What are three ironic elements in Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle"?

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lizedwards's profile pic

lizedwards | College Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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Verbal irony is a literary device in which the words a writer chooses have an intended meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the words. Simply put, verbal irony is a disconnect between literal meaning and actual meaning.

Washington Irving's short story "Rip Van Winkle" has many ironic elements. The tone of the work is broadly satirical, and there are many different ways that Irving employs the literary device of irony to craft his story. Some of the clearest examples of irony in the tale occur throughout the description of Rip's relationship with his wife.

Contrasted below are three quotes whose literal meaning is quite different from the actual message Irving is communicating.

...and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering.

In this quote, Irving is clearly not convinced that a curtain lecture is truly valuable. Although literally, Irving writes that these lectures teach patience, his actual meaning is that this nagging is insufferable and without value.

Certain it is that he was a great favorite among all the good wives of the village, who, as usual with the amiable sex, took his part in all family squabbles...

The irony in the quote above is that Irving calls women "the amiable sex" even though the women in this tale are quite the opposite of amiable. Rip's wife, for example, is not amiable but picky and nagging. To add another layer to the irony, Irving writes that the wives of the village are always ready and willing to participate in his family squabbles, which is not amiable but rather aggressive. Irving calls women the amiable sex ironically; they are anything but amiable as described in this work. 

his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence.

Irving uses the word "eloquence" in this quote ironically. The word "eloquence" is often used for speeches, poetry, prose, and other well-crafted writings. To use it as a descriptor for Rip's wife's incessant nagging is ironic in that her ramblings at Rip are actually just a constant stream of repeated demands, not a beautiful or well-written work.

gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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There are a number of ironic elements in this story. You can see one in the preface, where Irving discusses Diedrich Knickerbocker. There he refers to him riding his "hobby," which is to say, "hobby horse," which can mean an obsession or fixation. That's what Rip has, but amusingly, for laziness.

Another comes in the description of men and shrewish wives, where Irving says, " Their tempers, doubtless, are rendered pliant and malleable in the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation; and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering." The idea that someone yelling at you teaches virtues is ironic.

A third and more political irony is found later in the story, after Rip wakes. When he goes to the tavern he sees Washington's portrait where the king's used to be, a way of saying, "For all the revolution, in some ways things are just the same."


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