What satirical elements are present in "Rip Van Winkle"?

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A satire pokes fun at a problem to make a social comment, often through using exaggeration.

In "Rip Van Winkle," Irving uses the character of Rip to satirize the lackadaisical, apathetic ways of the colonial American subjects living under the rule of George III and the British Empire. Rip is an exaggeratedly apathetic man who allows himself to be bullied, just as the colonists let themselves be bullied by George III. Rather than fight back, Rip wanders around the woods doing a little hunting or sits outside the local inn talking about old news. He's so out of it that he falls asleep for an amazing twenty years—significantly, under an Old World spell conjured by the spirits of original Dutch settlers.

If the lackadaisical colonial mindset is being satirized through Rip, this is done to throw into contrast the vigor and life of the new republic, where people aren't content to live sleepy, unambitious lives.

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An element of satire in "Rip Van Winkle" is its similarity to European folk tales, as the story has apparently been found among the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, who investigated the Dutch history of New York. The story has many of the elements of European folk stories, such as its setting in a country village. However, unlike the stock characters in old folktales, which often are trickster figures, Rip Van Winkle is a hapless hen-pecked husband. In many folktales, the main character learns a lesson, but lessons are lost on Rip Van Winkle. Instead of becoming more moral, his adventures only make him relieved that his wife has died in the time since he has been away. Therefore, this story is a parody of the traditional folktale. 

Another object of satire in the story is the politics of the young American republic. When Rip Van Winkle emerges from his sleep, he is surprised by the way in which the once-sleepy town—in which a group of men formerly discussed events that were a month old in a tired way—has become a hub of political activity. Rip finds a man passing out handbills and yelling about a series of recent events, such as Congress, heroes of '76, and Bunker Hill, and this man demands of Rip Van Winkle whether he is a "Federal or Democrat." Rip Van Winkle is almost taken away as a spy. The spirited and often ever-changing nature of politics in the new American republic is also an element of Irving's satire. 

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1. Rip's relationship with his wife--Irving uses their relationship to satirize loveless marriages. Rip's wife hates his laziness, and he hates her nagging.

2. The American Revolution--Irving portrays the Revolution as bringing about little change other than a switch in the tavern's portrait from King George to George Washington; this satire implies that the Colonists simply switched from following one leader to another.

3. Male relationships--Rip and his friends sit around and talk about nothing at the local tavern. Irving stereotypes male friendships such as Rip's as being unproductive.

The story does, of course, contain more satirical examples. Think about what is exaggerated in the story, how roles are reversed, and how some elements appear to be absurd, because hyperbole, reversal, incongruity, and parody are all common satirical techniques.

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The role of the character as a non-descript, pen-hecked husband is the most obvious one. Rip is the Walter Mitty everyman of his age who finds solace from his wife's nagging first through drink, then through a comatosed wrinkle in time through which he somehow "escapes." The stereotype role models of men and women in society (and more particulary in marriage) are challenged in this farcical comedie de moeurs.The author also pokes fun at the radical changes in the political climate just prior to and after the American Revolution. Besides the changes in government,

‘‘The very character of the people seemed changed.’’ There is still a crowd gathered around the local inn, but now their conversation carries ‘‘a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity’’ ... In this new independent world, it appears, men must take notice of politics, if not by serving in the new government then by being informed and carrying on debate. 

Political activism is in the air, but the quality of life hasn't really changed for the better. Circumstances are radically different but everyday life remains basically the same:

Indeed, although he is no longer a subject but a free man, ‘‘the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him.’’

                           - enotes (see references below)

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What elements of "Rip Van Winkle"—including the narrator's commentaries—are satirical?

Washington Irving's "Rip van Winkle" is an imitation of the traditional German folk tales. However, in his writing, Irving does insert satire,

  • In his introductions, then, Irving credits Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old Dutchman who is curious about Dutch history and boasts of its "scrupulous accuracy." Still, Iring satirizes the old gentleman by declaring that his memory is yet

...held dear by...certain biscuit bakers, who have gone so far as to imprint his likeness on their New Year cakes, and have thus given him a chance for immortality, almost equal to being stamped on a Waterloo medal or a Queen Anne's farthing.

  • A character that Irving creates in order to satirize the Puritan who lacks any flexibility and humor in her voice of duty and work ethic in a sort of comedy of manners is Dame Van Winkle. For, while the indolent Rip is the favorite of the children of the village,

...he is a simple, good-natured man...an obedient, henpecked husband [made] malleable in the fiery furnace of comestic tribulation...[with] the virtues of patience and long-suffering. A termagant wife may therefore in some respects be considered a tolerable blessing....

  • Another instance of satire occurs after Rip awakens and returns to his village where, after twenty years, he professes to be a "loyal subject of King George, and is castigated as "A Tory! a Tory! a spy! a Refugee!" by people as unreasonable as those with whom they warred.
  • Then, Irving depicts the only other change having resulted from the American Revolution as being a portrait in the tavern having switched from one George--the king of England--to another George--President Washington. Of course, the implication here is that the Colonists simply switched from one leader to another who is identical just as Rip sees himself standing against a tree and is told, "that's Rip Van Winkle":

Rip looked and beheld a precise counterpart of himself....The poor fellow was so completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man.

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