Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving

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

Rip Van Winkle | Themes


Freedom versus Tyranny

Irving conveys the theme of freedom versus tyranny throughout the story. Rip Van Winkle seeks nothing more than the freedom to be his kind, simple self and to live the idle life he wants to live. His freedom and good nature endear him to his fellow villagers, whom he is happy to help and to pass the time with. Rip's determination to be free to be himself and do what he wants never changes.

Different types of tyranny impinge on Rip to constrain his freedom. The most obvious tyrannical force is his wife, as she nags him constantly and ferociously to work on their farm and support his family. Dame Van Winkle is "continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he [is] bringing on his family." Dame Van Winkle represents domestic tyranny. Rip is tormented to "despair" by her shrill nagging but never succumbs to it. He views society's demand that he work for profit or money as another type of tyranny. Instead he escapes both forms of tyranny by fleeing his wife's presence. He would rather sit and chat with his friends, fish in the Hudson River, or hunt in the Catskill Mountains. Irving suggests that responsibility itself is a kind of tyranny, as is being forced to do work you dislike. Yet Dame Van Winkle has every right to demand that Rip fulfill his responsibilities as a husband and a father to children described as "ragged" and poor because of his laziness.

Rip rarely thinks about politics. Irving mentions that the early villagers are the subjects of King George III, but that fact seems totally immaterial to their lives. So while other colonists may have viewed British domination as tyranny, the characters in the beginning of the story never refer to it that way. The only time Rip experiences politics as something alarming and imposing is when he returns from his time travel on the mountain. Then he is suspected of being a "Tory" and is nearly attacked. In some ways, the responsibilities of citizenship—such as supporting a political party and candidate and voting in elections—are a type of tyranny for Rip because they constrain his freedom to live a simple life unburdened by politics. At the end he is unconcerned with politics and seeks only the freedom to be idle and tell the story of his adventure. Neither domestic nor civic responsibility intrude on Rip's lifelong freedom.

Constancy and Change

Irving develops the theme of constancy and change through the actions of his protagonist and the forces that act on him. Rip Van Winkle is the embodiment of constancy in the story. Regardless of the vast changes that occur around him, he remains the same gentle, idle soul—both in the early period of the story and when he returns to his village—a puzzling 20 years later. He represents a kind of romantic figure of purity and freedom that persists no matter what upheavals are going on around him. Rip remains the same man although he passes, overnight, from the past to the future—where he continues to adhere to his true nature and to live freely, as he sees fit.

The village itself represents dramatic change over time. Physical changes are apparent. In the old village, the restful inn that Rip and his friends used to gather at is now a bustling hotel. Not only is the village changed physically—in its homes and buildings—but the very nature of the inhabitants seems altered. The sleepy village of the old days is contrasted sharply with the crowded, politics-obsessed town of two decades later. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone from the old village attacking a neighbor for his or her political leanings. Back then, Rip was a "favorite" among children and adults alike. Yet when Rip enters the post-revolutionary town, he is mobbed by people who suspect him of "breed[ing] a riot in the village" and of being a "Tory" and a "spy." Elections have brought a type of uproar to the previously peaceful village now that the townsfolk are citizens, not subjects. So politics, independence, and national sovereignty are agents of change.

People are also altering nature: The "great tree" that had shaded the quiet inn has been cut down and replaced by a bare flagpole. The importance of protecting nature from change is also apparent in the tradition of the ghosts of Hendrick Hudson's (Dutch reference to Henry Hudson) crew, who visit the Catskills every 20 years to "guard" their beloved Hudson River. These changes in the natural world correspond to the more commercial and political culture of the later time.

Volunteerism versus Work for Profit

Rip Van Winkle is happy to work, but only when he volunteers his labor to others. He does not willingly work for his own or his family's profit or benefit. Though he freely helps his neighbors, he refuses to farm his own land that, if well tended, might yield a profit and a living for his family. Although Rip's attitude toward work may be unusual in his own time—the reader must conclude that at least some villagers work their farms—it is even more unusual in the town decades later.

Rip is the embodiment of early colonial tradition and its simple way of life. Irving allows Rip the freedom to spend his life in idleness and storytelling in the post-revolutionary town. Yet his description of the near frenzy of citizen action and the replacement of the inn with a hotel indicate that work for profit is central to the latter-day society. Irving's readers at the time the story was written would no doubt understand that he was using Rip to highlight the contrast between earlier values and the increasingly intense focus on work for money and profit that was to become the hallmark of the nation.

History and Fiction

Irving opens and closes the narrative with the elaborate promise of his narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, that the story represents historical fact. Knickerbocker explains that he has spoken to Dutch families—"the old burghers ... and still more their wives" whose ancestors were alive at the time and who insist that the story is true.

Irving wrote both fiction and well-researched history, and in "Rip Van Winkle" he explores the divide between fact and fiction and the location of truth in both. He also examines the value of fiction as a complement to historical fact. Irving uses Knickerbocker's assurance that the tall tale is true to add a bit of humor to the story, as well as to reveal to 19th-century Americans how their ancestors' lives differed so dramatically from their own.

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