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The Representation of the American Dream in The Awakening and Rip Van Winkle 

Seminar paper by Maja Ina Ruparcic

If literary critics were asked to list the sleepiest pieces of American fiction, The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle would doubtlessly make the top five. Written during a very turbulent period of American history, they both demonstrate how quickly society and its values develop, but at the same time criticise how this change – a metaphor for the American Dream – has been insufficient. Chopin published her novel eighty years after Irving wrote Rip, and knew a different America than he did, so even though in nineteenth-century writing, sleep is typically followed by change, this change represents a slightly different version of the American Dream for the two authors. For both, the Revolution is established as the “awakening,” or the transition between sleep and reality, and the state preceding it as far from satisfactory. The three stages — sleeping, waking, and dreaming — are in this order present in both narratives. Paradoxically, one needs to awaken from a drowsy, dreamlike state to be able to pursue their individual concepts of the American Dream. However, the quest for either version of the American Dream is long and hopeless. America — like Edna Pontellier and Rip Van Winkle — although (partially) liberated from British rule, is in many ways still an infant country. It lacks experience, knowledge, and maturity to be able to reach its full potential and the American Dream in its entirety; the question arises whether it is ready to embark on this fresh journey at all. In this respect, America as personified by the two protagonists encourages a psychoanalytical reading of the nation as a whole. Additionally, almost a century-long gap between the novel and the short story proves that the American Dream is not a constant, but an ever-evading ideal that is being reinvented by each new generation.

Irving wrote Rip Van Winkle only a few decades after America had gained independence, while the memory of British supremacy was still fresh in the minds of its newly-freed citizens. He wrote under the influence of Jeffersonian democracy and the principles it celebrated, so it is not surprising that the short story exhibits the characteristics of the “traditional” American Dream, which among other ideals hails the self-made man and hard work. The concept originates from the Declaration of Independence and as such entails that every individual should have the opportunity of upward social mobility by means of labour, education, and their own abilities. When the notion is juxtaposed with the character of Rip Van Winkle, it becomes quite evident that the two could not be less alike. Rip is idle, unambitious, infantile, and literally sleeps through the key moment of his country’s history, to which he is also completely indifferent. He is an antithesis to the change he witnesses after his long sleep, and consequently the antithesis to the traditional American Dream.

Although the references to sleep in the story are not as numerous as they are in Chopin’s novel, they still alert the reader to the change that is being brought about. The clear structure of the story makes it very easy to identify the three stages connected with sleep, waking, and dreams. The descriptions of Rip’s world before the Revolution “[a]bound with somnolent modifiers” (Kann 1979, 185) and lack any kind of action. The village is “[a]ccustomed to phlegm and drowsy tranquillity” (Chopin and Culley 1976, 18–19). It is generally agreed that the drowsiness represents the nation’s numbness under British oppression. Rip himself is doubly oppressed: both by King George III and Dame Van Winkle. After his awakening — the American Revolution — he finds himself a free man. But the world he used to know was transformed radically during his slumbers; it is Irving’s way of showing how despite twenty years being a relatively short time in a greater historical context, it was sufficient to turn Rip’s world upside down. Rip’s terror at this apparent loss of self is evident in his exclamations: “‘I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!’” (Ibid. 22). His confusion demonstrates to what extent an individual identifies with a nation they belong to. Rip used to be one of the many, a typical representative of his folk under King George; under General Washington, he no longer is. Everything he identified with — the tavern, the idle atmosphere, the sense of belonging to the British Empire — crumbled while he slept. He awakens to find a new America, inhabited by people he does not know, speaking a language he does not understand, and adhering to principles he cannot internalise. There is a “busy, bustling, disputatious tone” (Ibid. 18) about the village; phrases like “Federal or Democrat,” “Congress,” and “heroes of seventy-six” mean nothing to him. Everyone else’s American Dream appears to be Rip’s nightmare — save for the freedom from tyranny even he, idle and good-for-nothing as he is, has the right to enjoy as a citizen of the United States. Does, then, Irving naively believe the American Dream to be an ideal all people can strive to achieve, regardless of race and gender? Perhaps to a certain degree; liberty seems to be the only concept that even Rip has a claim to, but all other advantages of the American Dream still remain unattainable to him.

“His confusion demonstrates to what extent an individual identifies with a nation they belong to. Rip used to be one of the many, a typical representative of his folk …. He awakens to find a new America, inhabited by people he does not know, speaking a language he does not understand, and adhering to principles he cannot internalise.”

At first sight, Rip’s adventure has little in common with Edna Pontellier’s in The Awakening. Irving’s story has but one allusion to sleep; Chopin’s teems with them. There are over twenty references to sleep, dreams, tiredness, and waking in the novel, but they do not all convey the same state of mind of the heroine. To see what changes to Edna’s either inner or outer life they set in motion, and how these could be interpreted in terms of understanding Chopin’s idea of the American Dream, it is necessary to closely examine the passages in which these references appear.

The first time Edna awakens from a deep sleep is when her husband reproaches her for neglecting their children. At the same time, she awakens into a new realisation about the oppression she is subjected to in her married life. In the following days, she begins to daydream: “[I]t moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness […] In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being” (Chopin and Culley 1976, 14-15); “[S]he discovered many a… corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream” (Ibid. 58). So what kind of America does Edna — and through her, possibly, Kate Chopin — daydream about? While her daydreaming does not reveal much in terms of content, other instances of sleep do. Many of her dreams are erotic; they “[s]tir the animalism within her” (Ibid. 78) and induce her to accept the blooming sexuality in her that the Victorian spirit in America at the time represses. They tell us “about her habit of longing for the unattainable” (Franklin 1984, 516); in other words, she finds herself unable to transform her dreams into reality. Whenever she wakes up, it is either into the unrelenting real world (“The years that are gone seem like dreams — if one might go on sleeping and dreaming — but to wake up and find —” [Chopin and Culley 1976, 110]) or into a new realisation about herself (“It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream.” [Ibid. 107]). Her awakened sexual desire is also often conveyed through restlessness and insomnia, which she experiences after Arobin’s visits. Robert, however, is frequently associated with drowsiness and above all a comfortable exhaustion (often after great physical exertion or an emotional overload) that accentuates Edna’s increasing awareness of her own body. Their excursion to the Chênière emphasises Edna’s corporality. Chopin engages all our senses: Edna observes her strong limbs, inhales the sweet country odour, listens to the faint voices, devours the food. Robert is well aware of her revitalisation. Moreover, the image of the snow-white bed evokes a comparison to the Sleeping Beauty; Edna, like Rip, also sleeps for decades, but afterwards wakes up into a world that does not recognise her. They are both outsiders in America, but for very different reasons. Rip is a product of the past, of the world before the Revolution, whereas Edna is ahead of her time. Apart from her literal awakening, she awakens also sexually and as an individual. If Edna represents America, she might be ready to awaken into a new era, but is being hindered by the patriarchal society that controls her. Chopin’s American Dream is the liberation of the female, yet Edna’s ambiguous fate shows just how unattainable this dream was at the time. The liberation of women would be threefold: bodily (Edna’s sexual freedom: she engages in affairs, rejects social conventions), intellectual (she has aspirations, reads Ralph Waldo Emerson), and material (she is able to earn her living, moves out of her husband’s house). Chopin’s vision is closely linked to the concept of the New Woman, who refuses to be acknowledged as her husband’s property and defies existing societal norms. Like in the case of Rip Van Winkle, the narrative can be divided into three stages: Edna’s married life (symbolised by sleep) stands for the Pre-Revolutionary America. Her realisation of the oppression (instances of literal awakenings) implies a defining moment in US history, but not necessarily the Revolution of 1765–1783; it is likelier that it represents a revolution that still needs to happen and which will bring about the emancipation of women. Lastly, Edna’s living a new, liberated life illustrates the American Dream Chopin advocates. With her behaviour and the famous words: “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (Ibid. 106-107), Edna Pontellier quite literally “declares her independence” — which is exactly what the United States did in 1776.

“With her behaviour and the famous words: ‘I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose’ (Ibid. 106-107), Edna Pontellier quite literally ‘declares her independence’ — which is exactly what the United States did in 1776.”

To really understand what the American Dream meant for the two authors, it becomes necessary to explore the time which inspired their work. Edna and Rip live in entirely different epochs. More than a century separates them and consequently, the reasons for their alienation from their respective environments are distinct as well. While Edna’s estrangement is due to her progressive and emancipated mind-set, Rip experiences change in his physical and material world. In other words, the breach between him and society is less abstract. Through Rip as a remnant of the old colonial order, Irving is able to highlight the ideological gap between him and the new regime. Critics disagree as to whether Rip has no role whatsoever in the new world or whether his function is to demonstrate the importance of the past that every country needs. His sleep lasted approximately from 1773 to 1793; the home he left behind was a colonial village under Great Britain, whose values and characteristics were largely still a result of European influence. Rip’s temper, described as “[m]eek of spirit,” “pliant,” and “malleable”, (Irving 1966, 2) can, interestingly, also characterise America’s submission to the colonial rule. Is, then, Irving criticising the backward royalist tendencies and intellectual as well as political stagnation, or is he simply being nostalgic about the past? In fact, Irving can hardly be said to make a comment on either era; his main aim is to “exhibit the contrast between the old provincial times, and the state of things subsequent to the American Revolution” (Pearce 1993, 120), as pointed out by one of the first readers of the story. For Pearce, what Rip’s new world esteems most is the pursuit of practical achievement, social success, and materialistic self-interest. Republicanism, egalitarianism, democracy, and capitalism are highly regarded ideologies. Can the two worlds coexist? Rip seems to prove so: “his presence in the new community serves as a reminder that life is more anchored in the past, is less active, more simple, more contemplative, and is more content with the inevitable limits of human achievement and endeavour” (Ibid. 121). Yet he will never be truly integrated, never assimilated or accepted as part of a community fixated on the pursuit of the American Dream. This further substantiates the claim made earlier: the freedom to be himself — even among people he has little in common with — is the only benefit Rip is entitled to through everyone else’s American Dream.

If life speeded up for Rip in twenty years, the change towards the end of the nineteenth century was even more dramatic. Although Chopin never actively fought for women’s rights or joined any political movements, her writing alone is enough to characterise her as an early feminist author. Her exploration of “the woman question” is emotional rather than political. Edna, like Chopin, is not (politically) active in her rebellion against the patriarchy, even though many women at the time were. They were part of various women’s organisations, attended college, and earned their own wages, while Chopin was more interested in the neglected personal and sexual aspect of female emancipation — writing provocative fiction, smoking, and walking out on her own demanded just as much courage as attending feminist conventions. Through Edna, she subtly suggests that a woman’s inward life is just as important for her personal fulfilment and happiness as her material condition and rights. By doing so, she rejects the overall belief that women can thrive only in the domestic sphere and have no higher aspirations. Despite Edna’s putting the blame on Léonce, it is actually the oppressive societal norms that restrict her freedom and development on the larger scale — Léonce mostly lets her do whatever she pleases. Both she and Rip seem oppressed by their respective spouses, but on the symbolic level (i.e., their representing America), their oppressors are two different entities. As we have already established, in Rip’s case the tyrant is King George III; for Edna, it is the community where she cannot be herself. Her American Dream is that of the acknowledgement of female individuality and a change in the collective perception of non-conformist women who defy social conventions. 

“Through Edna, she subtly suggests that a woman’s inward life is just as important for her personal fulfilment and happiness as her material condition and rights.”

However, Chopin is aware that Edna’s American Dream is far from becoming reality. Many critics have observed regressive and infantilised traits in Edna’s behaviour, and the same can be said for Rip Van Winkle. When we read the two characters as allegorical representations of nineteenth-century America, it becomes apparent that mentally, the country is still too inexperienced to turn over a new leaf. The American Dream is in itself a form of escapism, and it paradoxically results in instances of dreaming about it. While there is room for doubt concerning Edna’s psychological immaturity, the evidence of Rip’s retreat to infancy is abundant. By being incapable of materially providing for his family, avoiding his wife, and experiencing a fantastical adventure in the mountains, he “clings to regressive fantasies [and] denies responsibility” (Kann 1979, 187). Not only does he associate with children in his daily life rather than adults, his dream involves interaction with infantilised creatures as well. He has no function pertaining to responsible adults outside the realm of fantasy and the readers inevitably find themselves commiserating with Dame Van Winkle, whose daily concerns are rooted in the real world.

Both “tyrannical” spouses (Dame Van Winkle and Léonce Pontellier) expect adult partners, and while we can forgive Edna her neglect of the pressing concerns of reality around her due to her inability to choose freely, Rip’s condition fails to win our sympathies because quite frankly, he has nothing but his own spinelessness to blame for the life he has chosen for himself.

Although there are many Freudian symbols to be found in The Awakening, it remains a fact that the novel was published several months before The Interpretation of Dreams. As well pointed out by Franklin (1984, 510), “[p]sychological critics have helpfully detailed the infantile regressive traits in Edna, but this line of interpretation tends to view Edna’s struggle as narrowly pathological rather than universally human.” The same cannot be said about Rip, whose idleness and irresponsibility are not a way of rebellion against his community but merely ingrained personality traits. This supports the claims made above about the protagonists representing America. Rip’s immaturity cannot find a place in the quest for the American Dream, and while Edna may be ready to do so, she lacks experience: “a solitary soul” cannot persevere on her own against the patriarchal system.

The question then arises – is the realisation of the American Dream possible? For individuals who feel “out of place” in nineteenth-century America, only partially. Edna’s dream will come true long after she has perished, of which she is well aware. Rip, however, never fought for Irving’s version of the American Dream as it is, and had no other dream except freedom – which, although through no effort of his own, he still manages to obtain. The elusive American Dream is a vicious circle, and protagonists in nineteenth-century American fiction need to awaken from a comfortable sleep to be able to dream of a better country, not knowing whether it is at all possible to achieve this ideal. Kate Chopin and Washington Irving, although nearly a century apart, convey their visions and hopes for America through writing characters that either stagnate or inspire. What path the nation chooses is up to the people: they may follow Edna into a world of greater freedom or linger with Rip in the past. The change that always follows sleep is, ironically, the only constant for the United States. The characters symbolise America at different stages of development, so the realisation of the American Dream will depend on their maturity, perseverance, and the surrounding community. Even though a dream that transgresses societal expectations cannot flourish in an unsupportive environment, the idea will live on and perhaps become reality for future generations (who will, inevitably, come up with a new ideal to pursue). How many years did Edna sleep on Grand Isle? And how long Rip in the mountains? Nineteenth-century America may be asleep, but it is waking up. Waking up only to find itself dreaming on and on about a utopic future that often transcends one lifetime and may or may not come.

“Even though a dream that transgresses societal expectations cannot flourish in an unsupportive environment, the idea will live on and perhaps become reality for future generations (who will, inevitably, come up with a new ideal to pursue).”


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Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.