Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Washington Irving was a nostalgic man in whom a touch of Rip Van Winkle persisted. Like Rip, he was away from home for many years. He was in the earlier years of a seventeen-year sojourn in England when he wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1920) with its two narrative masterpieces, this story and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A conservative who enjoyed the old ways, Irving wrote best when he juxtaposed old and new, tradition and change. His friend Sir Walter Scott encouraged him to rummage in European folklore. Both of the famous stories in The Sketch Book are based on German tales; by adapting them, Irving helped to create a distinctively American fiction. Whereas earlier American imitators of European romances and gothic horror stories had suffered from the lack of convincing settings in a land without ancient abbeys and castles, Irving realized the possibilities inherent in the Hudson River Valley, only a day’s journey from New York but teeming with romantic possibilities and local traditions that, although they did not date from medieval times, nevertheless went back a respectable two centuries.
In “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving seized on the venerable theme of the henpecked husband who turns the tables on his tyrannical wife, a feat Rip achieves by simply outlasting her—with a bit of preternatural help from the crew of Hudson’s Half Moon. Rip merely desires a leisurely, casual, convivial life, but his wife calls him home from the congenial atmosphere of the inn and lectures him in bed at night. Irving never, however, permits Dame Van Winkle’s point of view to obtrude; she does not speak in the story, and Irving elicits no sympathy for her. She is the enemy partly because she embodies a whole culture that is at odds with Rip’s values: that of the tidy, thrifty, ambitious Dutch.
Despite the story’s German...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
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