Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Rip Van Winkle” is an American masterpiece of the short story. It is based on local history but is rooted in European myth and legend. Irving reportedly wrote it one night in England, in June, 1818, after having spent the whole day talking with relatives about the happy times spent in Sleepy Hollow. The author drew on his memories and experiences of the Hudson River Valley and blended them with Old World contributions.
“Rip Van Winkle” is such a well-known tale that almost every child in the United States has read it or heard it narrated at one time or another. Rip is a simple-minded soul who lives in a village by the Catskill Mountains. Beloved by the village, Rip is an easygoing, henpecked husband whose one cross to bear is a shrewish wife who nags him day and night.
One day he wanders into the mountains to go hunting, meets and drinks with English explorer Henry Hudson’s legendary crew, and falls into a deep sleep. He awakens twenty years later and returns to his village to discover that everything has changed. The disturbing news of the dislocation is offset by the discovery that his wife is dead. In time, Rip’s daughter, son, and several villagers identify him, and he is accepted by the others.
One of Irving’s major points is the tumultuous change occurring over the twenty years that the story encompasses. Rip’s little Dutch village had remained the same for generations and symbolized rural peace and prosperity. On his return, everything has drastically changed. The village has grown much larger, new houses stand in place of old ones, and a Yankee hotel occupies the spot where the old Dutch inn once stood. The people are different, too. Gone are the phlegmatic burghers,...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Rip Van Winkle is a good-natured but unassertive descendant of the Dutch settlers who assisted Peter Stuyvesant in his military exploits. Every small community has someone like Rip: the entertainer of local children, the willing helper of his neighbor, the desultory fisherman—but a man constitutionally unable to work on his own behalf. Rip’s farm falls into ruin, his children run ragged, and his wife’s bad temper mounts. He takes refuge from Dame Van Winkle in protracted discussions at the village inn, all-day fishing expeditions, and rambles in the mountains with his dog Wolf. It is on one of these occasions that he encounters a company of antique Dutchmen who are playing at ninepins in a natural amphitheater high in the Catskills.
Offered liquid refreshment, Rip drinks himself to sleep, from which he awakens the next morning, as he supposes, to find everything inexplicably changed: his dog gone, a worm-eaten gun in place of the one he had brought, no trace of the bowlers or of their bowling alley. Descending to the town, he finds his old dog strangely hostile, his house abandoned, and even the village inn replaced by a large new hotel.
The first person Rip actually recognizes is his daughter, now a young wife and mother; she kindly takes the perplexed old man home to live with her family. He learns of the death of many of his old friends and of his wife, for whose demise he feels nothing but relief. When he sees his son Rip slouching...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Along the reaches of the Hudson River, not far from the Catskill Mountains, there is a small, Dutch town. The mountains overshadow the town, and there are times when the good Dutch burghers can see a hood of clouds hanging over the crests of the hills. In this small town lives a man named Rip Van Winkle. He is beloved by all his neighbors, by children, and by animals, but his life at home is made miserable by his shrewish wife. Though he is willing to help anyone else at any odd job that might be necessary, he is incapable of keeping his own house and farm in repair. He is descended from an old and good Dutch family, but he has none of the fine Dutch traits of thrift and energy.
Rip spends a great deal of his time at the village inn, under the sign of King George III, until his wife chases him from there. When this happens, he takes his gun and his dog, Wolf, and heads for the hills. Wolf is as happy as Rip is to get away from home. When Dame Van Winkle berates the two of them, Rip raises his eyes silently to heaven, but Wolf tucks his tail between his legs and slinks out of the house.
One fine day in autumn, Rip and Wolf walk high into the Catskills while hunting squirrels. As evening comes on, the two sit down to rest before heading for home. After they rise again and start down the mountainside, Rip hears his name called. A short, square little man with a grizzled beard is calling to Rip, asking him to help carry a keg of liquor. The little man is dressed in antique Dutch clothes. Although he accepts Rip’s help in carrying the keg, he carries on no conversation. As they ascend the mountain, Rip hears noises that sound like claps of thunder. When they reach a sort of natural amphitheater near the top, Rip sees a band of little men, dressed and bearded like his companion, playing ninepins. One stout old gentleman, who seems to be the leader, wears a laced doublet and a high-crowned hat with a feather.
The little men are no more companionable than the first one has been, and Rip feels somewhat depressed. Because they seem to enjoy the liquor from the keg, Rip tastes...
(The entire section is 859 words.)