Thursday, September 16, 2010

Literary Analysis of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Wait a minute. Did someone say "literary analysis"? I don't think so...

The tale of Rip Van Winkle doesn't exactly present the same kind of special challenges as trying to figure out what happened in a Christopher Nolan film (Memento, Inception) or peeling back the onion layers in James Joyce's Ulysses.

If I pretend otherwise, I think there's a good chance you might join ol' Rip. Z...z...z...z...z

"Rip Van Winkle" is the kind of story we read (usually in abridged form) to children and we do so with great success. Even children understand the plot--Rip fell asleep. For a really, really long time. Then he woke up. Everything, including himself, had changed.

Still, it's been a long time since I encountered this old chestnut, and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it and see if there's any wisdom I can cull that might help or inspire me in my current Van Winkled state which compels me to give up all news, weather, sports and entertainment.

And, even if my quest proves futile, I will always respect a story that within a few pages sends me scrambling to the red Webster's Third Collegiate on my shelf to look up "termagant," "virago" and "junto."

Rip Van Hen Pecked
As a child I never realized the engine that drives this story. Perhaps it was due to an inability at that point to put myself in adult shoes. Or maybe I was overwhelmed by the compelling moment when Rip awakes with a long beard and rusty musket by his side and his world has changed but as yet he has no idea. He thinks he just had a wee too much to drink and overslept.

Here's the thing I overlooked or forgot: Rip is a man in a drastically bad marriage. Washington Irving minces no words:

...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 as the Van Winkles' anniversaries come and go...

Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener by constant use.

How does Rip cope with this? He shrugs off his wife's verbal abuse, which only makes her more "shrewish." When it becomes really bad he heads to the town square to talk with friends or the country to go fishing or the mountains to hunt, the latter being the locale for his Great Sleep.

It isn't in Rip's nature to work through a conflict whether its with the weeds taking over his fields, his kids wearing out their clothes, or his wife driving him up the wall. He always chooses flight over fight.

This makes Rip a recognizable type, a passive person. If he were updated to the year 2010, we'd find Rip to be an underemployed couch potato, knocking back the brews, dipping into the chip bowl, and watching his favorite sports on TV. His wife would complain that he doesn't mow the lawn, take out the trash, or fix the faucet that's been leaking for the past three years. His own children would find Dad to be a kind of a pleasant stranger in the home.

I'm Not There...
As I'm re-reading this story there's not much for me to identify with at first. I try to be the kind of spouse who pulls his weight around the house. I do my part to see that the oil gets changed in the car, finances are managed on Quicken, my clothes placed in the hamper. I even cook. As for my wife she is the farthest thing from a sharp-tongued shrew. We both believe nagging is just nagging, not an actual communication skill. Though I know men who feel differently, I don't find myself longing to get away from the house, nor have I yet created for myself a man-cave.

The Parallel
Rip and Friends Discussing an Old Newspaper Just Delivered
Then I come to an interesting paragraph and suddenly I'm buying into the story personally. I'm reading about another way Rip passes his time. He joins others on a bench in front of the small inn where there is "a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle personages of the village". Here's what the men do:

But it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions which sometimes took place, when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands, from some passing traveler. How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper, learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary; and how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.

Rip reads and discusses the news. Even old news--if that's all there is at hand. Yes! He must share my addiction to the news and social-cultural gossip, which right now I'm trying so hard to leave behind for a year...

Hold On
As I look at the story more closely, my opinion changes; Rip circa 1770 isn't really an antecedent of Rip VW 2010, i.e., me.

I notice that even though the story takes place at an important historical moment--the years when American colonists are growing frustrated and angry with British taxation and impositions on their freedom--there's no mention of Rip or of anyone being so upset by the news that they seek a way to sign petitions or protest. Rip and his friends are apparently there for the camaraderie and chatter more than anything else. It's another way for Rip to pass time in pleasant diversion and escape from his misery-inducing wife. He's not headed for political action or the ranks of the Minutemen but for the heights of the Catskills where he will fall into his twenty-year sleep.

Back in the folds and mysterious creases of those mountains seems to reside the point of this rather dark and twisted story. What Rip needs to improve his life isn't news and well formed opinions. He needs time. Only upon waking and wandering around town in a disoriented state does he finally get news he can really use. It's about his wife.

“Oh, she too had died but a short time since; she broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler.”

The narrator adds: "There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence."

In an age before marriage counseling and divorce, this is one sure way to fix a bad marriage.

A Moral or Theme Extracted
Let's not call the thrilling conclusion of this post a "literary analysis"; rather think of it as a couple of idle observations while I lounge about today's virtual version of the town square, aka the blogosphere...

For Rip Van Winkle the only news that matters is personal. A king can be jettisoned and replaced by a president, congress, a constitution, and a different flag, but in the end all that matters to Rip is freedom within his four walls at home. His freedom is not purchased by the American Revolution. He needs something else. To be rid of the person who irritates and impinges on his pursuit of life, liberty and happiness (i.e., hunting, fishing, and idling). Let's not talk about the downfall of King George, let's talk about the longed for exit of a shrew of a wife.

There may be a similar realization awaiting me somewhere down the line. Could it be that my consumption of the news of the world means very little, practically speaking? That I delude myself when I think I take seriously these messages from beyond, because in the end I'm nearly as passive as Rip, almost never acting upon that knowledge? Does this mean that for me the only news that counts resides at home?

At this point, that seems too neat, too expected of an outcome. So I resist. Only time will tell...
Rip Van Winkle awakes, returns home...


  1. This helped with a project thanks.

  2. It has also helped me with mine. Thank you.

  3. thanks, your analysis of the story was very helpful.

  4. Great job my friend!

  5. Thank you. This helped immensely! These types of stories are not my forte.

  6. Just something to understand when trying to take a lesson out of this story...Irving was straying from didactic literature - where every story needs to have some sort of moral or lesson. He was one of the first American writers to write for the sake of entertainment.

  7. yo...this is REALLY helping me with a paper for survery of american've really helped me develop new topics for my paper!

  8. thanxs for helping

  9. I'm just catching your blog now for the first time and am so sorry I wasn't here for your sleeping year. What a great idea. I have enjoyed what I have read of your writing. Do you have another, current, blog?

  10. I enjoyed this response. I'm connecting the Rip Van Winkle story to Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and found some great parallels.