Sleeping Through Revolution
The social-historical significance of “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving is heavily influenced by the events that occurred during the late 1700s to the early 1800s between the American colonies and Great Britain. This story was written during a time when America was in a constant state of change. Irving considered the way events in America drastically shifted after the Revolutionary War and how Americans perceived the shift. Irving uses symbolism to provide the historical significance of how the American Revolution impacted American society and the future of the United States.
“Rip Van Winkle” represents the historical context in which citizens changed their perspective upon new developments in the country. At the beginning of the story, Rip can only be described as a Loyalist resembling the viewpoints of the townspeople around him. However, by the end of the story citizens that were once Loyalists realize that the rule of England would have been detrimental to the prosperity of America. The dramatic shift between the world being one way then drastically changing is how many Americans felt during the American Revolution. Rip slept through the entirety of the Revolutionary War; when he woke up, he was perplexed about what happened since his journey in the mountains. Scholar Angela Vietto wrote in her analysis of “Rip Van Wrinkle,” about the effect the Revolutionary War had on many citizens:
In addition, dealing as it does with the rapidity of change occasioned by the American Revolution, the story deals, in a light way, with various social issues: the new culture of electioneering and representative government, factionalism, and social mobility in the wake of the war. (Vietto par. 3)
This shift can only be described as an awakening for America as a whole. People went from having varying viewpoints of whether or not to be loyal to the king, but once the Revolutionary War was over, everyone developed a sense of nationalism. Americans became proud of being U.S. citizens and overcoming the challenges of harsh rule. For example, When Rip returned from his slumber, he made the comment that he was loyal to the king which resulted in an uproar from the people around him. Irving states, “... a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!” Here a general shout burst from the bystanders—“A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee! hustle him! away with him!” (Irving 37). This explicitly shows how drastic the change was after the war. Another example featured is the imagery of King George’s picture being changed to one of George Washington (Irving 37). The historical context in which the journey of Rip returning twenty years later, portrays the way life can evolve. Pre-Revolutionary War, the village town Rip inhabits is slow-paced and everyone is not as concerned with the British rule. Contrastingly, Robert Huges, wrote this analysis of the “modern era” Rip awoke in: “Instead of smoking in leisure and telling sleepy tales about nothing, they are voting, debating contemporary issues, and engaging directly with the history of their time” (Huges par. 6). Rip is marveling at the change of political and social commentary that was not favored before he lost twenty years. Rip goes on living in much the same way he did before. He becomes someone that stands for sameness and the past and links the peaceful and slow time before the Revolutionary War to the bustling time after.
Throughout the story, there is symbolism that further shows the historical significance. One instance of symbolism is between Rip Van Winkle and his wife, Dame Van Winkle. Dame can be interpreted as England and Rip reflects America. Rip was controlled by his wife similar to the way America was controlled by England. Rip left because of his wife’s constant nagging. According to Irving, “...his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family” (Irving 35). This additionally reflects how the American colonies felt. Once America became free, they found their happiness, much like when Rip woke up to find his wife no longer alive: “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.” There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence” (Irving 39). Both of these events mirror each other in the outcomes. An additional example of symbolism is the men Rip meets in the mountains. The men could represent the Native Americans that had tribes throughout various locations in nature. The men offered Rip a drink of liquor which causes him to fall asleep (Irving 35). This could portray the way settlers would take from the Native Americans, furthermore, explaining a way the Native Americans got revenge on settlers.
“Rip Van Wrinkle” symbolizes the struggle of early America from pre-revolution to post- revolution. The social-historical significance is exhibited throughout Irving’s use of symbolism and political societal constructs in the late 1700s. The way American people reacted to the change in society after the Revolutionary War was significant in itself because of the way people increasingly became involved in the improvement of the colony. Irving’s short story provides insight into the characteristics of people living in the colonies and how evolution can influence society. This internal thought from Rip provides insight to how he felt after his unordinary incident: “Rip, in fact, was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him; but there was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was—petticoat government” (Irving 37). This quote captures the essence of Rip accepting the differences of the colony when he awoke because he was not there to experience it. Despite how drastic many Americans felt after the war, they experienced a new sense of belonging to their country.
Hughes, Robert. “Rip Van Winkle.” Student's Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters, Facts On File, 2020. History Research Center,online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=&ite
mid=&articleId=94627. Accessed 12 Nov. 2021.
Vietto, Angela. “‘Rip Van Winkle.’” Early American Literature, 1776?1820, Facts On File, 2010. Bloom's Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=16498&itemid=WE54&artic
leId=482211. Accessed 11 Nov. 2021.
Washington, Irving. “Rip Van Winkle.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. A. 9th ed. W.W. New York: Norton and Company pp. 29-41.
Gender Stereotypical Influence of the Feminism Movement
The discussion of gender equality and how stereotypes hinder the evolution of minority groups is a problem that has occurred throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The feminism movement throughout history has applied to the psychological way society has viewed women in a positive and negative way. The novel Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ju-Chen depicts the appalling way Chinese culture impacted women by reversing the roles upon men. This reversal allowed people to clearly identify gender inequality that is presented in society. Li Ju-Chen chose to highlight the way women were being treated to help further support the feminism movement. Similar to the the views of Li Ju-Chen, Jonah Gokova, the author of “Challenging Men to Resist Gender Stereotyping,” directly addressed male stereotypical influence on women and addressed masculinity in the context of how it negatively impacts women. Both of these pieces of literature represent the social ideas of gender stereotyping as it relates to the evolution of the feminism movement. The similar themes of societal gender stereotyping in both works explore the psychological way women have been impacted negatively in cultural aspects, sexually, and through the influence of male masculinity.
Psychological Feminism Impact
The first wave feminist movement of the nineteenth century allowed women to begin to speak out against oppression. Women believed that they should be educated and offered many of the same opportunities as men. This realization led to the fight for equal rights. The term “feminist” stemmed from this movement; however, some people did not completely agree with the views of the movement. Abby Werlock lists some of the ways women have criticized the feminist movement in her analysis of feminism by stating, “Feminist criticism has become a wide-ranging exploration of the construction of gender and identity, the role of women in culture and society, and the possibilities of women's creative expression” (Werlock par. 3). This description of the feminist movement has not assisted the gender stereotypes already placed upon women in society, yet, it offered a different opinion. Although the first wave feminist movement was criticized by some women, men also had no issue rejecting feminism ideals as well. Stereotyping of women throughout history did nothing but prevent women from achieving equal rights.
Cultural and Sexual Inequality
In the novel Flowers in the Mirror, Merchant Lin travels to the kingdom of women, where men wear women’s clothing and follow female rule. Merchant Lin began mocking the situation he encountered which is clearly depicted when he states, “Lucky I wasn’t born in this country,” he said. Catch me mincing around on bound feet!” (Chen 38). Chen attempted to expose the inhuman practices of foot binding and unwanted sexual relationships between a man and woman. By portraying these despicable events, Chen demonstrated that he sympathized with Chinese women that experienced this. The satirical tone of this story conveyed the circumstances that were unjust to women. Nancy Evans makes this statement about the overall meaning behind the story: “The obvious answer to his heroics is that women have had to stand this pain and humiliation as a matter of course for years” (Evans par. 19). If women had to experience this, then men should try to understand the things they were going through. Evans includes an excerpt from Wu Shuang-i that praises Chen for the remarkable way he stood up for women:
He bravely described a society in which women fulfilled the most important roles, which was completely opposed to the society of his times, a society in which men filled the most important roles." And Li Kuo comments that Li Ju-chen, by using descriptions, causes the men of his times, who have become accustomed to hold the honoured position in society and who believe that women rightfully occupy their lowly place, to feel the pain of having their ears pierced and their feet bound. (Evans par. 14)
The central purpose of the story is to expose the things women had to endure to justify their need to be freed of oppression. The inequality gap between men and women was largely illustrated in Flowers in the Mirror by the roles women obtained and men obtained. In the nineteenth and twentieth century society, men were seen as the providers and women had the domestic home responsibilities. The reversal of these roles in the story were shown because the “maids” were men and the “King” was a woman. Another way Chen sympathized with women was through the imagery of foot binding that was popular in Chinese culture. The description of Lin’s feet was truly horrific: “In due course, his feet lost much of their original shape. Blood and flesh were squeezed into a pulp and then little remained of his feet but dry bones and skin, shruck, indeed, to a dainty size” (Chen 44). Through the immense detail of this procedure, Chen further aided his argument that the gender roles between men and women needed to be changed.
Gender Stereotyping of Male Masculinity
Comparable to the efforts of Li Ju-Chen, Jonah Gokova also contributed to the argument of unwarranted gender stereotypes of males that had detrimental effects on women. In “Challenging Men to Resist Gender Stereotyping,” Gokova did not hesitate to aim his argument directly to the oppressors in his case. According to the article “Padare’s gender mainstreaming efforts hailed,” Padare men’s forum was an organization that helped make strides in fighting for equality (Padare par. 3). One of the officers of this organization believed that, “...men engagement for gender equality benefits everyone from women, children and even men themselves (Padare par. 4). Gokova was a prominent member of this organization and in his article, “Challenging Men to Resist Gender Stereotyping,” his goal was to help men understand that masculine gender stereotypes have done nothing but harm women in society. Gokova explains, “Men need to be challenged continually to seek change. This means openly and publicly rejecting the current image of manhood ... Developing a new man whose existence does not depend on any form of violence and abuse of women is possible” (Gokova 423). Throughout history, most men have always been accepting of the stereotype that they have to be dominate in society and in relationships; this is not the case. Through Gokova’s stance, he is openly supporting the feminist movement in seeing how male’s masculinity is indirectly and directly negatively impacting women. Gokova makes this excellent analysis of social expectations of men limiting the freedom of women in the article, “Padare’s gender mainstreaming efforts hailed”:
“We started this organisation as five men who all shared non-governmental organisation sector experience. We felt it was important that we unpack how the social expectations of men were restricting women’s choices and denying them dignity. This realisation gave rise to casual conversations that brought men together to discuss how society could shift towards embracing women’s rights and according them the space they need to self-actualise,” Gokova said. (Padare par. 7)
The depiction Gokova uses puts into simple terms where men can identify with the language of feminism that they most likely ignored in the past. Men’s societal expectations do not need to come in the expense of women. Men can still support the feminist movement and still be seen as the “normal” standards of a man.
Criticism of the Movement
Li Ju-Chen and Jonah Gokova both have created works of literature that reinforce women’s fight for equality; however, there have been opposition of their arguments. Li Ju-Chen was heavily criticized for his negative depiction of some Chinese culture practices such as foot binding. According to Nancy Evans, some writers believe Chen did not have the right to speak out for women because he could not have known exactly what they were going through (Evans par. 31). However, one scholar came to Chen’s defense by stating, “This may well be because Li Ju-chen was a scholar who failed and therefore could understand such issues "as if he were seeing fire," whereas he had much less knowledge about the tender feelings of youth” (Evans par. 31). Jonah Gokova also faced criticism from men that wanted to stay stagnant in their oppressive ways: “Padare encourages men to recognize and reject destructive assumptions and perceptions that result in gender inequality” (Gokova 423). Someone fighting for the equality of any minority group should never be criticized for standing up in the face of oppression. Although it has been difficult to get everyone on the right side of equality, male authors such as Gokova and Chen, help further support women and reject gender stereotypes.
In conclusion, the feminist movement has paved the way for the political and social equality of women. Authors such as Li Ju-Chen and Jonah Gokova contributed exponentially to furthering the abolishment of gender stereotypes and providing a male perspective on these issues. Abby Werlock gives readers this insight to the evolution of the feminist movement in modern society:
Today, most critics generally agree that there is no one kind of feminism; the study of women recognizes individual differences but has attempted to find common subjects of agreement: for instance, that patriarchal society oppresses women and minorities, among whom a close link exists; that women have been marginalized. (Werlock par. 1)
Gender stereotypes will continue to be detrimental to the strides this movement has made in history if psychological elements such as cultural aspects, unwarranted sexual domination, and the influence of male masculinity does not depart from societal expectations. While humanity has progressed with this issue, there are still men with unwavering perspectives about the women’s rights movement. Humanity needs to come together as a whole and realize that gender stereotyping has not done anything but prolong the oppression of women.
Chen, Li Ju. “From Flowers in the Mirror.” The Essential Feminist Reader, edited by Estelle B. Freedman, Modern Library Trade Paperback Edition, 2007, pp. 37-46.
Evans, Nancy J. F. "Social Criticism in the Ch'ing: The Novel Ching-hua yuan." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Lynn M. Zott, vol. 137, Gale, 2004. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420056196/LitRC
?u=floteccl&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=4d0db152. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021. Originally published in Papers on China, no. 23, 1970, pp. 52-64.
Gokova, Jonah. “Challenging Men to Reject Gender Stereotypes.” The Essential Feminist Reader, edited by Estelle B. Freedman, Modern Library Trade Paperback Edition, 2007, pp. 420-423.
"Padare’s gender mainstreaming efforts hailed." Zimbabwe Standard (Africa), sec. NEWS, 7 June 2020. NewsBank: Access World News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/17B722B3F00048C8. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021.
Werlock, Abby H. P. “Feminism and Feminist Criticism.” Encyclopedia of the American Short Story, 2-Volume Set, Third Edition, Facts On File, 2013. History Research Center, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=&itemid=&articleId=9212. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021.
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This page on my blog features my written essays and articles from my college literature courses that I have taken.