Background of the Story

Rip Van Winkle is a humorous short story written by the American author Washington Irving. It was first published in 1819. It is addressed in the background of a Dutch-American village in colonial America. The protagonist is Rip Van Winkle who wanders in the Catskill Mountains, falls asleep and wakes up after 20 years.

Irving wrote this story during his stay in Birmingham, England. It was part of the collection of stories named The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. This collection helped proceed with a  literary career and gained international fame. Irving also explores the history and tradition of the Catskill Mountains through the tale of Rip Van Winkle. 

Historical Context 

Historical context during the first of the story spreads around 1769 or 1770 and lasts for twenty years. While the second half opens in the year 1789 or 1790. In the beginning, it was the period before the Revolutionary War, when the United States was a colony under the control of New England.

The next part takes place after the end of the Revolutionary War when the United States is no longer a colony rather an independent nation. George Washington is the president of the United States now.  


To escape from his wife’s derating, Rip Van Winkle wanders through the woods of Catskills mountains with his dog Wolf. Suddenly someone calls his name, he goes there and finds a little strange man trying to approach the top of the mountain. He helps him and reaches in an open plain where a lot of similar people are gathered. He drinks liquor with them and passes out.

The next day he wakes up and goes to town but no one recognizes him and so he too. Everything on earth seems to be transformed. There is another Rip Van Winkle in the town. He learns that twenty years have passed since he went to the woods and for Rip, it is the matter of only a night.

Rip Van Winkle Summary

Diedrich Knickerbocker is an old man from New York who is interested in Dutch history culture. As the story begins, he has died and the story of Rip Van Winkle is found in his documents. It is set in a backward village dwelled between the Catskill Mountains. The village was founded by Dutch settlers. Rip is settled in that village. 

Rip Van Winkle is a friendly and tranquil fellow. He is the direct successor of the brave soldiers of Dutch genealogy, famous for his generosity and gentleness. He has only a flaw in him that he is unable to earn profits from any work.

In fact, he can help others all day long without getting lazy at work. He is just unable to work at home. His other remarkable trait is that he is a submissive henpecked husband for his wife; Dame Van Winkle. She even rebukes him, follows him down to the village at which he only listens to her patiently. He is loved by all the villagers who side with him against disputes with his wife. Even the dogs respect him and do not bark at him.    

Whenever Dame Van Winkle creates a mess, he heads towards an inn where he sits with other people. They are usually talking about philosophical and political issues. Also, rumors, gossip, and sleepy stories are spread through this place.

Every now and then they get an old newspaper and talk about current situations. Nicholaus Vedder is the landowner of the inn and the leader of the club. He never talks but makes notions on  the basis of how he smokes the pipe. Van Winkle chides his fellows for encouraging his idleness. 

His farmhouse was hard-lucky so Dame Van Winkle has little reason to scold him for sluggishness that she does three times a day; morning, noon, and night. Over the years, things continue the same way even worse and Van Winkle’s only source to escape is to visit the inn. His only comrade at home is his dog named Wolf. And this buddy is also treated badly by the petticoat cruel Dame. 

Once during a visit to the woods of Catskills, Van Winkle reaches the top of the height. He rests for a while as the climbing has made him tired. Soon the sun sets and he is unable to reach home in the light of the sun.

As he stands up, he hears that someone has called his name. He sees the shadow of a man who seems to be in assistance. He reaches to him and notices that the man is strange as he is square in shape, short in height, has bushy hair and brooded beard. He is attired in an old traditional Dutch dress.

He asks Van Winkle to help him climb the cask at the height above. They reach a wide stadium like a place where a lot of alike people are gathered. Their gathering is making the surroundings scruffy and thundering.   

Then the man starts serving drinks from the cask and again asks Van Winkle with a gesture to help him. Lately, he takes one for himself. It tastes delighting, he takes one more drink and then again and again until he is too drunk to walk. He lies down on the ground and blackouts. 

In the morning he wakes up and suddenly gets anxious about the reaction of his wife who will inquire for his late arrival. He hurriedly approaches his gun but finds that it is corroded and years rotten as if never has been used. He calls his dog Wolf but it does not respond. He feels quite rigid physically.

He gets up, tries to trace his footsteps but finds that the stadium area is changed and turns into a wall of rocks. Even the features of the landscape have changed. He comes to the conclusion that the creature that he met last night has tricked him falsely and cast spells on everything. 

He then returns to the village but everything here is also transformed. The village has grown large. He feels unable to comprehend anything in his surroundings and so the village people are. His beard is grown foot long and he seems too odd walking amid the mob. People are staring with wonder and children hoot at him even the dogs who were once friendly to him, bark now. He thinks that he is gone crazy or the little creature has made him lose his mind. 

He moves towards his house but it is abandoned by the inhabitants and in utter disrepair. His wife and children are gone.

Then he goes to the inn where he and his friends used to discuss political affairs but they all disappeared. Even the spot where the picture of George III was hanged is now replaced with George Washington. People in the club are completely different ones and their discussions, opinions are more logical.

People ask him which political party he supports, at which he replies in a confusion that he is faithful to his king. They consider him a member of the hostile Tory party. When he tells them the purpose of his coming they reveal that Nicholaus Vedder is dead and Van Bummel is in Congress now.   

He then inquires whether they know Rip Van Winkle and people indicate a different lazy guy. He is Rip’s son Rip Van Winkle Jr. who is grown just like his father. He feels dizzy with anger. A woman approaches there that seems to be identical with her daughter Judith. On question, she replies that his father went into the woods with his gun and never returned.

Twenty years have now passed since his death. Van Winkle tells everybody that it is only a night for him which makes them crazy. About Dame, he learns that she has recently passed away. 

Meanwhile an old inhabitant of the village, Peter Vanderdonk comes, attests Van Winkle and tells that there were rumors about the ghosts of Hendrick Hudson, the guardian of this land.

It was said that he visited the town with his companion once in twenty years to guard the area. Van Winkle’s experience is closer to that folk tale. From now on, he starts living with his daughter who is married to a generous farmer. He lives happily with them and his idleness is also socially admissible at this age. He rejoins the inn and is loved again by the village people for his logical argumentativeness.

Eventually, he comes to be known that the Revolutionary War is fought in between the time of his sleep. But he only wishes to overthrow the reign of his wife and he successfully made it. 

Finally, Knickerbocker concludes the story with an ardent note that the people of Catskills firmly believe the story of Hudson and assures the reader of the credentiality of Van Wink. 

Rip Van Winkle Characters Analysis

Geoffrey Crayon

He is the storyteller of the collection of stories. He is an eager wayfarer and interested in the history, culture and tradition of Dutch people. 

Rip Van Winkle

He is the protagonist of the story who is a descendant of the gallant Dutch line. He is a kind, generous person who is always ever ready to help, neighboring men. He lives in a village inhabited at the foot of the Catskills mountains in the United States. His nature is tranquil and submissive that he obeys his wife and speaks nothing before her even though she often scolds him. Everyone in the village loves him even the dogs do not bark at him. But he is infamous for showing sluggishness towards households. 

Dame Van Winkle

She is the wife of Rip Van Winkle. She is a bad-tempered woman who spends time scolding her husband for doing nothing and earning zero profit from the farmhouse to run their expenditures. 

Derrick Van Bummel

He is the schoolmaster of Rip Van Winkle’s town. He is a dapper and skilled knowledgeable little man. He does not easily get impressed by words of wisdom. That is why he rises as a great figure in the American Revolutionary War and finally gets a seat in Congress. 

Nicholaus Vedder

Nicholaus Vedder is one of the seniors in Van Winkle’s village and the owner of the inn. He is also the leader of the club where people gather and talk about politics, philosophy. He does not speak anything and only makes opinions while smoking pipes. His ferocity or change in mood can be detected by the speed of smoking. 

Judith Gardenier

She is Van Winkle’s daughter with whom he lives after returning from the Catskill Mountains. He spends his life quite happily there with her. 

Rip Van Winkle, Jr.

Rip Van Winkle, Jr. is the son of Rip and Dame. He grows sluggish and lazy just like his father. When Rip returns, people indicate a man known as Van Winkle. It is his son but he feels amazement and anger for growing this way. 

Hendrick Hudson

Hudson was the founder of the land at which the village is settled. He sailed at River Hudson to reach this place. It was famous among the folklore that his guardian soul visited once in every twenty years to guard this place. Rip Van Winkle’s experience was attested and believed by this story of Hudson’s arrival. 

Peter Vanderdonk

Peter Vanderdonk is the oldest resident of the village. He is from the line of a great historian who composed one of the earliest documents about the historical significance of this place. He is the man who gives testimony of Van Winkle’s story and helps him settle in the town again. Philip of Pokanoket

Philip of Pokanoket also known as King Philp was an Indian soldier. He was infamous throughout American states at the time of the first colonizing by New England. Later he became the king. 

Themes in Rip Van Winkle

Freedom and Tyranny 

Irving, the short story writer, throughout the story, deals with the subject of freedom and tyranny. Rip Van Winkle needs freedom to be kind, to be simple and to live the life he desires for himself. The villagers love him because of his freedom and good nature. He feels happy to help others and spend time with them. He is determined to be free and live the way he wants. He remains unchanged and tries to seek this freedom. 

His freedom is constrained by different forms of tyranny. His wife, Dame Van Winkle, is the tyrant who snubs his freedom. She insults him all the time and nags him dawn to dusk. She wants him to work on the farm for the betterment of his family. 

Dame Van Winkle stands for domestic tyranny. Her constant nagging brings despair to her but she stops it now. He escapes from all forms of domestic and societal tyranny by spending time in an inn. He gossips there with his friends and goes hunting. Irving comments that responsibility is a form of tyranny because it forces us to do what one dislikes. Dame Van Winkle has the right to ask her husband to fulfill the needs of wife and children.

Constancy and Change

The actions of the protagonists lead the author to develop the theme of constancy and change. Rip Van Winkle is a personified constancy in Irving’s story. A lot of changes occur around him but he never changes. He remains simple, gentle and idle throughout the story.

Even when he wakes up after twenty years, he finds everything has changed around him but he stays constant as he was before his long sleep. He is a romantic figure, who is pure and enjoys his freedom no matter what is happening around him. 

The village in which Rip Van Winkle lives with his family stands for the change, time brings to everything. Everything changes with the course of time. Paradoxically, change is everything that is only constant. Life itself is dynamic. The essence of life lies in change.

In the old village, Rip used to visit an inn, where he spent time with his friends, has now become a bustling hotel. Changes do not occur only in the physical form of the village but also in the minds of the people. Mentally, they are changed and altered.  

The sluggish sleepy village of the past is now completely changed right after two decades. Now it is more crowded and people are more critical about politics. In the old village, it cannot be imagined that the people will attack anyone for his political leanings. Rip was divided equally by children and adults. He was their “favorite”.

After his two decades-long sleep, when he steps into the post-revolutionary town, people suspected him of “breeding a riot in the village” and they thought him a “Tory” or “spy”. Elections have brought a massive change in the peaceful village. The people of the village are no more subjects now. They are citizens. Some of the change agents include politics, independence, education and national sovereignty. 

History and Fiction

The narrator of the story is Diedrich Knickerbocker who promises that the story is based on historical facts. The narrator narrates that he talked to Dutch families—”the old burghers… and still more their wives” and their ancestors were alive at the time and they said, the story is true. Irving wrote fictional works and history as well.

In this short story, he attempts to explore the existence of truth in between history and fiction. The narrator assures that the tale is true and the author takes it to add humor and interest to the story. The authors also reveal how the 19th century American used to live, dramatically different from today’s people.

Volunteerism vs Work for Money

Rip feels pleased to work as a volunteer when others need him. He does not work willingly on his own farm. He does not want to work for benefit, profit or money. He helps people around him voluntarily. If he works on his own farm it will bring profit to his own family but he does not do this. Rip’s attitude towards his farm is not usual. The reader knows that people work on their farms and earn their livelihood. Even after two decades, when he visits his village, his attitude stays that unusual. 

Rip is the representative of the simple life of the past. The author permits the protagonist to spend the life he wants. So that he spends his time idly, in gossiping and hunting. Irving frees him to live. In the post-revolutionary town, he spends most of his time in storytelling. When an inn becomes a hotel, it suggests that the society of present-day works for profit and benefit. It is, in fact, the beginning of the American’s capitalistic society. Irving, through Rip, conveys that the past was about values and traditions. But in recent times, profit and money matter. 

Active vs Passive Resistance

Rip Van Winkle gives great importance to his freedom. But he does actively fight to seek it. He is a resistor, but a passive one. He responds to his wife in different ways. He throws his hands up, glances up at the sky and shakes his head. Through these gestures, he neither denies nor accepts. When Dame Van Winkle was in his life, he simply avoided her. There comes not a single moment when the husband and wife confront despite the fact that she is his antagonist. He is so passive that he goes through the American Revolution while napping. 

In contrast to Rip’s passivity, there are many examples of active resistance in the story. Rip has many friends and one of them is killed in the War. Another finishes himself while working in American Congress.

These two friends of Rip, play an integral part in the creation of new democratic America. The spirit of Hendrick Hudson also stands for active resistance. Hudson, who bewitched Rip on mountains, was a Dutch ship captain, who was thrown out and never came back. Hudson along with other characters are resistors and revolutionists who play their part for a new democratic state and Rip is embodied passivity.

Labor vs Productivity

Irving’s short story explores the theme of labor on its own and labor as profitable. Rip labors without profit. He is that simple, who feels pleased to work on others farms and gardens. He does not want to work on his own farm willingly. He spends most of his time fishing and hunting.

Though he remains busy but not productive. Derrick Van Bummel, an intelligent schoolmaster, spends a lot of time in discussions in the inn. Later, he started working for American Congress. It suggests that he has corrected himself and now he is engaged in productive labor. 

The narrator, Knickerbocker also feels guilty for laboring without product. In the early years of the 18th century, American was an industrious and Mercantile country. The emphasis was profit and money in the American society. The Americans are not like Knickerbocker and Rip, who does labor without production. The Americans labor for the product.

Rip Van Winkle Analysis

In the prologue, the readers are informed that the story discovered in the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving has written several stories. He published Rip Van Winkle with other stores in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in the year 1819 and 1820. The setting and historical background of the story provides the uniqueness of American perspective. It also clarifies the divide between old and new American which was developed post- Revolution. 

Narrative Style

The first characteristic of Irving’s narrative style is that he wrote it in simplistic prose. Through his narrative style, he points out the debate of reliability by removing the narrator. It has a factual tone and the story between fact and reality is narrated via an unreliable narrator. The good-natured Geoffrey Crayon is Irving’s narrator who tells the story of Rip Van Winkle. Irving introduces the historian Diedrich Knickerbocker and adds a new covering to the story. Knickerbocker is another level of segregation from Rip. Knickerbocker allegedly observes the events of the story.  

This separated narrative style has also been used by the author in one of his stories in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The history and truths about Rip Van Winkle are ambiguous. The story is somewhere between facts and fiction. The sources of the story are realistic but perhaps it has got an immense amount of fiction in it. The story has many sources and it convinces the readers to believe in the story because it has got many authors to narrate.

Local History and Mythical Narrative

These are the different levels of narration that fit the central narrative into its frame. A quotation and a section from Diedrich Knickerbocker’s findings start the Rip’s narrative. The story ends up with the lines of a historical event of Native American and a PS (postscript) of Knickerbocker. This weakens the credibility of the narrative. The author concludes and says again that some people consider this story as true and some not. This aspect of Rip’s story raises an issue about truth and history. Knickerbocker considers the folktales very significant, whether they are true or not. They are very important for a nation’s history.

Self Identity

Rip Van Winkle’s aim is to live the way he himself wants. The readers are informed that he is amiable and favorite in the village.” He is so good that he plays with the village children and would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil. The way people used to live in the past, he spends his time in the same way. He loves to hunt, fish and gossip with friends while sitting in an inn. This is the way of living Rip has chosen for himself and he refuses to give in and give up. 

When he comes back to the village, he never gives up his old past lazy lifestyle. After his return, he does not work. His grown-up daughter takes care of him and he spends his time as he used to do before a long sleep. Rip sits on the bench, meets people and tells them about his surrealistic story and adventure.

Overlapping of Time

When he wakes up after twenty years of sleep, the political turmoil of the townspeople is very much evident.  He is unable to comprehend anything in that situation. He could not understand the newness in everything. The kind of town he experiences after his sleep is busy and bustling.  Now the village has woke up, teeming with hustle and bustle, unlike the past sleepy village which was with its tranquillity. He kicks himself back from the crowd and things happening in the new town. He considers himself a poor man. 

The town is completely changed now. When he finally settles down in his daughter’s house, he maintains his idleness of the past. He starts spending time with people. People start loving him, the way they used to. And narrates tales from his past to the people. His daughter takes care of him in the times when he needs her. But he did not support her when she was a child. He never becomes responsible and tries to seek his freedom and idleness. 

Rip as an Anti-American

Rip does not associate government to tyranny even when he came to know that many of his friends have been killed in the  Revolutionary War. The villagers considered British rule as a tyrant but Rip does not think so. In the end, Rip contently sits under a picture of George Washington as he used to do under the portrait of King George III. Elections, voting and politics are the things that developed a sense of responsibility in people and Rip avoided this. 

Rip has now become the free citizen of the United States of America and he is not a politician. What changes occurred in the state, did not leave an impact in Rip. He feels happy to be free. He stays away from the despotism and petticoat of the government.

Negative evasiveness of Rip’s Wife

In the beginning, Rip’s wife Dame Van Winkle is an unbearable nag, who insults her husband and forces him to work in his own farm for the good of his own family. Rip is not made to work for money. The author used the word “termagant” for Rip’s wife. She henpecked her husband and forced him to work on his own farm. If we take Rip as a protagonist of the tale then his wife Dame is undoubtedly the antagonist of the story. She insults him continuously and rebukes all day. 

Despite all her negatives, she wants her husband to take the responsibility of his family and start working in their own farm. Rip is good-natured and wants to work for the family’s good. When she scolds, he shrugs shoulders and nods his head but utters nothing. Then he goes away. He does not let anyone snub his freedom. He simply ignores, leaves the house and does what he wants to. 

When the story is critically analyzed, it seems to be the allegory for the Revolutionary War. Dame Van Winkle along with her demands represents British who have turned America into their colony and who utilized the resources and soil of the Americans to achieve their own goals.  Rip’s resistance shows Americans’ dissatisfaction from British-Rule and the situation of Americans who brought the Revolution to get rid of British rule. After his misadventure in the Catskill, he misses the Revolution. Now he has to adjust himself in the Post-Revolution age. 

Rip as Negation of Traditional American Hero

Rip believes in the labor, done voluntarily, not for profit or money. He is available to work 24/7 voluntarily for the neighbors. Even he happily helps them in building stone fences. He is eager to attend other people’s business. It is impossible for Rip to work for his own family. Perhaps, he could not survive in the post-revolutionary world But he does because he has reached that age in which people are meant to spend time idly. His daughter’s husband is a hardworking farmer, provides Rip shelter and takes care of him. In the final note, we learn that Rip goes on living the way as he was in the past. This shows the sameness, monotony and fatigue of his personality.

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