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Rip Van Winkle and Walden Research Papers

One way to approach works of literature on nature is to compare and contrast them. Below is a topic suggestion for a research paper to compare and contrast Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  Both of these works involve the theme of escaping from the conditions of ordinary life, but they differ greatly in the following ways:

  • The works differ in tone
  • Rip Van Winkle and Walden differ in purpose
  • Rip Van Winkle does not require the level of emotional maturity that Walden does

Irving was witty, intelligent, and very much a man of the world--a man who identified with theRip Van Winkle and Walden English upper middle class and with the world as it is--and he takes the theme of escape and uses it to create a humorous fantasy that is gently suggestive of what he wishes to show, the need of some people who are not well suited to their world to find an alternative.  Thoreau, by contrast, was a passionate man, an alienated visionary determined to promote his cause with a prophetic voice. His prose—direct, serious, and forceful—attempts to compel his readers to adopt a view of the world that agrees with his own. To read Irving’s story and then read Thoreau’s Walden is to go from a world of quiet, loving mockery of the flaws of men and women into a world where the prevailing economics, politics, and morals are under sharp attack. Irving was comfortable in the world as given while Thoreau wanted it changed. That is one difference between the two. Another is, quite frankly, a difference in the their emotional maturity.  Irving was, I submit, an adult, while Thoreau was, as someone once called him, “a perennial adolescent”.

There is nothing forceful or passionate in Irving’s story.  But neither is it bland.  Indeed there is a certain sharpness to it, but that sharpness derives from Irving’s wit and not from the elements of the story itself.  This is, after all, as Bowden points out, a tale of financial failure. A Thoreau would have written it much differently, would have, I suspect, filled it with sentiment and an explicit condemnation of the status quo.  But Rip Van Winkles sharpness derives from Irving’s shrewd cynicism with respect to human beings, a shrewdness often expressed in one or two simple lines, e.g., “…those men are most apt to be most obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home…” and, “The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor….”  It is necessary that this sharpness be there.  Without it the story would be too sweet, too purely a child’s fairy-tale.  With it we have what the story is, a humorous commentary on the world by a sophisticated observer of that world.

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