Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Washington Irving's short story Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle | Symbols


The Catskill (Kaatskill) Mountains

The Catskill Mountains represent mysterious, magical, or supernatural forces of change that affect human life. They are described as having "magical hues and shapes" and as "fairy mountains." The mountains provide refuge for Rip when he seeks to escape his wife and family responsibilities. The supernatural quality of the mountains is reinforced by the visitation of Hendrick Hudson's (Dutch reference to Henry Hudson) ghostly crew every 20 years. Their presence is an enchantment that physically changes the mountains. Rip follows the stranger through a deep "cleft" in the mountainside that leads to the grassy "amphitheater" where the crew is playing ninepins. Yet when he awakes the next morning, that ravine has disappeared, and a solid wall of rock stands in its place. The mountain's magical physical change reflects its ability to alter the flow of time and corresponds to the great changes that have occurred in the village.

Inn and Union Hotel

The inn in the old village represents the idleness and rejection of profitable work that is the core of Rip's life. The other men who laze in front of the inn also while away much of their time sitting and gossiping in the shade of a large tree. Thus, the inn stands for laziness and unproductive lives.

Whenever it's mentioned, the inn is also associated with a good-natured indolence that conjures the simple and easy-going life of the old town and old times. It is a "stronghold" of an unproductive—if congenial—way of life.

When Rip returns to the town after his 20-year sleep, he immediately looks for the inn where he lazed away most of his earlier life. However, the inn has been replaced by the hotel, which is described as a place bustling with political and, one assumes, commercial activity. The hotel represents the new values of commerce, political engagement, and money-making—a direct contrast to the inn it replaced.

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