By Dr Oliver Tearle
First published in 1819, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is one of the most famous pieces of writing by Washington Irving, whose contribution to American literature was considerable. ‘Rip Van Winkle’ has become a byword for the idea of falling asleep and waking up to find the familiar world around us has changed. But what is less well-known, especially outside of America perhaps, is the specific detail of this most iconic of American stories. Before we offer some words of analysis, it might be worth summarising the plot of the tale.
‘Rip Van Winkle’: summary
In a village near the Catskill Mountains in New York lives a man named Rip Van Winkle – a kind neighbour and henpecked husband. He is dutiful and quick to help his friends and neighbours, and is well liked. In addition to his ‘termagant’ or fierce wife, he has children, including a son, also named Rip, who bears a strong resemblance to his father.
Rip Van Winkle also has a dog, Wolf, who is also put upon by ‘Dame Van Winkle’, Rip’s wife. Rip’s farm is a constant source of trouble for him, and the only pleasure he derives is from his regular meetings with other men of the village, who meet outside the local pub, named after King George the Third of Great Britain, to discuss village gossip and other topics.
One day, Rip Van Winkle goes for a walk up the Catskill Mountains, with his dog Wolf for company. As he is about to descend, he hears someone shouting his name. A strange, short man with a grey beard appears, wearing antique Dutch clothes. He beckons Rip to follow him, and they arrive at a woodland amphitheatre where strange people are playing ninepins. They are also dressed in old clothes. The man who has led Rip here has a keg of alcoholic drink, which he shares with these figures.
Rip tries the drink, and takes such a shining to it that he ends up drinking too much of it, and he sinks into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, all of the strange figures have gone, including the man with the keg of liquor. Rip’s dog has also gone. The gun he’d taken with him up the mountain has gone, and a rusted gun is there next to him instead.
As he walks home, Rip realises his beard has grown a foot long. When he arrives back in his village, he meets people he doesn’t know, and who don’t know him. All of the shops and houses look different. When he goes into his home it’s to find that it’s rundown and deserted. Going out into the street, he finds that the pub he used to meet with friends outside has changed from the King George the Third to the General Washington.
Rip speaks with the villagers and asks if any of them know two of his oldest friends, whom he names. They tell him that those two friends have died. Rip asks them if anyone knows a man named Rip Van Winkle. They point to a man who looks just like Rip: his son, now grown up and resembling his father.
Rip’s daughter, also grown up, appears with a baby. Rip asks her who her father was. She replies that his name was Rip Van Winkle, but that he disappeared twenty years ago after he went for a walk in the mountains. They feared he’d been captured by Native Americans, or had shot himself. It turns out that Rip Van Winkle thought he’d slept for one night, but he had in fact been asleep for twenty years.
Rip asks his daughter what happened to her mother (Rip’s wife). Upon learning that she has died, Rip is relieved, so henpecked was he! At this point, Old Peter Vanderdonk, a descendant of a great historian, appears and corroborates Rip’s story: he says that his ancestor told of Hendrick Hudson, the great explorer who helped to found North America and after whom the Hudson River was named, keeping a vigil in the Catskill Mountains every twenty years with his crew. Rip’s visit to the mountains just happened to coincide with one of these vigils.
Rip settles down to watch his grandchild grow, and his son tends to the farm while Rip Senior enjoys his retirement. He eventually reacquaints himself with his remaining friends in the village, who take up their regular meets outside the pub, and Rip Van Winkle becomes revered as a village elder and patriarch who remembers what the village was like before the American Revolutionary War.
‘Rip Van Winkle’: analysis
‘Rip Van Winkle’ is perhaps the most famous homegrown American fairy tale. It has supernatural elements, the idea of an enchanted wood, and focuses on simple village life, such as we find in many classic European fairy stories. But the mention of the pub’s name – shifting from King George the Third to General Washington – reveals that this is a specifically and unmistakably American tale.
‘Rip Van Winkle’, like many other stories which attain the status of modern myths or archetypes – Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein are two other famous examples – has become more famous as an idea than a tale, at least outside of the United States.
The story’s time setting is central: Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep before 1776 when the American colonies are still ruled by the British, and wakes up after the American War of Independence, which has succeeded in shaking off the British yoke and creating the independent nation of the United States of America.
Curiously, Washington Irving wrote ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in, of all places, Birmingham – Birmingham, England, that is, rather than Birmingham, Alabama. What’s more, Irving had never been to the Catskill Mountains which are so central to the story’s plot and atmosphere when he wrote the tale!
Nor was the central idea of the story – a man falling asleep for many years and waking up to find the word around him substantially changed – entirely new. Indeed, it was an ancient idea: the Greek historian Diogenes Laërtius, writing some 1,500 years before Irving, tells a similar story concerning Epimenides of Knossos, who fell asleep in a cave for fifty-seven years. The Christian myth of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who fell asleep for two centuries to escape persecution, is another important precursor to ‘Rip Van Winkle’.
But the clearest influence was Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal’s German folktale ‘Peter Klaus’. Like Irving’s story, it features a man from a simple village who discovers some strange men drinking in the woods; like Irving’s story, the hero falls asleep after partaking of their drink, and, like Irving’s story, he wakes up to find twenty years have passed. Why did Irving recycle this old plot device for his story about the American Revolution? And how should we interpret the story?
One interpretation is that Irving, through this light-hearted tale, is actually trying to downplay the American Revolution. Rip Van Winkle manages to sleep right through it, which is quite a feat when you think about what a noise there must have been. When he gets back to his village, although several of his friends have died – one presumably in the war itself – the others have survived, and he soon goes back to sitting and gossiping with them outside of the pub where they used to chatter together.
The name of the pub may have changed – to represent the shift from one George to another, from King George to George Washington – but life for these simple villagers is largely the same as it was before. Rip’s son is his ‘ditto’, or spitting image: the next generation is much the same as the last.
The humour of the story – chiefly in Rip Van Winkle being a henpecked husband – also supports this analysis of the story. If Dame Van Winkle is like Old Mother England, lording it over Rip (representing the American colonies), then her death is a blessed release for Rip, but nothing more momentous than that. He is relieved rather than anything more dramatic.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.