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Rip Van Winkle.

Type of work: Tale

Author: Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of plot: Eighteenth century

Locale: New York State

First published: 1819-1820

Even though "Rip Van Winkle" was originally based on a Germanic folk tale, it has become, since its first appearance in Irving's Sketch Book, a basic American myth. The story of Rip's escape from his shrewish wife and his domestic responsibilities into the mountains with his dog and gun, and his subsequent return has been a popular favorite since its publication.

Principal Characters

Rip Van Winkle, who was born along the Hudson River, of an old Dutch family. To get away from his wife he goes into the Kaatskill mountains, where drink puts him to sleep for twenty years.

Dame Van Winkle, Rip's shrewish wife who is disgusted by Rip's lack of energy and thrift. She dies of a stroke in the midst of a fit of anger at a Yankee peddler.

Wolf, Rip's dog, chased with his master from the house by Dame Van Winkle.

Judith Van Winkle, Rip's daughter, who fails to recognize him after twenty years. Rip is relieved when she reports that Dame Van Winkle is dead.

Hendrick Hudson, the leader of the Little Men who return once every twenty years to bowl and drink. They provide Rip with liquor.

The Story

Along the reaches of the Hudson, not far from the Kaatskill mountains, there was a small, antique Dutch town. The mountains overshadowed the town, and there were times when the good Dutch burghers could see a hood of clouds hanging over the crests of the hills.

In that small town lived a man named Rip Van Winkle. He was beloved by all his neighbors, by the children and the dogs, but at home his life was made miserable by his shrewish wife. Though he was willing to help anyone else at any odd job that might be necessary, it was impossible for him to keep his own house or farm in repair. He was descended from a good old Dutch family, but he had none of the fine Dutch traits of thrift or energy.

He spent a great deal of his time at the village inn, under the sign of King George III, until his wife chased him from there. Then he took his gun and his dog Wolf and headed for the hills. Wolf was as happy as Rip to get away from home. When Dame Van Winkle berated the two of them, Rip raised his eyes silently to heaven, but Wolf tucked his tail between his legs and slunk out of the house.

One fine day in autumn, Rip and Wolf walked high into the Kaatskills after squirrels. As evening came on, he and his dog sat down to rest awhile before starting home. When Rip started down the mountainside, he heard his name called.

A short, square little man with a grizzled beard had called Rip to help carry a keg of liquor. The little man was dressed in antique Dutch clothes. Although he accepted Rip's help in carrying the keg, he carried on no conversation. As they ascended the mountain, Rip heard noises that sounded like claps of thunder. When they reached a sort of amphitheater near the top, Rip saw a band of little men, dressed and bearded like his companion, playing ninepins. One stout old gentleman, who seemed to be the leader, wore a laced doublet and a high-crowned hat with a feather.

The little men were no more companionable than the first one had been, and Rip felt somewhat depressed. Because they seemed to enjoy the liquor from the keg, Rip tasted it a few times while they were absorbed in their game. Then he fell into a deep sleep.

On waking, he looked in vain for the stout old gentleman and his companions. When he reached for his gun, he found only a rusty flintlock. His dog did not answer his call. He tried to find the amphitheater where the little men had played, but the way was blocked by a rushing stream.

The people he saw as he walked into town were all strangers to him. Since most of them, upon looking at him, stroked their chins, Rip unconsciously stroked his and found that his beard had grown a foot long.

The town itself looked different. At first, Rip thought the liquor from the keg had addled his head, for he had a hard time finding his own house. When he did locate it at last, he found it in a state of decay. Even the sign over the inn had been changed to one carrying the name of General Washington. The men gathered under the sign talked gibberish to him, and they accused him of trying to stir up trouble by coming armed to an election. When they let him ask for his old cronies, he named men who the loungers told him had moved away, or else they had been dead these twenty years.

Finally, an eager young woman pushed through the crowd to look at Rip. Her voice started a train of thought, and he asked who she was and who her father had been. When she claimed to be Rip Van Winkle's daughter Judith, he asked one more question about her mother. Judith told him that her mother had died after breaking a blood vessel in a fit of anger at a Yankee peddler. Rip breathed more freely.

Although another old woman claimed that she recognized him, the men at the inn only winked at his story until an old man, a descendant of the village historian, vouched for Rip's tale. He assured the men that he knew for a fact from his historian ancestor that Hendrick Hudson with his crew came to the mountains every twenty years to visit the scene of their exploits, and that the old historian had seen the crew in antique Dutch garb playing at ninepins just as Rip had related.

Rip spent the rest of his life happily telling his story at the inn until everyone knew it by heart. Even now when the inhabitants of the village hear thunder in the Kaatskills, they say the Hendrick Hudson and his crew are playing ninepins, and many a henpecked husband has wished in vain for a draught of Rip Van Winkle's quieting brew.

Critical Evaluation

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. made Washington Irving the first American author to enjoy international fame. "Rip Van Winkle" is perhaps the best example in the collection of Irving's artistic movement away from the neoclassic cosmic interests of his earlier satirical writing toward a localized and sentimental Romanticism. In a sense, Irving's romanticism is more superficial than that of the great American Romantics such as Emerson and Poe. Irving is concerned more with capturing moods and emotions than with probing introspectively into metaphysical states. Even his later writing follows his early stylistic models, Addison and Goldsmith. Although he did not develop a style peculiarly his own, Irving nonetheless wrote with undeniable clarity, grace, and charm--making the "regional romance" a noteworthy and enjoyable American genre.

The author's introductory note calls Rip's adventure "A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker," the imaginary historian Irving invented earlier for his A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). The narrator's droll references to his own "scrupulous accuracy" and "precise truth," as well as the "confirmation" provided by Peter Vandervonk (a figure from the past parallel to the Dutchmen Rip meets in the mountains), add subtlety to the humorous claim of veracity. Nevertheless, the story clearly combines the literature of folkfable with that of antifeminism. Rip is depicted, almost heroically, as a kind of Socrates: "a simple good-natured man," a great rationalizer, always willing to help others (consequently henpecked, because unwilling to do his own work), ever found at the inn--"a kind of perpetual club of the sages." From this ironic realism basis the story leaps into myth, with the appearance of the strange little man carrying the keg, whose sullenness somehow enhances his mysterious character and the story's naive credibility. When Rip awakens to present reality, himself now a fabulous figure from the past, he finds things much the same as before. Irving's satirical point is that political and social revolutions are superficial. Change is a myth.

Like many of Irving's tales, "Rip Van Winkle" is said to be based on a common European legend. In adapting this source, however, Irving did not simply change the setting; he gave the story a distinctively American flavor. Americans are frequently characterized as optimistic, pragmatic, future-oriented; and yet as this story reveals, there is another strain in the national character. Here, even at the very beginning of American literature, there is a powerful undercurrent of nostalgia that plays against the story's ironic tone.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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