What are the Romantic elements in "Rip Van Winkle"?

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It is important to define what some of the elements of romanticism are so that we can properly analyze this work. Romanticism was fascinated with the beauty and mystery of nature while also exhibiting a strong sense of nostalgia and an attitude of clinging to the past. Additionally, the supernatural...

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It is important to define what some of the elements of romanticism are so that we can properly analyze this work. Romanticism was fascinated with the beauty and mystery of nature while also exhibiting a strong sense of nostalgia and an attitude of clinging to the past. Additionally, the supernatural comes into play fairly often in romantic literature.

The supernatural element of this story is clearly the most obvious, as Van Winkle falls into a dreamless sleep for decades after partying with seemingly ageless men in the mountains near his town. He awakes, having not aged but having been forgotten by those around him.

The story also includes a fair amount of awe at the beauty of nature. There is a great amount of information provided about the mountains surrounding Van Winkle's town—the Catskill Mountains. They are described in overly majestic terms, showing a respect and admiration of the natural beauty of the region.

Finally, the most thematic element of the story is the nostalgia and respect of the past. Van Winkle is a relatively lazy individual, but when he wakes up from his slumber, he realizes that the world has changed drastically and is no longer the place that he loved and cared about. Because of these drastic changes, he vows to work harder and become someone who can preserve society as it should be.

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One of the hallmarks of Romanticism that has not been mentioned is the focus on the ordinary person. In contrast to neoclassicism, with its emphasis on the heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome, Romantic writers liked to focus on the common man.

In "Rip Van Winkle," Rip is an ordinary, everyday person. He does not have any special heroic virtues to set him apart from other humans. In fact, this happy-go-lucky figure is a bit of a failure in life. He is happy to live day-by-day without showing much initiative or desire for change. He neglects his farm and his children. All the same, he is treated with good-natured sympathy. 

Although ordinary, Rip undergoes an extraordinary, supernatural experience when he encounters what seem to be seventeenth-century figures who give him beer that puts him to sleep for twenty years. This encounter with the supernatural is also a characteristic of Romanticism, which wanted to challenge the stark empiricism of eighteenth-century rationality. 

The story is told in simple language, another hallmark of Romanticism. The language may not seem simple to us, but it is simple in the sense that it avoids allusions to classical literature. A person who has not spent years studying Latin and Greek can easily follow what is going in this plot about an everyday person who wakes up to find his home territory changed from a British colony to an independent nation.

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Another Romantic element in "Rip Van Winkle" is its use of the supernatural. The Catskill Mountains seem supernatural in their majesty. They are described in the following way: "Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains." The mountains clearly have an element of the mysterious and magical about them, and Rip descends from the mountains to a glen where he is taken back in time. This glen is also suffused with elements of the supernatural and is described in the following way:

"On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun."

The glen is lonely and dark, imbued with Romanticism and a sense of mystery. The setting of the story is also, as the other entries have noted, a place that inspires a sense of awe in the beauty and mystery of nature. In this magical place, Rip van Winkle is able to be transported back in time, and he also becomes out of joint with the passing of time. Therefore, elements of the supernatural are at work. 

Another element of Romanticism in this story is its use of folkloreThe story is told by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, who is a scholar of Dutch folklore. The story features elements of folklore in its tale of a simple farmer, and it calls on folklore from Europe in its themes and characters. 

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In Washington Irving's descriptions, there are evident certain elements of Romanticism:

The awe for the beauty of nature

In his descriptions of the resplendent Catskills Mountains, Irving elevates them and the other elements of nature with personification:

[van Winkle] threw himself...on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage, that cowned the brow of a precipice.  From an opening...he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland.  He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple coud, or the sail of a lagging bark here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands.

The Dream, or the inner world of the individual

The use of the visionary, fantastic, or drug-induced imagery characteristic of Romanticism introduces Rip van Winkle's dream.  He is greeted by a

a short, square-built old fellow, with thick bushy hair and a grizzled beard.  His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion, a cloth jerkin strapped round the waist, several pair of breeches...He bore on his shoulder a stout keg that seemed full of liquor, and made signs for Rip to approach.

Van Winkle drinks from this keg and then in his inebriated state, he sees "a company of odd-looking personages playing at ninepins" whose faces are odd.  The group remindes Rip of the characters in old Flemish paintings.  Oddly, the little people are amusing themselves, but they maintained serious faces and a "mysterious" silence.  As he becomes drugged by the contents of the flagon, Rip van Winkle falls asleep for twenty years.  When he awakens, Rip's inner world does not match what he sees.  No traces of the amphitheater are there or the little men.  And as he approaches the village he is met by strangers.

A nostalgia for the past

After Rip van Winkle enter the village, he finds it much altered.  The old inn is replaced by the Union Hotel with its tall naked pole from which a strange flag flies.  The usual picture of King George was replaced by another visage, that of General Washington.

There was as usual a crowd of folk about the door, but none that Rip recollected.  The very character of people seemed changed.  There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.

Disturbed by all the changes, Rip van Winkle yearns for the old desultory colonial days where he and Van Bummel the schoolmaster sat around and echanged stories.

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One of the most important Romantic ideals included in this story is the idea of individual freedom. When the story first opens, Rip Van Winkle is henpecked by his wife and, although he seems amiable enough, nothing he ever does seems to suit her. After he falls asleep for 20 years, he wakes up in a time when his wife is dead, he can live with his daughter, and do pretty much as he pleases. In addition, his village is no longer subject to British control, but the Revolutionary War has made him a free citizen of the United States. Nature also plays an important role in the story. Rip Van Winkle is out in nature when he sees the party of men in a meadow and that's where he seems to have fallen asleep. Nature has kept his safe for 20 years. After waking up, he is still free to enjoy nature and the beauty if affords.

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