"Rip Van Winkle" is assuredly Irving's true claim to immortality, and this story of a man who falls asleep for twenty years seems indeed to escape the law of time, for it haunts us still with its mystery. Once we realize that Rip sleeps precisely through the American Revolution, the story begins to bristle with cultural overtones. Yet its deepest riddle has to do with the strange vision and potion that caused Rip to sleep in the first place, and this question is inseparable from Rip's own odd temperament, his refusal to grow up. It is a prophetic American hang-up.
Irving is again telling us something about this new America, a country now liberated from England and embarking on its own path. We may wonder how appetizing this new country is for the author. What changed in the twenty years during which Rip slept? Irving sketches for us a new realm of politics, a new landscape. We recognize, in Rip's visionary experience on the mountain-top, a classic variant of religious epiphany, or illumination. Rip, summoned by the strange figures he sees bowling and drinking, experiences a classic initiation: serving the gods, entering their world. Watching the figures bowl and drink is tantamount to watching the gods at play, and Irving has included references to Barbarossa, Charlemagne, Odin, and Thor. Moreover, the specific "play" itself, Bowling and Thunder, can also be seen as a form of erotic sport.
We see that Rip is no less than the eternal child: he frequents children, and he shuns responsibilities of all sorts. It is also no accident that Rip is no soldier; we may indeed wonder what kind of gun he is carrying. Rip does not do "family duty," we are told, and with that notation we may unpack still further the sexual dimensions of this fable. It is no surprise that Rip is ultimately happiest at the "male club," separated from women altogether. We would expect the protagonist of such an "initiation" story to be altered by his experiences. How is Rip changed by the vision? America is altered in powerful political ways; even nature is altered, as Irving's language suggests. But Rip remains unchanged. The rusty fowling piece that he carries with him down the mountain fits in perfectly with his new life, a life without wife or "family duty" of any sort. Rip's momentous return to the village is arguably Irving's most fascinating touch. The setting is entirely changed, the family Rip earlier sired has grown up, and Rip undergoes what can be seen as a crisis of identity.