Is the story "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving an allegory?
In the strictest sense in which the word is used, most readers would probably not feel allegory is the most fitting term to describe "Rip van Winkle." Generally we would expect characters and setting to more specifically represent other people and places, or concepts, than we see in Irving's story. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories are often obvious allegories of good and evil, and his characters tend to be abstractions of specific human traits or of human nature in general. In addition, a moral is usually found as the basis for an allegory. Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and "Ethan Brand" are both allegories of man's capacity for self-destruction through his systematic denial of the human feelings we should all cultivate.
Irving's stories, including "Rip van Winkle," are far more casual in tone and purpose. Nevertheless, it is still possible to find meaning beneath the surface, so to speak, in the tale of a man who has slept for twenty years and awakened to a transformed world. Rip himself stands for that tendency some of us possess to remove ourselves from human affairs. He then, upon reawakening, becomes an almost melancholy symbol of the past, of a superseded life on both the individual and the collective level. The old world in which New York and the other colonies were part of Britain has vanished—"gone with the wind," just as several generations later the pre–Civil War world would later be described. Rip's experience, in this interpretation, can then in fact be seen as an allegory of the unceasing process of change and renewal and of that element in human nature resistant to that process. On the other hand, some might say this amounts to reading too much into the story, which is much more plausibly viewed as a whimsical anecdote in which humor, local color, and descriptions of nature predominate.
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Certainly, the American Revolution is pivotal to the meaning of "Rip van Winkle." For, Irving's tale reveals his feelings towards the New Englanders that he considers Purtanical intruders who virtually invade the quiet and peaceful Dutch New York. This disturbance of the bucolic beauty of the Kaatskill Mountains and the surrounding areas is allegorically depicted by the "odd-looking personages playing at ninepins." The grave-faced men with "lackluster countenances" who play at their game with a mysterious silence have the most somber of visages. The balls of the ninepins symbolize cannon balls and the thunder is the explosion of the artillery of cannons.
As it turns out Rip later learns that the little men he sees are the ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew, the men who have discovered the Hudson River. Further, Rip's experience of ghosts of the more Romantic past are set in sharp contrast to his awakening twenty years later and his reutrn to the village where he has lived. As he reaches the edge of the village, Rip is "sorely perplexed" by all the strange faces and the "bustling disputatious tone" to the character of the people who are assembled there. Gone is the appreciation for the beauty of nature and the desultory atmosphere of the old inn where George III's portrait resided, as the crowd argues about Tories, Congress, and President Washington. In short, Rip van Winkle finds himself an outcast in his own village and an anachronism.
There is little doubt, then, that Washington Irving's "Rip van Winkle" acts as a humorous tale, but it also is an allegory, an extended metaphor for the invasion of harsh and radical changes to the peace and pastoral beauty of a Colonial village from which van Winkle, who represents the Romantic, the lover of nature and the contemplative life, has been taken. Confronted by the new republic, van Winkle is frightened and feels alienated. His nostalgia for the past is satisfied later, however, as once his wife dies and he is away from "the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle," Rip resumes his desultory but more natural life.
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