In Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving advances the notion that freedom does not come on a silver platter; it requires one to make radical decisions to free themselves from forces of tyranny and subjugation. Presented in the form of a narrative, the story features Rip Van Winkle, the main character, who lives a miserable life due to mistreatment from his wife, Dame Van Winkle. The demands of the wife for Rip Van Winkle to be responsible and hardworking bring so much torment to him that he leaves home for the wilderness in order to secure his freedom.
The narrator describes Rip Van Winkle as a kind, good-natured and obedient person who is popular among the villagers (line 28-29). However, the most undoing for Rip is his laziness and inability to fulfill expectations of society, and this has repeatedly put him at loggerheads with his wife. For instance, he has left his crops and animals unattended, plunging his patrimonial farm into dereliction (line 64-68). All these expectations deny Rip the freedom he desires in many ways. By character, he was not a hardworking person in ventures that required intensive labor but very good in relating with people and also enjoyed hunting. In this context, Rip is chained as he has to put up with the daily nagging of his high-tempered wife for pursuing what he loves; hunting, playing with children and engaging in political discussions in village gatherings. When life becomes intolerable, he makes the bold decision of leaving his wife and children.
After spending 20 years in the woods, Rip returns only to find that the wife had died. There is an ironic twist to his reaction as it is ordinarily expected that Rip would grief for the loss of his wife, but the reaction to the news of the death of Dame Van Winkle seems to suggest that her death was a good riddance since he will no longer have to obey or hide from a nagging wife. Such reaction not only emphasizes the extent of the suffering that Rip had experienced in his marriage but also quantifies the cost the oppressed are willing to incur to free themselves from the shackles of oppression. To this end, the death of Dame Van Winkle not only rescues Rip from a nagging wife but also offers him an opportunity to live his own life as he sees it. In his view, life is all about pursuing what one enjoys and, therefore, the absence of the wife is a guarantee of the freedom to live as he chooses. This is a value treasured by many Americans.
An interesting part of Rips behavior is that it is the same before and after the death of the wife. Despite the ridicule that he gets from Dame Van Winkle, he devises ingenious ways of pursuing his passion; he either ignored the nagging words of his wife or left home. By depicting such behavior, Irving perhaps wants to advance the idea that people choose to be oppressed. He appears to suggest that even in circumstances where our freedom is curtailed, one can still pursue what they want in life so long as they focus on what brings happiness and satisfaction rather confronting the oppressor.
Rips behavior is admired by children whom he helps in making playthings and flying kites. He also assists neighbors doing even the toughest of toils and goes around the village assisting women with chores (line 63-64). This trait raises questions as to whether Rip is actually a lazy person or it is a case of pursuing ones passion. Perhaps Irving wants to raise a moral question on what actually constitutes a good and responsible man. He seems to raise a question as to whether attending to ones property and generating income from such possession is the only demonstration of masculinity in society.
Another case of the quest for freedom is that shown by Diedrich Knickerbocker. He is the fictional historian who gives an account of Rip Van Winkles story. Knickerbocker is scorned for failing to pursue profit-oriented occupations. Like Rip Van Winkle, Knickerbocker he pursued what he loved to do amidst scorn from society. He pursued his hobby his own way and remained undiscouraged by those who viewed him as lazy yet he had admirers who liked his gentleness; he never offended anybody within the neighborhood (line 22-24). Knickerbockers story gives an illustration of a man who struggled to overcome the prejudice of society to pursue writing as a hobby. Such success can be considered as freedom from shackles of societal expectations.
Overly, the story explores American Independence. Rip Van Winkle leaves for the mountains only to return and find that the British rule has ended through a revolution led by General George Washington. The end of British presence meant that Americans were from then allowed to pursue their own destiny without interference from outsiders. In the context of Rips family, the wife represents British imperialism, and the fact that her death ended Rips mental anguish is symbolic of the end of the oppressive rule of the British in America.
Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle, and Other Sketches. Useful knowledge publishing Company, 1882.
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