What changes has the town undergone since Rip's absence in "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving?
The most important change, and the one Irving wishes to emphasize through the allegorical character of Rip's wife, is the social-cultural change from a patriarchial society and culture to one of indiviualism and liberty. One of the changes that bemuses Rip the most is that people are bustling about with talk of war and Congress and debating about political issues related to independence.
The opinions of this junto were completely controlled by Nicholas Vedder, a patriarch of the village, and landlord of the inn, at the door of which he took his seat from morning till night, ... in the shade of a large tree;
America's Revolutionary War introduced a new era that was good in that independence was lauded and individual liberty was advanced as the rightful status of humankind. In pressing this new world view forward, as Irving mildly laments through Rip's bewonderment, the protective order of society was altered: each person was now responsible for that person, with no protectors or patrons (equally no tyrannts or overlords). This is what began the nature of "fierce American independence."
Some of the physical signs that show the changes from patriarchy under the monarchy of England's King George are the substitution of George Washington's protrait for King George's, the talk around the new hotell running to political issues, Rip's wife being in the grave and finally silent, Rip being able to be unproductive in peace. These socio-cultural changes are symbolized in Rip's son and the tree that Rip II leans on, because of the original tree in front of inn having been relpaced by a flag pole waving the Stars and Stripes. Rip sees Rip II as though the son were himself thus establishing the symbol of the new post-Revolution independent person, a new person in the guise of the old, which Rip finds confusing:
The poor fellow [Rip] was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man. In the midst of his bewilderment, the man in the cocked hat demanded who he was, and what was his name.