“Rip Van Winkle” examines various kinds of tyrannical power: the tyranny of marriage, the tyranny of day-to-day responsibilities, and the more literal tyranny of King George III of Britain over his American subjects. The story poses various questions about how we can maintain our freedom in face of these tyrannies. By extension, the story also prompts us to wonder what “freedom” from tyranny means, what a “tyrant” really is, and how America and its citizens are especially in need of answers to these questions.
Rip Van Winkle’s long nap has the primary effect of freeing him from three major kinds of tyrannies: the tyranny of government, the tyranny of marriage, and the tyranny of societal expectations. Before his sleep, he is a subject of King George III, the henpecked husband of the ever-nagging Dame Van Winkle, and a man in the prime of his life—he is physically able and reasonably expected to work. But he sleeps through the American Revolutionary War. When he wakes from his nap, therefore, he is freed of the King’s tyranny. Additionally, during Rip’s nap his wife dies after bursting a blood vessel during a tirade she was delivering to a New England merchant. Rip is especially ecstatic about this particular liberation from a tyrannical marriage. Rip no longer has to obey (or, more frequently, hide from) the commands of Dame Van Winkle. And lastly, Rip’s nap has aged him to the point when no one expects him to be productive or even busy. He can live unbothered by the King, his wife, or the expectations of his community. But the reader should note that after his nap, Rip goes on living much the same way he did before, suggesting that perhaps he was free even when tyranny abounded. Irving seems to be asking us if tyranny is really an insurmountable restriction upon living freely, or if it is merely an obstacle the free must overcome with persistence and creativity.
It is even suggested that Diedrich Knickerbocker himself (the fictional historian who narrates Rip’s tale) is exercising his own freedom by doing so. We are told his time would have been better spent pursuing “weightier matters,” but nevertheless Knickerbocker sticks to his hobby even in the face of critical scorn, economic failure, and the societal expectation that he should be doing otherwise. He freely “rides his hobby in his own way.” In this sense, “Rip Van Winkle” is not only a story about freedom, but also an example of freedom. Knickerbocker performs the very freedom about which he writes.
“Rip Van Winkle” was written in 1817, and published in 1819. The United States was still new, and had only recently endured the War of 1812, during which it was reasonable to question the country’s continued freedom from the British. Narratives about freedom would have addressed important questions the United States and its citizens had for their government and themselves. “Rip van Winkle”, for instance, seems to suggest that personal freedom is available to the individual regardless of external circumstances. Rip and the author who writes about him can then be seen as free in spite of the various tyrannies that threaten that freedom. This story about the persevering freedom of the individual would have certainly been interesting (and perhaps comforting!) to American readers in a time when the freedom of the collective nation of the United States of America was still perceived as fragile.
Tyranny vs. Freedom ThemeTracker
Tyranny vs. Freedom Quotes in Rip Van Winkle
The old gentleman died shortly after the publication of his work, and now that he is dead and gone it cannot do much harm to his memory to say that his time might have been much better employed in weightier labors. He, however, was apt to ride his hobby in his own way.
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.
He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the little village inn—but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken, and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle.” Instead of the great tree which used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red nightcap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes…he recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George…but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was stuck in the hand instead of a scepter, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON.