a Dutch pioneer before and after the American Revolutionary and the myriad of challenges experienced during this epoch. Rip Van Winkle is littered with allegorical elements which are represented thorough abstract ideas and literary figures, to relate a profound historical tale with a didactic purpose.  The author uses a causal tone to explore weighty issues such as the impact of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) and national identity within the fledgling union. In essence, Rip Van Winkle is an allegory of this tumultuous period in American history and inhabitant’s attempt to forge a new society amidst a myriad of emerging challenges.

Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is an allegory based on the American Revolution. In a desperate attempt to escape his nagging wife, Van Winkle heads up the Catskill Mountains with Wolf, his loyal dog. It is here that he first encounters an apparition of Henry Hudson’s crewmen whom he helps to carry a barrel up the mountain before sharing liquor with the entire group. Van Winkle falls asleep and awakes to numerous changes within his environment. He has been asleep for twenty years and only remembers being a faithful subject to the reigning monarch King George III. It is only after wandering into his now barely-recognizable village that he realizes that the American Revolution already took place with the union now led by General George Washington. This unusual setting sets the stage for one of the most fascinating allegories ever crafted. For instance, Van Winkle’s twenty year stint sleeping in the mountain is a representation of British rule and its far-reaching consequences for persons in colonial America.  His awakening mirrors a new dawn during which settlers have been emancipated from the colonial yoke and are now able to play an active role in creating their future within the union (Blakemore, 2012). Identity is an overarching element of this newfound liberation. Americans are now grappling with this new reality that now includes freedom and democracy which have transformed every sphere of life within the region. Irving relied heavily on this approach owing to its ability to prompt readers to develop unique interpretations of his short story. This technique was particularly instrumental in enabling him to depict major political issues plaguing the American society during the second half of the 18th century. He skillfully presents political issues rarely addressed head-on using rhetoric to present his criticism of the status quo to avoid unwarranted repercussions. Irving masks his disillusionment with leaders and the administration in his allegorical tale with the primary aim of highlighting their malevolent dispositions.

            Irving’s uses primary characters to weave his remarkable tale; although allegory also allows him to explore major transformations introduced into the American society after the 1776 revolution. His delineation is a preview into life when English law was explicitly applied within colonial America and society’s transformation after the Revolution during which the populace transformed its sense of nationhood. For instance, Van Winkle’s tumultuous life is strikingly similar to the power struggle within continental America. This riotous transition is similar to Van Winkles struggles, especially when striving to fit in within an indifferent society where he feels more of a stranger than a piece of the entire puzzle. Van Winkle’s neighbor describes him as a pleasant and modest man who is kind to his neighbors and strives to always ensure that he is in good terms with everyone he comes into contact with. Nevertheless, his wife describes him as a father and husband who has failed to acknowledge his obligations and unable to perform his duties as patriarch. He remains a hen-pecked husband under his wife’s control who is wholly dutiful and does everything she asks to avert conflict:

“Morning, noon and night, her tongue was incessantly going, everything he said or did was sure to produce more angry talk” (Webster & Irving, 2012, p. 11).

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The first assessment also indicates English loyalist’s opinion of King George III’s rule while the second perspective is that of American colonists who view independence as the only practical option available given the circumstances.  Van Winkle’s wife also represents the tyrannical rule under which the American colonies lived under in addition to their overload’s wanton repression. Dame Van Winkle harangues her husband and describes him as good-for-nothing old man who is continually idle and fails to participate within the family when required. It is apparent that Dame Van Winkle is an abusive wife who mistreats her husband despite all his efforts. She represents England’s domineering nature and its treatment of American subjects who had to contend with heavy taxation when striving to make ends meet in an unforgiving frontier.

            Moreover, the setting of Irving’s short story alludes to a definite period in American history characterized by arbitrary change.  Rip Van Winkle resides in an archetypical American frontier village whose main inhabitants are Dutch-American settlers. From the onset, the village is described as a desolate location and in an extremely dire state. Similarly, the inhabitants are portrayed as ignorant individuals fond of idling around and gossiping incessantly. Rip Van Winkle suddenly vanishes without a trace for twenty years only to be met by numerous transformations in his native village. The so-called ignorant inhabitants transformed into respectable citizens who now actively participated in politics with the aim of improving their locality (Gieseler, 2017). They have ceased lazing and are now credited with the changes witnessed within the village, including the new infrastructure and improved housing. It is also at this point that Van Winkle overhears discourses about the war and the introduction of liberty which allows them to vote during political elections. This change represents the sudden shift in the balance of power witnessed globally during the 18th century.  During this period, colonial subjects were increasingly becoming disillusioned with the situation within the colonies and were thus clamoring for autonomy within administered regions.  Rebellion was, therefore, viewed as the only viable option capable of improving their current situation and heralding a new era. Within the original thirteen colonies, insurgence soon became rife among colonialists who now viewed King George III as a major hindrance to progress. They fiercely reject his rule and fought for independence to improve their current situation and live a free life. Van Winkle’s village represents colonial America before his disappearanc. During this period, the English viewed colonialists a ragtag group of ignorant and uncouth individuals who had to be controlled all cost. The makeover witnessed within the village is representative of a new political administration in post-war America with the adoption of new political attitudes such as democracy.            

In conclusion, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving is one of the most introspective representations of the events responsible for bringing the United States into being. Irving divides his narrative into three sections in a novel allegorical approach meant to create a methodical progression of events. The first section provides a clear illustration of marital conflict between Van Winkle and his wife. Both characters play their respective roles as protagonist and antagonist to represent the protracted conflict between colonialists and the English crown.  The middle section represents the quest for national identity. Rip Van Winkle is saddened by the transformations which have occurred in his old village. It is barely recognizable due to recent political events which have seen portraits of King Gorge III replaced by General George Washington. Van Winkle even doubts his identity due to this newly discovered political dispensation. The last section explores acceptance through Van Winkle’s identity crisis. Although the aforementioned changes made little impression on him, he soon gains a grasp of his present reality in an independent nation which is strikingly similar to his emancipation from his nagging and abusive wife.

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