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Gender and politics are really the two main themes of Rip Van Winkle. The gender issue is pretty clear, but the political one is less so.
In terms of gender, the story is a very stereotypical one in that it portrays a somewhat hapless husband who is constantly nagged by a domineering wife. Rip's wife has good reason to scold, because Rip never does any work that will help his family, but she is still a complete nag and he is happy when he wakes up and finds she's dead.
As far as politics, it's less clear. After waking up, Rip doesn't really care about the fact that the US is now independent. But he does notice that men talk about politics more and are more involved with it. So does that mean Irving is saying that the revolution didn't matter (Rip's apparent view) or that it did?
Washing Irving was a Romantic, yet he was also a satirist. In his legendary story, "Rip van Winkle," there are several people who are the target of Irving's satire. One of these is the wife of Rip van Winkle as well as Winkle himself. Certainly, Irving has his fun with the shrewish wife of van Winkle. For, rather than overtly castigate Rip, Irving, as narrator, comments satirically that henpecked men
are most apt to be obsequious and conciliatory abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home. 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. A termagant wife may therefore in some respects be considered a tolerable blessing--and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice blessed.
Clearly, Irving has fun with the relationship of van Winkle with his wife, making her the brunt of criticism by the "evening gossips." Likewise, Irving satirizes the newly post-revolutionary society, which he suggests may be too argumentative, rationalistic, and dogmatic. As a Romantic, Irving expresses through the character of Rip a nostalgia for the stability, calm, and natural beauty of the colonial village:
the very character of people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling diputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity. He lloked in vain for the sage Nicholaus Vedder...uttering clouds of tobacco smoke instead of idle speeches.
While "Rip van Winkle" by Washing Irving suggests a certain nostalgia for the colonial past, some critics see a symbolic level to the story's meaning. Rip's domination by his wife parallels the country's colonial past; his awakening to a new life suggests the new condition of the United States. The happy ending hints at Irving's optimisim about the future of America.
To add to things, the gender-element is not all that simple in Rip Van Winkle. Under the appearance of misogyny, the hen-pecked husband does get the treatment. It is the male subject that vanishes. Even Rip's re-identification takes place with his daughter, now grown up, at the helm. The story does show some subversive gender-patterns under its apparent patriarchal mechanism.
The political element in the story is ambivalent indeed. It is tangential but still there. The point I would like to make is that firstly the story tells us about statist suspicion towards the vagrant and the unknown. It is very much about political gaze and its temporal shifts in this sense. Secondly, if we try to look at the way in which the story depicts the individual's relation with the political history of his nation, there is a curiously volitional aspect to his participation. Rip is hardly a political person and his magical sleep helps him skip a phase in his nation's history when political agency would have beckoned him take up action, taking sides too. The magical helps him escape that. Now how is this position politically tenable? Is it a critique of apolitics or escapism? One wonders.
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