Though Rip Van Winkle values his own freedom greatly, he cannot be said to actively fight for it. Rip is the perfect example of a passive resistor. He responds to his wife (and eventually to the mention of his late wife) by throwing up his hands, shaking his head, and looking up at the sky. This characteristically resigned gesture neither denies nor accepts. What’s more, when Dame Van Winkle was alive, Rip freed himself from her simply by avoiding her. There is never a single moment of confrontation between Rip Van Winkle and Dame Van Winkle, despite the fact that she is Rip’s primary antagonist. Rip’s passivity in attaining freedom from King George III is even more pronounced: he becomes a free citizen of the United States by napping peacefully through the American Revolution.
Rip’s passivity is held up in contrast to various examples of active resistance. One of Rip’s friends dies in the War. Another ends up working in the American Congress. Both of these men became integral to the birth of a new nation. The patriot in front of the Union Hotel, so focused on the upcoming election, is another figure who is actively maintaining the integrity of the new democratic America. Even the spirit of Hendrick Hudson, who bewitched Rip on the mountain, calls to mind active resistance and revolt: Hudson was a Dutch ship captain who was violently overthrown by mutineers on his boat and set adrift, never to be seen again. He and the other characters tied up in the activity of revolt, revolution, and nation building help to set Rip apart as distinctly not active.
This division between passive and active resistance could be seen as a response to the country’s violent recent past. Perhaps Irving’s suggestion, by making an almost impossibly passive character the protagonist and hero of the story, is that passivity is (or can be) effective. Rip is free, generous, kind, and happy—without fighting, campaigning, or competing. Irving (in line with the American Romanticism his writing exemplified) might be wondering if America’s incessant emphasis on industriousness and active patriotism is in fact necessary for the happiness and fulfillment of its citizens.
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Active vs. Passive Resistance Quotes in Rip Van Winkle
The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance; for he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod as long and heavy as a Tartar’s lance, and fish all day without a murmur, even though he should not be encouraged by a single nibble…in a word, 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.
Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound
His wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence. Rip had but one way of replying to all lectures of the kind, and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing.
How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper, learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary; and how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.