Rip Van Winkle Summary

Washington Irving

Rip Van Winkle

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Rip Van Winkle Summary

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Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving is a classic American short story based on local history but with influences from European folklore. It tells the story of a man who lived near the Catskill Mountains in New York before the Revolutionary War and fell asleep for twenty years to find much about his tiny town has changed.

Rip is a well-liked figure in his town. However, his easy-going nature and somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards work causes his wife Dame Van Winkle to nag him frequently. While quick enough to help others on their land, Rip does little work on his own farm. Their kids misbehave as well, causing Mrs. Van Winkle to argue even more. To escape his wife’s constant nagging, Rip often leaves the farm.

One day, Rip goes hunting with his dog, Wolf, to avoid the farm and his wife. While out in the woods, he meets a man trying to push a keg up a mountain. Rip agrees to assist the man and together they push the keg up to the peak. There, a group of strangely-dressed travelers who appear to come from an earlier time are playing a type of bowling game. While in the company of the ghostly group, Rip can’t help himself but to try some of what’s in the keg. Before long, he becomes drowsy and falls fast asleep.

When Rip wakes, he finds his gun has rusted, Wolf is gone, and he’s grown an enormous beard. After hunting for Wolf, he realizes he’s quite hungry and returns to the village ready to face his wife again. His village, however, does not appear the same as before. There are more houses. A group of unfamiliar children harass him as he walks. When he arrives home, his normally tidy house is in a state of disrepair.

Concerned, Rip walks to the local inn where a portrait of King George III has been replaced with George Washington. After Rip introduces himself and swears allegiance to the King, the patrons at the inn become testy and accuse him of being a spy. Eventually, the uproar dies down and the crowd listens to his story. His testimony includes names of those he knew in the town, and they explain where each has gone, including his wife who has passed. They also explain that a Rip Van Winkle has been missing for twenty years. Rip accepts that he has been asleep this whole time.

The village’s oldest man, Peter Vanderdonk, corroborates Rip’s story and recalls him from before he fell asleep. He also explains that Hendrick Hudson and his crew of 17th century explorers haunt the Catskill Mountains, which makes sense of the anachronistic men Rip met with the mysterious drink. Everybody accepts the story and Rip moves in with his daughter.

At his daughter’s house, Rip largely lives the life he did before. Now that he’s an older man, nobody expects him to work. He spends his time retelling his story at the inn. He becomes something of a legendary figure in the town, a relic of an older time before the Revolution. The town folk return their focus to the ongoing election of the first president of the United States.

Perhaps the most obvious theme of Rip Van Winkle is how the passage of time changes much about a place. If the reader buys into the notion that somebody could sleep for twenty years, then the implications of the changes over those twenty years become more real. People Rip knew have passed, the town grew, even the country itself is new. Given the tumultuous changes that occurred during the American Revolution, Irving seems to say that people who are willing to die for change are likely to get it, and that in the process fundamental values or institutions may be irreversibly lost.

There’s also a host of smaller themes that play into Rip’s story. Productivity vs Labor is a theme that Irving returns to repeatedly. Rip’s wife wants him to be productive, meaning to earn money. Meanwhile, Rip would rather labor to keep busy and to form stronger connections with his neighbors, with nature, and with himself. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, America was fixated on productivity. Irving casts a somewhat romantic portrait on the virtue of labor. Even though he is not productive, Rip eventually lives the way he wants.

Another valuable theme is truth vs fiction. Rip Van Winkle is told as a framed story in which a fictional storyteller, in this case historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, claims to have researched the story of Rip Van Winkle thoroughly through oral testimonies from local villagers. Irving posits that folklore perhaps as much as factual information is important in explaining the history of a country. In Irving’s time, America was a new country actively developing its identity and place in the world. According to Irving then, if we continue to tell stories of the past, like Rip does when he awakens, then we will continue to influence our country’s identity.