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"Rip Van Winkle" (1819) is unquestionably Washington Irving's greatest claim to fame. We all know that the hero has fallen asleep for twenty years, but under what circumstances? The event that Rip has slept through is, of course, the American Revolution. Irving is again telling us something about this new America, a country now liberated from England and embarking on its own path. We may wonder how appetizing this new country is for the author. What changed in the twenty years during which Rip slept? Irving sketches for us a new realm of politics, a new landscape. We recognize, in Rip's visionary experience on the mountain-top, a classic variant of religious epiphany, or illumination. Rip, summoned by the strange figures he sees bowling and drinking, experiences a classic initiation: serving the gods, entering their world. Watching the figures bowl and drink is tantamount to watching the gods at play, and Irving has included references to Barbarossa, Charlemagne, Odin, and Thor. Moreover, the specific "play" itself, Bowling and Thunder, can also be seen as a form of erotic sport. The unanswered question in Rip's encounter with the gods is: Why are they so "grave"? Is this a Christian punishment? Are they harbingers of death? Irving furnishes a number of explanations later, in the story.
We see that Rip is no less than the eternal child: he frequents children, and he shuns responsibilities of all sorts. It is also no accident that Rip is no soldier; we may indeed wonder what kind of gun he is carrying. Rip does not do "family duty," we are told, and with that notation we may unpack still further the sexual dimensions of this fable. It is no surprise that Rip is ultimately happiest at the "male club," separated from women altogether. We would expect the protagonist of such an "initiation" story to be altered by his experiences. How is Rip changed by the vision? America is altered in powerful political ways; even nature is altered, as Irving's language suggests. But Rip remains unchanged. The rusty fowling piece that he carries with him down the mountain fits in perfectly with his new life, a life without wife or "family duty" of any sort. Irving's story can be read as a leap into male menopause, whereby all the earlier indices of sexual threat are finally removed.
Rip's momentous return to the village is arguably Irving's most fascinating touch. The setting is entirely changed, the family Rip earlier sired has grown up, and Rip undergoes what can be seen as a crisis of identity. Being confronted with his grown-up son, also named Rip, with a grandson as well, Rip "unravels" and experiences an existential collapse; can we not speak of the fissured self? The mobile setting that Rip encounters upon his return, especially the inn that seems to come and go, appears virtually surrealist in its implications, looking forward all the way to Hitchcock's "Psycho."
The legacy of "Rip Van Winkle" is rich and various, and we are still working our way through it." James Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, is memorably figured as Rip Van Winkle: the work of time is seen as the corrosion that besets married life. Rip Van Winkle is particularly present and accounted for in our upcoming literary performances among the American classics. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, our most famous literary children, make us wonder if avoiding adulthood is an American vocation.
I have never seen that particular comparison drawn. I do not really think it works, because I do not see Rip's laziness and his lack of desire to get ahead as American traits. I would not think that anyone would be likely to use a person with those traits to symbolize America.
I think that there are a couple things going on here, other than it just being a funny story.
I think it is supposed to be some sort of a commentary on the relations between the sexes. Rip's relationship with his wife is that of the stereotypical henpecked husband.
The other thing is that Rip's nap overlaps the American Revolution. Critics argue about whether Irving meant to show that the village had changed in fundamental ways because of the revolution. Some say that there is more in the way of political discussions after the Revolution, while others say that Rip himself is apathetic, thus showing that the Revolution didn't really change anything.
In Washington Irving's lightly satiric story, when Rip van Winkle returns from his long sleep, he learns that the American Revolution has taken place, and his wife has died: Freedom has been achieved on two fronts. But, Irving writes,
There was as usual a crowd of folk about the door; but none that Rip recollected. The very character of people seemed changed. There was a busy bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility. He looked in vain for the sage Nicholaus Vedder...uttering clouds of toascco smoke instead of idle speeches. or VanBummel the schoolmaster doling forth the contents of an ancient newspaper. In place of these a lean bilious-looking fellow with his pockets full of handbills, was haranging vehemently about rights of citizens--elections--member of Congress--liberty--Bunker's hill--heroes of seventy-six,--and other words which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered van Winkle.
As a Romantic writer, Irving conveys a tone of nostalgia along with his humorous inflated diction. He satirizes his contemporary post-revolutionary society, which he suggests may be too argumentative, rationalist, and dogmatic. And, as a Romantic, he expresses a longing for the calm and natural beauty characteristic of the colonial village. Indeed, the Revolution has changed everything for van Winkle. There is even a hint of terror in this alteration as van Winkle, alienated from a changing world, encounters a different self:
'God knows,' exclaimed he, at his wit's end, 'I'm not myself.--I'm somebody else--that's me yonder--n--that's somebody else got into my shoes--everything's changed--and I'm changed--and I can't tell what's my name, or who I am!'
Perhaps, van Winkle does resemble the new nation that has now lost its old identity and is now in a poignant struggle much like Odysseus that seeks to be recognized. However, this serious tone gives way to the folksy and leisurely narrative of the denouement as Rip van Winkle is happier in his reclaiming of his habitual position in society as "a venerable old man."
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