Rip Van Winkle Critical Analysis

This sample essay on Rip Van Winkle Critical Analysis reveals arguments and important aspects of this topic. Read this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion below.

When reading “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving for the first time, one would get the impression that something bad and awkward is bound to happen to people who are controlled by their feelings and curiosity. In a way, this short story symbolizes the improvement of a young nation and its transformation to a free and democratic country.

But, in it, there are certain people who don’t take notice of the political and historical changes, and as a result, they do not fit into the new system, leaving the impression of being odd and old.

Rip Van Winkle is one of those people, and if we read the story from psychoanalytic and archetypal points of view, we will see that he was actually happy to have been asleep for 20 years. “Rip Van Winkle” answers some questions, such as the one taking into consideration Winkle’s absence from home for 2 decades.

One of the answers suggests that a man, who only cares for himself, would eventually end up losing his wife and family. Another answer suggests that if someone sleeps or drinks for 20 years, he or she is not a terrible person, as long as the village is his/her friend.

Where Did Rip Van Winkle Fall Asleep

But, this story may also relate to a soldier’s struggle to adjust to society, after his return from war.

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We know very little of both Winkle’s intimate life and his hidden desires. But, with the help of Freud’s concept of id as the “home” of the irrational, instinctual and the unknown, we can interpret Rip Van Winkle’s appearance in public. We know that he’s loved by the whole village, and that he’s happy in making everyone else around him happy. It is safe to say that he’s popular, a model citizen.

But, this is not the case in his house and with his family, because he doesn’t care about them, as seen in paragraph 8:“Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible. ” He doesn’t work, nor attend his family. Laziness is considered a sin, but Winkle doesn’t have a guilty conscience about it or the abandonment of his family, and he “blames” his wife for the way he is.

So, the contrast of his public and private life seems to be the same as the contrast between his impulses and the duty he has as a father/husband. Any reader would conclude that either Rip doesn’t love his wife or he is an immature man, incapable of handling his marriage. Winkle’s psyche controls the logical and rational, and his ego is probably the reason why he doesn’t divorce or harm his wife, or even himself. It is also the reason for his good standing with the other villagers, as it tells him that they would repay him in time.

They really repay him, and Winkle is spared from complete anonymity when he returns home after 20 years, as seen in paragraph 56: “an old woman, tottering out from among the crowd, put her hand to her brow, and peering under it in his face for a moment, exclaimed, ‘Sure enough! it is Rip Van Winkle—it is himself. Welcome home again, old neighbor. —Why, where have you been these twenty long years? ‘” The final challenge that awaits Winkle is his attempt to be completely accepted in the society again.

We, as readers, never know if he actually slept for 20 years, but we are not given any other choice. Winkle tries to redeem himself from his past sins by becoming a recognized legend. However, Winkle’s superego suggests that his disappearance is immoral. And yet, he gets a second chance after coming back from the Catskill Mountains. Without any effort, he becomes a respected man; his long absence justifies his political ignorance, and he even becomes a symbol of the village. We realize that his 20-year sleep has only cost him his wife.

Maybe that’s what he always wanted: to live a carefree life, without working, taking care of children, or having an intimate relationship with a person he never really loved. But this desire is never revealed and we only see him as someone who follows the principles set by society. Since divorce is not an option at the time, it is best for Winkle to simply disappear. He could have also become grumpy and antisocial, but that simply isn’t his style. The story doesn’t have enough elements for us to apply Freud’s Oedipus complex, but there are some interesting facts, like the one that Winkle “kills” his life while living with his family.

Also, Dame Van Winkle is portrayed more like a mother, than a wife: “whenever her name was mentioned, however, he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and cast up his eyes; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate, or joy at his deliverance” (paragraph 61). From this, we can assume that Winkle probably hated her. He even reflects about the new-found freedom from his wife (the other freedom being the freedom from the old society) in paragraph 61: “he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle. At the end of the story, the old Winkle is dead, and we have a new, regular citizen of a new nation. But, in order to reach this independence, he had to distance himself from his family, and disappear into the mountains. He goes there with the excuse of going squirrel hunting, but ends up falling asleep: “one taste provoked another, and he reiterated his visits to the flagon so often, that at length his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head, his head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep” (paragraph 24). As a conclusion, Winkle’s disappearance was the best thing that could happen to him.

While the people of the Dutch community had to fight a war, Winkle was sleeping, and woke up only to witness a completely new life, with a new type of government and without any family or private duties. He didn’t suffer any serious consequences, with only his physical appearance being a minor problem. In other words, he found a perfect, and yet simple solution to his “lifelong” problem. Archetypal criticism may also help us in analyzing this short story. A symbol which appears throughout the story is the tree. In more than one occasion, Winkle visits a group sitting under “the shade of a large tree. In order to escape from his wife, he would often go to the forest, and “here he would sometimes seat himself at the foot of a tree” (paragraph 16). He also falls asleep there. According to Wilfred Guerin, the tree is a symbol of immortality and regeneration (Guerin 152). That’s probably the reason why Winkle comes back home after 2 decades of idleness in Nature and is not hurt by Nature’s elements. The tree where Winkle spends time may also be connected to the tree of life, which keeps people alive even if they do not care for their families or marriages. Dame Van Winkle resembles a terrible mother in her husband’s eyes.

Having this in mind, we can say that she represents both sex and death: her husband is afraid of her and the fear leads him to emasculation. As a result, we see that Winkle is not interested in his wife as a woman, and regards her more as a monster, a witch. However, if she’s mad at him for his laziness and refusal to find a serious job, she would be a representation of the Earth, its fertility and abundance (a good mother). But in reality, besides protecting her children, she terrifies Winkle and constantly provokes him, so we can consider her as being good and bad at the same time (Guerin 151).

At the end of the story, we see that Winkle becomes a respectable old man, or a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. According to Jungian archetypes, he tests the moral qualities of others. However, not everybody sees him as a wise man, which is clearly revealed in paragraph 57: “some were seen to wink at each other, and put their tongues in their cheeks; and the self-important man in the cocked hat, who, when the alarm was over, had returned to the field, screwed down the corners of his mouth, and shook his head—upon which there was a general shaking of the head throughout the assemblage. So, we have a situation where Winkle doesn’t end up left out by his community, but there are suspicions over the credibility of his story. Therefore, he closely follows the pattern of a hero, and is a kind of a sacrificial scapegoat. One of the most important symbols in the story is the birth of a new nation, something which was completely new for those of European origin. Again we have Winkle as a scapegoat, because he represents all the old European traditions that must be extinguished in order for the new nation to grow.

Everybody must work to form and support the new government and keep the country’s independence. The old ways of thinking and living are long gone. While Old Europe was in a deep slumber, its colonies woke up, one by one. The group of pseudo-philosophers, formed by Winkle and his friends, represents the Old World and its “process” of doing nothing, while the colonies grow more and more independent. As a consequence of it, the transformation of Old Europe was something inevitable, and it changes, much like Rip Van Winkle.

In this story, we can also try to identify Northrop Frye’s four mythos. In the beginning we have a romantic (summer) phase, as Winkle is loved by all the villagers. What follows is the anti-romantic, satirical and ironic phase (winter), when we discover that Winkle is miles away from being the perfect husband and father, probably because of him having regrets about his marriage. After that, we have a comedic situation (spring phase), expressed by his “adventure” on the mountain and his falling asleep and waking up 2 decades later.

But, it all ends in a somewhat tragic note (autumn phase), because when he comes back to the village, Dame Van Winkle is dead, Winkle’s daughter doesn’t recognize him and even the villagers, who respect Winkle, don’t believe his story. Although Winkle doesn’t experience this as a tragic situation, any common sense would. All in all, if we follow Frye’s scheme, this short story is rich with irony, because even after Winkle finds out about the death of his wife, he doesn’t want to know anything about her. At the same time, he has to prove the credibility of his story.

By reading “Rip Van Winkle”, one may come across several interesting facts: that the Dutch, not the British, represent Europe; that an implausible story required some proof of its credibility, so that people would find it plausible or funny; that back then, people were equally interested in politics, as they are now… But, what was most important for me was the fact that by reading this story, besides enjoying it, I could also try and analyze a complex character, a character leaving the impression of being happy at first sight, but having problems that are very much present even today.

No matter how you look at it (as a story of a disillusioned husband or the representative of an old, changing nation), “Rip Van Winkle” is an enjoyable short story by Washington Irving, a thought-provoking work leaving a lot of space for discussion and comparisons to the people and nations of today.

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Rip Van Winkle Critical Analysis. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Rip Van Winkle Critical Analysis
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