Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" is a wonderful fantasy that, upon closer inspection, reveals a number of truths regarding human nature. Irving was a master of embedding these truths in his work, particularly when the stories focus on life in small villages, as does this one. For example, in both "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving focuses a lot of his attention on the function of gossip in small villages. In some ways, it is what keeps society going. The life of the village is often so sleepy that even the smallest event is talked about at length. When speaking of his characters, he writes of "how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place!"
Another of the truths that Irving hints at is the very human trait of rebelling against responsibility. Irving discusses this in his description of Rip's daily life:
The great error in Rip’s composition was a strong dislike of all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of perseverance; for he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod as long and heavy as a lance, and fish all day without a murmur, even though he should not be encouraged by a single nibble. He would carry a fowling piece on his shoulder for hours together, trudging through woods and swamps, and up hill and down dale, to shoot a few squirrels or wild pigeons. He would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil, and was a foremost man at all country frolics for husking Indian corn, or building stone fences; the women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them. In a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, he found it impossible.
Ironically, Rip will work hard to avoid working. This is a very human trait. If people believe they are doing "what they want" rather than "what is required," they will often exert far more energy than they would have simply doing what was needed.
After Rip returns from his twenty-years slumber, Irving focuses on another aspect of humanity: the compulsion toward hustle and bustle, which only increases with each generation. When Rip, bewildered, comes back into town, he notices that "[t]here was a busy, bustling tone about it, instead of the accustomed drowsy tranquility." He is unable to find anyone familiar. However, he does find
a lean fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of congress—Bunker’s Hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfect jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.
Similarly, as a crowd gathers, they don't ask who he is, where he comes from, or anything that would let them get to know him. Instead, they ask him about his voting history and party affiliation. This is basically the beginning and end of their initial interest in him. Next, they move onto asking "What brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels; and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?” All of their concern is not for him but for how he can serve them. Even after Rip understands what has happened and the town has accepted him as a long-lost member of it, "the company broke up and returned to the more important concerns of the election."
As in many of his other stories, Irving's fantastical "Rip Van Winkle" serves as the frame for a lighthearted study of human nature.