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Rip Van Winkle Essay, Research Paper

When superficially read, Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” seems to be a simple tale of an unhappily married man whose happy-go-lucky, carefree attitude gains him loving adoration from the village women, children, and dogs; but only scorn from his wretched wife. However, when read more closely, the story takes on an entirely different meaning. Through his constant references to Dame Van Winkle and her turbulent relationship with Rip, Irving gives a perfect metaphoric image of the relationship between America and Great Britain: agitated, uneasy, and up-in-arms.

First of all, Rip is described as “a henpecked husband” (430), which would make Dame Van Winkle the pecking hen. In the pre-Revolutionary War days the colonies saw themselves as also being henpecked by Great Britain- this meaning that they were being bossed around and unfairly controlled by the mother country and British rulers. As Rip is returning to the village after waking up he “heaved a heavy sigh when he thought of encountering the terrors of Dame Van Winkle” (433), and upon returning to his house he was “expecting every moment to hear the shrill voice of Dame Van Winkle” (435). These thoughts mirror the feelings of the American colonists towards dealing with Britain. They were very defensive of their actions when interrogated by the British, as Rip also worried, “What excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?” (434). They were clearly unsatisfied with their ruling, but still very intimidated, much like Rip was practically forced into submission by his more than controlling wife.

Great Britain made its opinions known anytime it felt that the colonies were not following the laws and guidelines previously set for them, or when it thought the colonies were “over-stepping their boundaries” so to speak. Not surprisingly, Dame Van Winkle was the same way with Rip. Irving wrote that his wife often subjected Rip to lengthy lectures about his behavior and attitude, much like the colonies were subjected to British reprimand. Irving wrote, “He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing. This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife…” (431). Just as the Dame lectured Rip on something, then picked on him again for his reaction to the lecture, Great Britain irritated the colonies to the point where they became tied of obeying. If ever the colonies tried to shrug off British rule, they were further hassled and disciplined, just like Rip.

Another illustration of this abuse is how Rip comments on his “termagant wife” interrupting and upsetting the “tranquillity of the assemblage” (432) whenever he was socializing with the village people. The Dame would run the visitors off, but not before accusing them of contributing to Rip’s laziness and idleness. Foreign interference was a problem for Great Britain as it tried to build the pre-war colonies into a replication of itself. Even assembly by the colonies themselves was strongly discouraged by Great Britain, mainly for fear of the inevitable unifying and uprising of the colonies against the mother country.

The time leading up to the war was certainly a very trouble time for both the colonies, and this was the same notion of the marriage between Rip and the Dame. Irving wrote, “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 edge tool that grows keener by constant use” (431). This quotation is perhaps the epitome of the relationship between Rip and the Dame, as well as of the colonies and Great Britain. As Rip grew tired of his wife’s constant nagging, the colonies also grew tired of Britain’s endless tyranny. The reference of a “tart temper” reflects the colonies’ nationalism spirit and dreams of liberty from Britain, as well as Britain’s certainty that it was the intended ruler and guide for the colonies’ future development. The reference to the “sharp tongue” growing more intense with each use illustrates the mounting tension between the respective two sets of forces. In fact, the only allusion of a compliment from the relationships was Rip speaking of his home, which “To tell the truth, Dame Van Winkle had always kept in neat order” (436). Britain had initially created the colonies in America, and had, at one time, been able to keep them related to it in a feeling of peaceful harmony.

After Rip returns to the village in the post-war era and finally figures out what had happened during his absence, he is somewhat relieved to discover his wife had passed away. He said that, “There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence” (438) because he was then able to “go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle” (439). So while Rip was discovering a newfound freedom from his wife, the colonies were discovering a newfound freedom from their longtime ruler, Great Britain. The colonies were then free to be the United States of America and remain that way without threat of British intervention in the future.

In conclusion, while Rip Van Winkle is just a character in a short story, he is also a representative for the American colonies in both pre- and post-Revolutionary War times; whereas his spouse, Dame Van Winkle is not just a mean old wife, but also a representative of Great Britain in both pre- and post-war times. Through their relationship, Washington Irving paints a symbolic picture of the transition from dependent colonies into an independent nation for America, and the downfall of British rule on North American ground.


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