Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is an allegorical short story, disguising criticism about the British and American government behind an unusual story of a Dutchman. Irving used allegory to analyze and represent a different angle self-identification problem (N.N. Li and L.M. Li 307). Indeed, the resistance of Rip Van Winkle to mature and accept responsibility is defined by subdividing his life in the story into three parts, where he skips twenty years of adulthood in sleep. Moreover, the story can be viewed as a satire for laziness and greediness of government officials (Baga, “Corruption and Mechanism of Officials Election” 238). The author also illustrates the contrast between the old and young generation of Dutch Americans. The former being the defenders of traditions, represented by Rip Van Winkle and a group of people dressed as ancient Dutches. The latter was the group of immigrants’ descendants who started to forget about the cultural identity. Rip Van Winkle is an excellent allegory for the old Dutch generation’s resistance to participate in the war against the British Empire, corruption among government officials, and loss of cultural identity in young people of Dutch descent.
Three Ages of Rip Van Winkle and the Resistance to New Regime
Rip Van Winkle’s life story is divided into three parts, demonstrating his resistance to maturity and change in his passive attitude. The beginning of the narrative describes Rip Van Winkle as “a simple, good-natured man” who was obedient to his nagging wife (Irving 4). Furthermore, Rip’s resistance to work hard and carelessness elucidated his childish character: “He would have whistled life away in perfect contentment” (Irving 6). The man’s wife described him as lazy even though he was cultivating their field annually and was ready to assist the neighbors. This type of relationship between wife and husband can be an allegory of the British Empire and Dutch settlements in New England, the former always dissatisfied with the latter (Baga, “The Character of Rip van Winkle” 117). Indeed, his childish and obedient behavior was an allegory for the colony’s unwillingness to work for the monarchy’s prosperity.
The second stage of Rip Van Winkle’s life in the story is adulthood, which he completely omits by a twenty years long sleep. When the main character leaves his house for the mountain, he encounters a group of people dressed as ancient Dutches, who give Rip liquor which makes him fall asleep for two decades. By the time he wakes up, the man is old, representing his transition from one childhood to another childhood omitting obligations of adulthood (Baga, “The Character of Rip van Winkle” 115). The fact that Rip did not participate in the war for American independence due to his long sleep illustrates the attitude of the majority of immigrants from Holland, who were reluctant to fight against the king (Baga, “The Character of Rip van Winkle” 120). Rip was accustomed to his sleepy village with lazy officials and pointless conversations: “they used to sit in the shade, through a long lazy summer’s day, talking listlessly over village gossip” (Irving 7). Therefore, it was challenging for Rip Van Winkle to accept the new political reality after the Revolutionary War.
The main character’s third stage of life is old age when he is again relieved from responsibilities. It is hard for him to adapt to a new dynamic living in an independent country. These drastic changes scare the man, but then he develops apathy to the political issues because “Rip was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him” (Irving 22). However, he appears to be happy to be free from the oppression of his wife and continue careless life in his daughter’s house.
Rip Van Winkle is also an allegory for the laziness and corruption of the colonial government. For example, Nicholas Vedder, the village’s patriarch, was a rich man obsessed with smoking, eating, and sleeping, portraying governors of the colonial period. Vedder’s big appetite can be an allegory for the greediness of people in the position of power (Baga, “Corruption and Mechanism of Officials Election” 247). According to Baga, this story is a satirical representation of that time’s “corruption, the bad attitude of officials, as well as the uncommon mechanism for selecting the officials” (“Corruption and Mechanism of Officials Election” 241). However, the sluggishness and passivity of the old government are replaced with busy politicians, identifying everyone as Federals or Democrats and causing Rip Van Winkle’s self-identity crisis.
Rip was not a political man, and thus he was comfortable with colonialism. He describes himself as “a loyal subject of the king” when the man returns to his village after a long sleep (Irving 7). He obeyed his wife in the same way as many Dutch people complied with the British Empire’s rules. Nevertheless, his passivity and apathy prevent him from being discouraged about alterations in the political regime, making Rip and other Dutch settlements accept the new governance method. Although some villagers in this story fought for American Independence, they are not the majority; like Rip Van Winkle, many Dutch immigrants were indifferent spectators of the outcome of this war.
Loss of Cultural Identity
The main character’s children represent the new generation who lost the cultural identity. Since Rip did not play a significant role in their family, his children were “ragged and wild” due to his wife’s influence (Irving 5). Indeed, the young Dutch people in America of post-revolutionary time did not consider their culture essential for preservation (Baga, “The Character of Rip van Winkle” 122). On the other hand, the old generation of immigrants was eager to maintain their customs and traditions. Rip Van Winkle’s peers appear to enjoy measured life, while his children’s generation becomes progressive Americans with the new view of life that was the opposite of their ancestors. Indeed, Rip’s children “joined in the joy of becoming a new nation,” leaving their ethnic identity in the past (Baga, “The Character of Rip van Winkle” 121). For example, Rip Van Winkle’s daughter, Judith Gardenier, who acquires her husband’s non-Dutch last name, signifies the disappearance of her ethnic uniqueness. Although Dutch immigrants were released from the British Empire’s control, they lost their cultural identity.
Overall, Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is an allegory for social and political issues of pre-and-post-Revolutionary eras. This short story explores the reluctance of the old Dutch generation to participate in the American War for independence, corruption among officials, and loss of cultural identity in young people. Rip Van Winkle is illustrated as the representative of the old generation who was obedient to the monarchy’s rules and was resistant to change and growth. His children become the member of an independent nation, forgetting their cultural roots. Moreover, Irving reveals the corruption of colonial administration through the incredible laziness and greediness of the village’s patriarch. Although the author does not criticize him directly, Irving’s language creates a satirical representation of his daily routine.
Baga, Magdalena. “Corruption, Officials’ Attitude, and Mechanism of Officials Election in a History of New York by Washington Irving.” Journal NX – A Multidisciplinary Peer Reviewed Journal, vol. 6, no. 6, 2020, pp. 236-250.
Baga, Magdalena. “The Character of Rip Van Winkle: Representation of Disappearing Cultural Identity.” Jambura Journal of English Teaching and Literature, vol. 1, no. 2, 2020, pp. 113-126.
Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories. Courier Dover Publications, 2018.
Li, Nan-nan, and Li-mei Li. “Rip Van Winkle, an Allegory About Modern Man’s Self-Identity Crisis.” International Conference on Education, Management, Economics and Humanities (ICEMEH), Guangzhou, China, 2019.