Themes and Meanings
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 source and its setting in a Dutch-American community, Irving domesticates his material very successfully. First, he deftly captures the beauty of a recognizably American region. The rather brief scene in which the mountains become the setting for fantasy is sandwiched between two thicker slices of late eighteenth century American village reality. By the very act of passing over a signal event in American history, the story draws attention to it. Rip returns to find people talking of the heroes of the late war (some of his friends fought and one died in it), the new form of government (the village schoolmaster is now in something called “Congress”), and national political parties (almost immediately he is asked whether he is a Federalist or a Democrat).
Rip has paid heavily for his secure leisure, for he has lost what should have been the years of his mature vigor and all opportunity to participate in the great events of his lifetime. While loving freedom, Rip placidly endured the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle and King George and has escaped playing any role in the forging of American liberty. He has avoided the tribulations of family life by losing all title as husband and becoming dependent on his daughter, while he has sloughed off his responsibilities as patriot by choosing “overnight” status as a senior citizen.
His easygoing philosophy is completely at odds with that of the great architects of American freedom, including Benjamin Franklin, whose almanac Poor Richard’s (first issued in 1732) stands at a pole opposite to Rip’s sluggishness. Irving even uses Franklin’s idiom to describe Rip, who “would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound.” Rip would also rather starve himself of any satisfaction for accomplishment such as that permeating Franklin’s much admired Autobiography (1771-1788).
The other Founding Father prominent in the story is George Washington, whose image has replaced that of King George in front of the new hotel. By virtue of exchanging the life of a country gentleman for the dangers and deprivations of military service in wartime, Washington became “the Father of his country,” while Rip’s children have in effect grown up fatherless. After the war, Washington, presumably about Rip’s age, did not recede into the past but accepted eight years of further responsibility as president.
Irving, named for Washington, was, like Rip, a man who spent much of his life telling stories, but the one he labored at most diligently through his late years was his five-volume biography of Washington, the man after whom neither Rip nor his creator could pattern himself. In Rip, Irving created a character whom the reader can envy—but only by ignoring the implicit reminders of a far nobler type of American.