Rip Van Winkle | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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Rip Van Winkle | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Tall Tale or Authoritative History?

The narrative begins with a declaration by the fictional amateur historian Diedrich Knickerbocker attesting to the absolute truth of the tale he is about to tell. The reader is assured that Knickerbocker is an "unquestioned authority" on life in these early Dutch settlements and that he does extensive research to make sure the information he provides is "scrupulously accurate."

The postscript, too, supports the truth of Rip Van Winkle's experience. Here, Knickerbocker claims he actually met Rip, who verified the story. The postscript further emphasizes the mystery of the Catskill (Kaatskill) Mountains, citing American Indian legends about the mountains' spiritual and magical qualities.

Rip's Life in an Old Dutch Town on the Hudson

"Rip Van Winkle" opens with a vivid description of the Hudson River Valley and the story's setting in the Catskill Mountains. Rip Van Winkle lives near the Hudson in a small farming village. Although the village dates back to about the mid-17th century, the action of the story most likely takes place around 1770.

Rip is a simple and good-natured man of meek spirit who tries to avoid conflict at all cost. This makes him well-liked among villagers of all ages. Unfortunately, Rip is married to a shrew, Dame Van Winkle, who berates him constantly for his laziness. Rip is not averse to labor, as he is always willing to help out his neighbors. He is just against "profitable labor" such as working his own farm to earn money for his family. Rip claims his land is useless for farming, and he does not attempt to grow anything in its "pestilent" soil. As a consequence, his children are "ragged," and his "termagant" wife is perpetually enraged by his indolence. She complains loudly and constantly about Rip's "idleness" and "carelessness" and the "ruin he [is] bringing on the family."

Rip finds his wife's constant harping intolerable, so he flees his house to avoid her. He would rather play marbles with the village children, tell stories, or help others on their farms. He sometimes leaves the village with his dog, Wolf, to fish in the Hudson or to hunt squirrels in the mountains. Sometimes he escapes his wife's complaints by sitting with his friends in front of the village inn, where the men gossip and chat. Yet Dame Van Winkle pursues Rip to the inn, where she heaps abuse on him and his friends. Rip is "at last reduced almost to despair" about how to escape the incessant scolding. One autumn day when Rip can take no more, he grabs his rifle and walks off into the mountains with Wolf to find the peace and solitude he craves.

On the Mountain: A Passage through Time

Rip and Wolf climb toward the top of the highest peak. They become exhausted and stop to rest. Rip gazes fondly at the river and valley below and at the rugged cliffs around him. As evening approaches, Rip figures it's time to head home. He is about to descend the mountain when he hears a voice calling his name. He looks around but sees no one. Wolf growls as Rip's name is called again. Feeling a "vague apprehension," Rip sees a man climbing slowly up the mountain carrying a large keg of liquor on his back. Rip is astonished at this stranger's old-fashioned clothing. The stranger gestures for Rip to help him carry the heavy keg. Rip, always willing to give assistance, warily shares the heavy load.

As they climb, Rip hears a deep thunderous sound. When the two men reach an open space, or "amphitheater," Rip sees that the "thunder" is the sound of a group of men playing ninepins (bowling). The men are dressed in extremely old Dutch-style clothing. One man wears a "high-crowned hat and feather" and seems to be the commander of the group. When they see Rip, the men stop their game and stare at him in a weird, "statue-like" way. Rip finds the entire experience "incomprehensible" and feels his knees go weak with fear. The silent men open the keg and pour the liquor into flagons (pitchers). They offer some to Rip. He hesitates but decides to have a taste—which he finds "excellent." Rip, a "naturally ... thirsty soul," drinks glass after glass of liquor until he "f[ell] into a deep sleep."

When Rip awakes, it is daylight. He looks around for his rifle but sees only a rusted, ruined weapon. He thinks the Dutchmen played a trick on him, switching his good rifle for this useless one. Rip decides to return to the amphitheater to get his rifle back. He calls for Wolf, but the dog is gone. Rip looks for the amphitheater but is unable to find its entrance. Every aspect of the mountain is changed from the night before. Rip gives up his search and heads down the slope toward his village, all the while "dread[ing] to meet his wife."

Back to the Future

As he nears his village, Rip sees people he doesn't recognize. They're wearing oddly styled clothes. When they point to his beard, Rip strokes it and realizes it's grown incredibly long—in just one night! The village is greatly changed, with familiar houses replaced by new ones. Rip wonders if he and this world are "bewitched." When he reaches his home, he finds it decaying and empty. A worried Rip hurries to the site of the old inn where he sat and talked with his friends. The inn has been replaced by "the Union Hotel," which has a strange red-and-white-striped flag flying in front of it. The former portrait of King George III has been replaced by a portrait labeled "General Washington." Rip looks in vain for his old friends.

Rip sees a man lecturing a group about citizens' rights and elections—none of which makes sense to him. Someone asks Rip who he is voting for, but he doesn't understand the question. When he can't state if he's "Federal or Democrat," the crowd becomes curious. Rip explains that he's a simple man and a loyal subject of the king. At this, the crowd angrily yells "A Tory! a Tory!" and accuses Rip of being a spy. (A Tory was a supporter of the monarchy and the British during the Revolutionary War.) Rip insists he's harmless and asks the crowd what happened to each of his old friends. Most are dead, some killed in the war. Rip is heartbroken and sadly asks, "Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?"

Someone in the crowd points out a lazy, ragged man by that name, who turns out to be Rip Van Winkle Jr.—Rip's now grown son. The crowd thinks the old Rip is crazy. A young woman carrying a child approaches and identifies herself as Judith Gardenier. She explains that Rip Van Winkle was her father who disappeared 20 years earlier. Rip realizes that Judith is his grown daughter. Peter Vanderdonk, the oldest villager, is called for. He assures the crowd that strange disappearances in the mountains have occurred before. He relates that the ghosts of explorer Hendrick Hudson (Dutch reference to Henry Hudson) and his men return to the Catskills every 20 years to "guard" their beloved river and to drink and play ninepins, which echoes like thunder through the mountains. The crowd relaxes and seems to accept Rip's tale.

Rip remains and lives with his daughter's family. He resumes his indolent habits and makes friends with some of the townsfolk. He again sits on a bench in town and hears about the War of Independence and other amazing things that happened while he was "away." He gossips and tells the tale of his adventure and time travel to anyone who will take the time to listen.

Analysis

As a prologue to the narrative, the reader is told that the story was "found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker," an amateur historian dedicated to interviewing Dutch settlers and their descendants—many of whom have related similar stories. This testimony, Knickerbocker claims, gives his story "scrupulous accuracy." The tone is light and playful, revealing that Knickerbocker understands his narrative might be viewed as questionable. Yet his claims underscore the story's serious exploration of its themes of freedom and change. At its conclusion, the author reiterates that some people believe Rip's story and some do not—again raising the issue of truth versus history. However, in both instances Knickerbocker implies that folk tales are an important part of a nation's history, even if the tales are not literally true.

Idleness and the Tyranny of Responsibility

Rip Van Winkle insists on living as he wants to live. He is a "simple, good-natured man ... and a kind neighbor." The reader is told that he is "amiable" and "a great favorite in the village" because he plays with the children and "would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil." His life is one of pastimes such as fishing, hunting, and idly gossiping at the inn with his friends. This is the life Rip has chosen and refuses to give up.

Even when Rip returns from his time-traveling mountain sojourn, he is lucky enough to be able to resume the same lazy type of life he had before. He does not work. Instead, he is supported by his grown daughter and her family. Rip spends his old age sitting on a bench in town gossiping and telling the tale of his surreal adventure.

In the first part of the story, Dame Van Winkle is portrayed as an unbearable nag, a "termagant" who henpecks her husband to get him to work their farm. If Rip is the protagonist of the tale, Dame Van Winkle is surely its antagonist. She represents the tyranny of family responsibility. She is said to be "continually dinning (repeating loudly) in his ear about his idleness, his carelessness." She berates him "morning, noon, and night her tongue ... incessantly going." Yet despite her terrible characteristics and behavior, all Dame Van Winkle wants is for her husband to take responsibility for his family and to provide for her and his "ragged" children. No doubt a good soul like Rip cares about his family. Yet when Dame Van Winkle chastises him, he just "[shrugs] his shoulders, [shakes] his head ... but [says] nothing." Then he escapes. Rip sees any demand that he give up his idle life as an unacceptable limitation on his freedom—one that he quietly ignores.

The tyranny of responsibility is evident in Rip's reaction to the political frenzy of the townspeople when he returns to the village after his time-traveling sleep. He is "at a loss to comprehend" the new state of affairs. He experiences the town as "busy, bustling, [and] disputatious." This is totally unlike the sleepy village of the past, with its "accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility." The "bewildered" Rip recoils from the crowd, the noise, and the incomprehensible "election"—whatever that is. He reasserts his identity as a "poor, quiet man" but is challenged nonetheless for shirking his civic duty to take part in the election. Despite all the changes in the life of the town, when he finally settles in, Rip is able to maintain his idleness. His daughter supports him (though he did not support her when she was a child). Rip never bends to the tyranny of responsibility but maintains his indolent freedom.

Note, too, that Rip never equates the government with tyranny, even though he learns that many of his friends died in the Revolutionary War. They viewed British rule as tyranny, although Rip did not. At the end Rip is just as content to sit under a portrait of George Washington as he had been to sit beneath a likeness of King George III. Engaging in politics, elections, and voting entails a civic responsibility—just the thing Rip avoids. Rip is "now a free citizen of the United States," but he is "no politician; the changes of states and empires [make] but little impression on him." Instead, he is happy to be free from the "despotism ... of petticoat government"—his wife's nagging him to take responsibility for supporting his family.

Critical analysis of "Rip Van Winkle" may view the tale as a sort of allegory for the Revolutionary War, in which case Dame Van Winkle and her constant demands may represent the demands made upon the American colonies by the British government. Rip's resistance to his wife's ultimatums may, therefore, represent the Americans' growing dissatisfaction with British rule—and the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. Through his misadventure in the Catskills, Rip has missed the revolution and now must adjust to its aftermath.

Work: Generosity versus Profit

Rip has nothing against labor as long as it is done voluntarily and does not yield any profit. He is described as always being willing to help his neighbors, even with hard work such as "building stone fences." In a key sentence, the author states that Rip is ready "to attend to anybody's business but his own." As to working to earn money for his family, Rip "[finds] it impossible."

As befits his good nature, Rip works hard if he chooses to do so. Taking on tasks for the benefit of others is not a responsibility; it is an act of kindness and generosity. Something neither Irving nor his narrator ever explains is how young Rip can get away with refusing to work for profit. Somehow, his family survives. Rip also has friends at the inn who seem to be as lazy as he is. The inn is a magnet for those who prefer indolence to work.

It is very likely that in the post-revolutionary town, Rip would not survive were he not a venerable old man who is "at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity." The husband of his daughter, Judith, is a hardworking farmer who houses and supports Rip. The other townsfolk are bustling and busy, with "pockets full of handbills" about the election—and no doubt other pockets jingling with coins. It is little wonder then that the returned Rip Van Winkle "[prefers] making friends among the rising generation," the young people who are not yet consumed by politics, profitable work, and ambition. Rip takes up his post sitting in front of the Union Hotel, a newer establishment that has replaced the familiar old inn.

Character and Change

Rip Van Winkle is averse to change. His essential character as a simple man of kindness, generosity, and idleness remains unaltered throughout the story. Irving uses Rip's 20-year nap to draw immediate contrasts between the old prewar village and the postwar town. He conveys these alterations through Rip's eyes—the one person who never changes—and this point of view makes the transformation more dramatic.

In contrast to Rip's constancy, the village undergoes drastic changes in the 20 years he is "away." The "drowsy," "tranquil" village of the past, where neighbors helped each other and men could sit and gossip all day, is gone. It has been swept away by the commercial and political upheavals that emerged after the Revolutionary War. The town has altered physically. Buildings (such as Rip's old home) have rotted and fallen apart. The old inn is gone—replaced by a large, though ramshackle, hotel. People still use the place as a gathering spot, although the shady comfort of its sheltering tree has been displaced by a tall flagpole. An unfamiliar banner fluttering there further confuses Rip with its display of stars and stripes.

Prewar Rip was a "favorite" among the women of the town. On his return 20 years later, an "army of women" trails him as he explores the town he no longer recognizes. Townsfolk who were once relaxed and easygoing are now hot tempered, suspicious, and "self-important." Twenty years ago, politics had little or no importance for Rip, his friends, and very likely most of the villagers. Upon his return, the town's inhabitants are argumentative, partisan, and wary of Rip, who knows nothing of the politics of the day.

The contrast between the idyllic village of old and the crowded, bustling town of two decades later bewilders Rip. This may be Irving's not-so-gentle critique of the political and commercial focus of a post-revolutionary society. As portrayed in the story, these shifts toward political partisanship, mistrust, and boisterous commerce are questionable improvements in the community's way of life. Irving's descriptions of the postwar townsfolk are harsher and politically less sympathetic than his depiction of the earlier place and its residents. Irving's writing reveals nostalgia for the old times and a gentle critique of the new.

Magic and Transformation

Irving incorporates magic in his plot as a means of creating an immediate contrast between Rip's past and the surreal present day to which he awakens. The magic that Rip experiences compresses time and causes him to sleep through 20 years in a single night. The magic does not create the changes Rip experiences on his return to the town. Instead Irving's magical plot twist allows him to draw an immediate and dramatic contrast between the old and new town, between nostalgia for the old ways and bewilderment at the new. The magic that propels Rip into the future allows Irving to present that future without having to go through all the historical details that would otherwise bog down the story.

In the story, magic is associated with the mountains. Even in the first sentence, the Catskills are referred to as "fairy mountains," implying that they are the home of some type of magic or enchantment. This magic not only attracts the spirits of explorer Hendrick Hudson (Dutch reference to Henry Hudson) and his crew, who play their ghostly game of ninepin bowling in the mountains, it also alters the physical contours of the mountains themselves. The spell of Hudson's liquor causes Rip to sleep for 20 years. He dozes through a war and the birth of a nation that transforms the nature of his hometown as well as the people who live there.

Rip Van Winkle Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Rip freely helps others but won't work his own farm.

Rising Action

2 Dame Van Winkle nags him to work and support his family.

3 Rip has had enough; he escapes by climbing up a mountain.

4 Rip meets strangers, drinks their liquor, and falls asleep.

Climax

5 Rip awakes and returns to town, which is much changed.

Falling Action

6 Rip, bewildered, realizes he's been asleep for 20 years.

Resolution

7 Rip lives happily, often retelling his strange story.

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