Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like Washington Irving’s famous tales of “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which were issued in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820) not long before the first appearance of William Austin’s work, the tale of Peter Rugg is an Americanization of a European legend. Its model is the tale of the Flying Dutchman, the spectral ship whose ill-tempered captain swore an oath that he would round the Cape of Good Hope in spite of a raging storm and was cursed to keep trying—without ever succeeding—forever.

Rugg, like the main characters in Irving’s two classic stories, is a Dutchman by extraction, but he is not such a comical figure as Rip van Winkle or Ichabod Crane, and the sinister aspects of his fate are not so lightly treated. The period of his exile is a crucial epoch in American history, and his alienation from the course of events is all the greater for his ignorance of the War of Independence and the rapid development of the United States. Initially confined to the immediate environs of Boston, his mistaken roads gradually take him farther and farther afield, into a nation that is growing and flourishing while he remains becalmed in his personal pre-Revolutionary backwater. Whereas the Flying Dutchman of old represented merely the folly of swearing reckless oaths, Peter Rugg represents something much more complex and profound: the folly of making haste to remain the same and the...

(The entire section is 430 words.)