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.
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