When Washington Irving wrote "Rip Van Winkle," he was of the first generation of individuals that did not consider themselves English citizens. Colonists were still trying to define the national identity they would adopt. What of the old would remain and what would be altered?
Irving wrestled with this question in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ by having his characters hotly debate political change on election day.
This new country was to be ruled "by the people," and class standing was not to be a consideration. The nation was struggling with growing pains. However, when the story begins, the American Revolution has yet to begin.
Rip Van Winkle might be described as "hail fellow well met." He is liked by his fellow citizens and is willing to help all those in need, however, his wife is aggrieved by her husband's behavior for he sees to the needs of others but provides no measure of comfort for his farm and the livelihood of his family. This is the world he leaves...
Rip travels into the mountains where he meets some mountain men playing a game, drinking. He carries in a cask of liquor, passes it around and then takes a few nips for himself. Before long, he falls asleep, and when he wakes, he is alone. (In the meantime, "the Revolution has come and gone".) Leaving the spot where he napped "overnight" (he believes), he finds that the terrain has changed, the town is different (with a picture of George Washington hanging rather than George III), and his home is a ruin.
His wife is dead (to his relief), but he is fortunate enough to find his daughter who welcomes him to her home. Here he is able to pick up his old ways, telling stories and doing nothing.
He notes, however:
The very character of the people seemed changed.
The story indicates that this new nation does not have time for the idle, such as Rip is, so there is "tension between Rip and the townspeople" who now inhabit the new place he returns to. It is interesting that Washington Irving also had negative feelings about the Puritans, shown in earlier writings—it's possible that there is an ambiguous note in the way the author presents Rip as idle (a direct reference toward the work-centered Puritans) and Irving's own political stance.
Our "dubious hero" is also seen in a modern context as a man unfaithful to his wife. Perhaps his twenty-year absence was spent in the company of other women. In terms of Rip's wife...
[Author] Jennifer S. Banks...sees in the story the ‘‘theme of growing up and accepting adult responsibility,’’ with Dame Van Winkle representing ‘‘the voice of duty and obligation.’’
This, then, would hardly bode well for the depth of character one might hope to find in Van Winkle—created by one of the new nation's most popular writers.
In light of this, it is safe to say that perhaps Washington Irving was trying to point out that the old way of life in America could not be based on poor habits of uncommitted citizens who were not willing to reinforce what great men and women had sacrificed so much to accomplish. That old Rip meets his son twenty years later—who is no better than he was—this indicates that a new nation requires serious commitment, hard work and a new way of seeing the country and its future potential. Rip's old habits flourished under the British, but the new land has no use for Rip's lack of dedication to the new ways which will encourage the growth and survival of this new nation.