Rip Van Winkle is the story of a middle aged man that goes to sleep for twenty years. Although the purpose of this story was to be a short and entertaining comedy, when analyzed it reveals a deeper meaning through its theme. Before we start to look at the theme, we should first define some of the characterization on the book.
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Rip Van Winkle was “ a simple, good natured man” and this “ gained him such universal popularity.” From these quotes we can assume that Rip was a very happy man with many friends. “ He would never even refuse to assist a neighbor in the roughest toil, and was a foremost man at all country frolics for husking Indian corn, or building stone fences. The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own.” Some may take this quote as an indication of Rip being lazy, but it is quite the contrary. “ Certain it is that he was a great favorite among all the good wives of the village, who, as usual with the amiable sex, took his part in all family squabbles” This shows that Rip’s personality is doing more good than harm. In fact, the whole theory suggesting that Rip’s is a slacker is flawed. As stated before, Rip is ‘ universally popular’ on top of this, he does favors for other people such as helping them with their bags and even babysitting their children.
Although he did not directly do any profitable labor, he helped so many people that they did end up returning the favor (as stated in the quote). Also mentioned is that “ he declared it was of no use to work on his farm; it was the most pestilent little piece of ground in the whole country; everything about it went wrong, and would go wrong, in spite of him. His fences were continually falling to pieces; his cow would either go astray or get among the cabbages; weeds were sure to grow quicker in his fields than anywhere else; the rain always made a point of setting in just as he had some outdoor work to do.” He cannot tent to his farm for reasons beyond his control, and instead of hopelessly trying to get it in shape, he rather enjoys his life and still manages to support his family through the people that he helps. From these values we can assume that Rip Van Winkle was intended to be a protagonist of the story.
It can be said that Dame Van Winkle is the antagonist in the story. She is depicted as a Sour lady with nothing better to do than henpeck her husband. As stated in the quote “ his dog Wolf, who was as much henpecked as his master; for Dame Van Winkle regarded them as companions in idleness, and even looked upon Wolf with an evil eye, as the cause of his master’s so often going astray. True it is, in all points of spirit befitting an honorable dog, he was as courageous an animal as ever scoured the woods—but what courage can withstand the ever-during and all-besetting terrors of a woman’s tongue? The moment Wolf entered the house his crest fell, his tail drooped to the ground, or curled between his legs; he sneaked about with a gallows air, casting many a sidelong glance at Dame Van Winkle, and at the least flourish of a broomstick or ladle would fly to the door with yelping precipitation.” this quote was intended to introduce Wolf to the story, but instead, it provides a vivid image of the temper of Dame Van Winkle. When Rip returned from his slumber and heard the news of Dame’s passing, his first thought is “ These was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence”, showing that Rip disliked his wife but tolerated her. I believe that Rip did so to keep his status of “ simple, good natured man”.
Now that we have analyzed the characters, let’s explore some of the literary elements in the story. First off lets look at a simple metaphor. “ a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener by constant use.” the purpose of this metaphor is to convince the reader that Rip’s torment never loosened its grip. This quote is preceded by another metaphor: “ tart temper never mellows with age”. This again serves the same purpose and also contributes to the historical tense/style of the book. Some figurative language was also used in terms like “ a sharp tongue”. In addition to the metaphors, there are many allusions in the story. By definition, an allusion is a reference to a thing or event without explicitly naming or mentioning it. One such instance in the allusion to the revolutionary war.
Rip returns to his town and claims that he is a loyal subject of the king. He notices that his beloved statue of King George III where he used to lay and smoke for hours on end was replaced by a certain “ general washington” (whom we all know to be the great Gorge Washington, our first president). The crowd’s reaction was very extreme when Rip claimed what he did, and they threatened to kill him thinking that he was a spy. “ Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “ I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and 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!” Another allusion is the story’s reference to the bible: “ in other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” This references the story of the Tower of Babel and how the language of the people was split into many different languages. It is a keen way to describe how confused and nonplussed Rip feels in this situation.
Now that we have identified the key ideas of the story, we can start to assess the theme. In his life prior to his slumber, some may say that he was overly lazy and did not do anything productive. It is actually just the opposite. Believe it or not, Rip actually lives his life in perfect proportions. He balances a healthy lifestyle, time with loved ones (note that Dame Van Winkle is not considered loved), and relaxation. Along with this, he also brings profit to the family while still maintaining this balance. Not only is his life in good shape, his actions are rewarding to others as well.
At this moment we can apply the possible theme of karma and dharma. Karma is an ancient hindu idea which in its simplest form means your actions. What actions you take and what action fall upon you are all related to karma. An individual can have “ bad karma” or “ good karma” depending on their actions. Dharma on the other hand is more of a goal or a purpose in life. For example, the dharma of a lion is simply to survive and to ensure the survival of his pride. A human being’s dharma has many different aspects to it, one of which is having a balanced life. Fulfilling your dharma will in turn create good karma. Rip’s dharma was clearly not to maintain his farm, as we can clearly see from his personality and history. His dharma is to be kind and helpful to others, putting their needs before his. This was his dharma, and he fulfilled it.
This lead to the receiving of good karma which can be seen in his post-slumber life. Here, he awakes to find his children married and well of, his wife long gone, and his dog that has survived the years of his absence. He reunites with his friends and lives happily ever after with his daughter. An instance of bad karma can be seen in Dame Van Winkle. Before Rip’s slumber, Dame Van Winkle was seen as the antagonist (as explained previously). After Rip’s awakening, Dame Van winkle was found to be dead for 18 years (a result of her bad karma). With these points I strongly believe that the concept of karma and dharma is the strongest theme for this story.