Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle Summary and Analysis.
“Rip Van Winkle” is a short story by the American author Washington Irving, first published in 1819. It follows a Dutch-American villager in colonial America named Rip Van Winkle who meets mysterious Dutchmen, imbibes their liquor, and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. He awakes 20 years later to a very changed world, having missed the American Revolution.
Inspired by a conversation on nostalgia with his American expatriate brother-in-law, Irving wrote the story while temporarily living in Birmingham, England.
It was published in his collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. While the story is set in New York’s Catskill Mountains near where Irving later took up residence, he admitted, “When I wrote the story, I had never been on the Catskills.”
In this article, we are going to look at Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle Summary and Analysis!
Rip Van Winkle Summary – Plot
The story opens with a parenthetical note written by an omniscient third-person narrator, who tells us that the following tale was written by the late historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Knickerbocker was keenly interested in a province in New York at the base of the Catskill mountains, and which was founded by Dutch settlers long ago. He researched the history of this province by listening to first-person accounts of Dutch families who lived there.
Many agree that Knickerbocker’s talents would have been better spent on more important subjects. However, even those who doubt the literary merit of his writings must acknowledge his accuracy.
Knickerbocker died shortly after composing the history we are about to read, and, though he is not remembered well by critics, commoners in New York remain fond of him.
Some bakers have even printed his face on cakes, which the narrator maintains gives Knickerbocker “a chance for immortality almost equal to being stamped on the waterloo medal or a Queen Anne’s Farthing.” Knickerbocker remained devoted to his hobby until the end, despite the fact that it offered so little prestige.
Knickerbocker’s story opens with a poem by Cartwright about truth. He then proceeds to describe the “magical” beauty of the Catskills. He zeroes in on a small village at the foot of these mountains, where a good-natured man named Rip Van Winkle lives.
Rip’s greatest trouble is his wife, Dame Van Winkle, who is shrewish and constantly nagging Rip about his biggest weakness: that he can find no motivation to engage in profitable labor of any kind. Though he is happy to help on properties that are not his own, he avoids work on his own farm and his land is severely run down.
His children are unruly, and his son, Rip Van Winkle Jr. is determined to grow up to be just like his father. His wife’s lecturing is incessant, but Rip’s response is always resigned: he shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, and looks up to the sky.
The only way Rip can avoid his angry wife is to escape his home. Rip used to enjoy going to the inn and participating in idle talk with his neighbors. Much of the conversation is simple town gossip. But the schoolmaster Derrick Van Bummel is said to have facilitated many a meaningful discussion of politics and current events.
He is a well-spoken and well-educated man who, when he happens to find an old newspaper, debates earnestly about the events described within, months after they’ve taken place.
The landlord of the inn is an old patriarch named Nicholas Vedder, who spends every day pursuing the shade of a large tree outside the inn: when the sun moves enough that the shady spot changes, Vedder moves with it. However, even this pleasant environment fails to protect Rip. Eventually, his wife discovers him there and hounds him.
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Winkle’s Summary – Analysis
Rip Van Winkle’ is perhaps the most famous homegrown American fairy tale. It has supernatural elements, the idea of an enchanted wood, and focuses on simple village life, such as we find in many classic European fairy stories. But the mention of the pub’s name – shifting from King George the Third to General Washington – reveals that this is a specifically and unmistakably American tale.
‘Rip Van Winkle’, like many other stories that attain the status of modern myths or archetypes – Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein are two other famous examples – has become more famous as an idea than a tale, at least outside of the United States.
The story’s time setting is central: Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep before 1776 when the American colonies are still ruled by the British, and wakes up after the American War of Independence, which has succeeded in shaking off the British yoke and creating the independent nation of the United States of America.
Curiously, Washington Irving wrote Van Winkle’ in, of all places, Birmingham – Birmingham, England, that is, rather than Birmingham, Alabama. What’s more, Irving had never been to the Catskill Mountains which are so central to the story’s plot and atmosphere when he wrote the tale!
Nor was the central idea of the story – a man falling asleep for many years and waking up to find the word around him substantially changed – entirely new.
Indeed, it was an ancient idea: the Greek historian Diogenes Laërtius, writing some 1,500 years before Irving, tells a similar story concerning Epimenides of Knossos, who fell asleep in a cave for fifty-seven years.
The Christian myth of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who fell asleep for two centuries to escape persecution, is another important precursor to ‘Rip Van Winkle’.
But the clearest influence was Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal’s German folktale ‘Peter Klaus’. Like Irving’s story, it features a man from a simple village who discovers some strange men drinking in the woods; like Irving’s story, the hero falls asleep after partaking of their drink, and, like Irving’s story, he wakes up to find twenty years have passed.
Why did Irving recycle this old plot device for his story about the American Revolution? And how should we interpret the story?
One interpretation is that Irving, through this light-hearted tale, is actually trying to downplay the American Revolution. Rip Van Winkle manages to sleep right through it, which is quite a feat when you think about what a noise there must have been.
When he gets back to his village, although several of his friends have died – one presumably in the war itself – the others have survived, and he soon goes back to sitting and gossiping with them outside of the pub where they used to chatter together.
The name of the pub may have changed – to represent the shift from one George to another, from King George to George Washington – but life for these simple villagers is largely the same as it was before. Rip’s son is his ‘ditto’, or spitting image: the next generation is much the same as the last.
The humor of the story – chiefly in Rip Van Winkle is a henpecked husband – also supports this analysis of the story. If Dame Van Winkle is like Old Mother England, lording it over Rip (representing the American colonies), then her death is a blessed release for Rip, but nothing more momentous than that. He is relieved rather than anything more dramatic.
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