What does Rip Van Winkle symbolize?

Rip Van Winkle symbolizes the past. While everything else has changed around him, he still remains the same. In some respects, this is a problem for Rip, because when he wakes up after twenty years, he finds it hard to adapt to his surroundings. On the other hand, Rip's remaining the same allows him to stay above the fray and to see out the rest of his days in idleness without worrying too much about anything.

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Rip Van Winkle is very much a symbol of the past. He represents that world of the Catskill Mountains that used to exist prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War but which has changed beyond recognition in the twenty years that Rip has been asleep. Life may have changed, but Rip has not. He's a living, breathing artifact of history, a figure from a vanished Dutch colonial past.

As such, he becomes the object of curiosity and fascination among the villagers. They don't know quite what to make of this strange man with the long beard who claims to be a subject of King George III. But the villagers soon warm to the stranger in their midst—and to most of them he is a stranger, even though he's lived his whole life in the village—which makes life easier for Rip. Once he's been accepted, he can go back to his former life of easeful idleness, which was taken to extreme lengths in his two-decades-long slumber.

That the villagers should have accepted Rip is a sign that they've come to terms with the past—the pre-revolutionary past, to be precise. Although the United States is still a young country when Rip wakes up from his enchanted sleep, the people value their history, and it's important for them to preserve their past. That said, life has moved on, and the historical era that Rip represents has gone for good.

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