The Concept of Community in Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
A community is a group of people living together for some particular reason, mainly because this coexistence is beneficial for every participant (in ideal cases). Its members define the community itself, and the community they chose to live in defines its members. Every association can be considered to be a community, from nations to the smallest group of friends. As it characterizes the people who chose to live in it, communities are very influential and important. If a person decides to integrate into a group, then they have to undertake its laws and rules, even if they have different opinions on particular cases. Taking all this into consideration it is no wonder that community is a frequent subject of poets and writers. Washington Irving in Rip Van Winkle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also wrote on the theme of different communities, and their roles in people’s life. However, they both write about the same topic, Irving and Coleridge chose to deal with quite a different aspect of it. While Irving focuses on the community of a small village before and after the Civil War, and on the structure of a 19th century American family, Coleridge explores the community of sailors, and also on the social coherence of religion.
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” is set in the America presented by the fictive character: Diedrich Knickerbocker. The story takes us to a very conservative village founded by the Dutch during the colonization, and to make the whole setting more realistic the narrator gives a very exact geographical description of the area, he specifies the location of the village to be at the bottom of the Catskill Mountains and on the bank of River Houston. In this village the power of time is reduced, the inventions of the Industrial Revolution had hardly made their way into the life of the villagers, and the political changes cannot bring serious disturbances into the days of the residents (Roth 249). This can be the reason for that in this village the patriarchal rules are dominant, although on the more socially developed parts of America women were already working and were almost equal with men. But not here, here all the stereotypes connected to patriarchy are valid. This leads to the conflict between Rip and Dame Van Winkle, because against the expectations of the era Rip was more of an artistic and philosophic man, than a breadwinner and all the financial burden was on the shoulder of his wife.
“frequenting a kind of perpetual club of the
sages, philosophers, and other idle
personages of the village” (Irving 12)
Beside this Rip was a good man, he helped others willingly and was successful at hunting and fishing (which were the main roles of men in the undeveloped societies), but he could not succeed in anything he should have done around his own home. That is why he was not considered to be useful for neither his family nor in the community of the village. And probably this is the main reason for the continuous conflicts between him and his wife. In a patriarchal community these conflicts could have been settled easily by the husband, but this was incompatible with Rip’s personality, also serving as a proof for his kindness. Instead of fighting back, he turns to the only thing he excels at (hunting and fishing) to escape from the society that cannot accept him. This drives him into his twenty-year sleep. When he wakes and returns to the village he finds that the most basic points of the society have changed, the colonials have been defeated, and the United States of America was founded. However, in his village (where time has stopped) these changes only have minor effects, we were previously told that Rip is extremely good with children and animals, and now on his return dogs are barking at him and children look at him as he was mad. The real changes of society are reflected in the family of Rip, his life with his aggressive and nagging wife could represent the British colonial government over America, and his more relaxed, and comfortable life with his daughter and her family could point out to the newly founded government after the Civil War (Roth 250). Also his return to the village is a confusing event and it creates public uneasiness, but Rip gains complete serenity for himself as he is let to do what he likes, not forced to take part in household works. This situation is the exact opposite of what the state of the community was when he left, he was hurt by his wife, but the village was not disturbed. So this seems as he had to destroy the calmness of the community in order to get his own security (Roth 251). In his most famous tale, “Rip Van Winkle” Irving wrote about topics that are closely connected to sociology and demography, and that are still interesting for today’s historians. (Wells 5).
While Irving wrote on the society of the newly founded United States, Coleridge directed his focus on the community of sailors, and within that he showed an example of missing authority. In the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Coleridge presents to communities, the first is the wedding where the Mariner’s narration takes place, and the other is the ship where the events of the narration happen (Stevenson 12). On the ship we cannot find a person of authority, there is no captain on the ship. This is strange because ships during the Colonial ages were similar to small kingdoms. There was always a captain who served as the highest authority (just as the king on the continent), and the sailors are all subject to him, they are not considered equal even among themselves. The captain has to direct the days and give the tasks of the sailors. Also he is the person who punishes his subjects for their crimes. The lack of this kind of authority could lead to the crime of the mariner. The mariner is also a very important position on the ship, it can have two meaning, the more general meaning is someone who works on a ship, or simply a sailor. The other, more specific meaning is the person who assists the captain in driving the ship (Stevenson 13). The missing captain can be the reason why the sailors had the chance to rise up after the mariner shot the albatross, which might have been considered a crime as among sailors the albatross is the symbol of the soul of a dead sailor. And also when the bird appears after the storm, the sailors begun to consider it a good omen, and a sign of redemption. This might have also aggravated the crime of the mariner.
Under the captain, sailors are more or less equal, of course there are some officers, but they do not have a very high authority. This can evoke the picture of an explicitly utopian society, where there is no need for leaders, and nation can govern itself, like it was the case during the French Revolution (Stevenson 14). Storms are also widely used as symbols of violent revolutions (for example in Hungarian literature, in “Föltámadott a tenger” by Petőfi Sándor). Revolutions often emerge after a bad, dysfunctional government takes the rule, and the lack of the captain and the following equality, might work as a dysfunctional government, which has to be destroyed. The wedding however may represent the high British aristocracy, as the readers can see The Wedding Guest and the mariner, who is a militaristic person, probably from a middle or lower class of society are malignant with each other in the beginning. However, as the story of the mariner turns more spiritual and more connected to religion, they start to relent. This can show that religion is important for all layers of society.
Considering the different origin of Coleridge and Irving, it is no wonder that they present two very different culture and society. But if one is aware of the main differences between them, can gain same first-hand information on the society of the 19th century naval and colonizing Britain, and on the liberal, democratic United States. If one manages to compare these poems, can see the most significant differences between the community of the two great countries.
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