Study Guide

Rip Van Winkle

by Washington Irving

Rip Van Winkle Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Rip Van Winkle

“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, replaced by active, concerned citizens. Rip returns as an alien to a place that once considered him important; he discovers that life has passed on without his presence.

Irving makes clear that change is inevitable and that one pays a huge price by trying to evade it. He also makes it clear in “Rip Van Winkle” that certain fundamental values may be lost when people prefer change to stability and are willing to sacrifice everything for material prosperity. Rip’s return shows him to be completely disoriented by the march of time.

Irving takes pity on his comical creation, however, and does not punish him. Instead, Rip is allowed back into the new society and tolerated for his eccentricities, almost as if he were a curiosity. Rip has slept through vital political, social, and economic changes, including the Revolutionary War, and he returns ignorant but harmless. Irving’s suggestion, then, is that Rip is a perfect image of America—immature, careless, and above all, innocent—and that may be why he has become a universal figure.

The recurring theme of financial failure evident in two pieces preceding “Rip Van Winkle” is also found here, as is the concept of sterility. Rip awakens twenty years later and discovers that his gun and his faithful dog are gone. He notes the changes in the village and sees another Rip Van Winkle character there, has a sudden loss of identity when he returns, and realizes that there has occurred the birth of a new nation, with the replacement of King George by George Washington. Irving emphasizes the comic rather than the tragic, because Rip turns all the above into a positive affirmation of himself. He acquires a new identity and has a wondrous tale to tell of irresponsibility which counterpoints the stress of puritan ethics.

The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” has found expression in other artistic media. Five stage plays have been made of the story, beginning in 1829. There have been three operas, several children’s shows, and a television film by Francis Ford Coppola in 1985. Perhaps the most famous adaptation was made by noted nineteenth century American actor Joseph Jefferson III, who played the role of Rip for forty-five years in a very popular and much-beloved interpretation. Jefferson’s vehicle proved to be one of America’s most successful plays of the period. In the theater, it far surpassed in popularity Irving’s other masterpiece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Rip Van Winkle Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 against a tree, looking much as he himself did “yesterday”—actually twenty years ago—he briefly doubts his own identity.

The larger changes in society are yet more profound. Rip went to sleep a subject of George III and has awakened a citizen of the United States of America under the leadership of George Washington. Although Rip soon falls into his old loitering ways, justified now by his white beard and the absence of matrimonial demands, it takes him some time to absorb the Revolution that has run its full course while he slept. The town has learned to accommodate the new republic, and all the changes lend charm to Rip’s fresh recollections of the old order. Rip tells and retells his story, which is accepted most readily by the older Dutch villagers, who have kept alive a legend that Hendrick Hudson’s men keep a vigil in the nearby mountains and play at ninepins there regularly in the afternoon. Rip prefers the company of the young, however, not so much to be in touch with the new as to preserve the old in a relentlessly changing world.

Rip Van Winkle Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 it a few times while they are absorbed in their game. Then he falls into a deep sleep.

On waking, Rip looks in vain for the stout old gentleman and his companions. When he reaches for his gun, he finds that it is rusted. His dog does not answer his call. He tries to find the amphitheater where the little men were playing, but the way is blocked by a rushing stream.

The people Rip sees as he walks into town are all strangers to him. After many of them stroke their chins upon looking at him, Rip unconsciously strokes his own and finds that his beard has grown a foot long. The town itself looks different. At first, Rip thinks that the liquor from the keg has addled his head, for he has a hard time finding his own house. When he does locate it at last, he finds it in a state of decay. Even the sign over the inn has been changed to one carrying the name of General Washington. The men who are gathered under the sign talk gibberish to him, and they accuse him of trying to stir up trouble by coming armed to an election. When he is finally able to inquire into the whereabouts of his old friends, he is told that men by those names have moved away or have been dead for twenty years.

Finally, an eager young woman pushes through the crowd to look at Rip. Her voice starts a train of thought, and he asks her who she is and who her father is. When she claims to be Rip Van Winkle’s daughter Judith, Rip asks after her mother. When Judith tells him that her mother died after breaking a blood vessel in a fit of anger at a Yankee peddler, Rip identifies himself as Judith’s father.

Although an old woman claims that she recognizes him, the men at the inn only winked at his story until an old man, a descendant of the village historian, vouches for Rip’s tale. He assures the men that he has it as a fact from his historian ancestor that Hendrick Hudson and his crew come to the mountains every twenty years to visit the scene of their exploits, and that the old historian has seen the crew in antique Dutch garb playing at ninepins, just as Rip has related.

Rip spends the rest of his life happily telling his story at the inn until everyone knows it by heart. Ever afterward, when the inhabitants of the village hear thunder in the Catskills, they say that Hendrick Hudson and his crew are playing ninepins, and many a henpecked husband wishes in vain for a drink of Rip Van Winkle’s quieting brew.

Rip Van Winkle Summary

‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is framed with commentary from an unnamed writer. Before the story itself begins, three paragraphs in brackets...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)