Irving uses verbal irony in the story. Verbal irony occurs when a statement means the opposite of what it literally states. Irving pokes fun at the do-nothing men who sit in front of the inn, reading old newspapers:
But it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions that sometimes took place when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands from some passing traveller. ... how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.
Of course, what the passage above really means is that it was pointless and silly to spend time discussing old news. There is nothing either profound or sage in what these men are doing, as what they are doing can make no difference in the world.
Situational irony occurs when circumstances work out differently from a character's beliefs or expectations about them. When Rip wakes up from his long sleep, he misinterprets what has occurred:
As he rose to walk, he found himself stiff in the joints, and wanting in his usual activity. “These mountain beds do not agree with me,” thought Rip ...
In fact, the stiff joints are a sign that Rip is twenty years older than when he fell asleep.
It is also ironic that the word of old Peter Vanderdonk, who evidently believes any old superstition to be true, lends credibility to Rip's claims of having slept for twenty years after an enchanted encounter. We learn that Peter:
corroborated his story in the most satisfactory manner. He assured the company that it was a fact, handed down from his ancestor the historian, that the Kaatskill mountains had always been haunted by strange beings.
In a story that was part of building a national mythology, we are meant to poke fun at and feel an amused pity for Rip and people like him. They represent the apathetic, unfocused souls that the American Revolution left behind. Rip is a relic of a former age. He is a marked contrast to the energetic citizens of a new democracy, who are agents of change and growth.
Verbal irony is a literary device in which the words a writer chooses have an intended meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the words. Simply put, verbal irony is a disconnect between literal meaning and actual meaning.
Washington Irving's short story "Rip Van Winkle" has many ironic elements. The tone of the work is broadly satirical, and there are many different ways that Irving employs the literary device of irony to craft his story. Some of the clearest examples of irony in the tale occur throughout the description of Rip's relationship with his wife.
Contrasted below are three quotes whose literal meaning is quite different from the actual message Irving is communicating.
...and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering.
In this quote, Irving is clearly not convinced that a curtain lecture is truly valuable. Although literally, Irving writes that these lectures teach patience, his actual meaning is that this nagging is insufferable and without value.
Certain it is that he was a great favorite among all the good wives of the village, who, as usual with the amiable sex, took his part in all family squabbles...
The irony in the quote above is that Irving calls women "the amiable sex" even though the women in this tale are quite the opposite of amiable. Rip's wife, for example, is not amiable but picky and nagging. To add another layer to the irony, Irving writes that the wives of the village are always ready and willing to participate in his family squabbles, which is not amiable but rather aggressive. Irving calls women the amiable sex ironically; they are anything but amiable as described in this work.
his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence.
Irving uses the word "eloquence" in this quote ironically. The word "eloquence" is often used for speeches, poetry, prose, and other well-crafted writings. To use it as a descriptor for Rip's wife's incessant nagging is ironic in that her ramblings at Rip are actually just a constant stream of repeated demands, not a beautiful or well-written work.
There are a number of ironic elements in this story. You can see one in the preface, where Irving discusses Diedrich Knickerbocker. There he refers to him riding his "hobby," which is to say, "hobby horse," which can mean an obsession or fixation. That's what Rip has, but amusingly, for laziness.
Another comes in the description of men and shrewish wives, where Irving says, " Their tempers, doubtless, are rendered pliant and malleable in the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation; and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering." The idea that someone yelling at you teaches virtues is ironic.
A third and more political irony is found later in the story, after Rip wakes. When he goes to the tavern he sees Washington's portrait where the king's used to be, a way of saying, "For all the revolution, in some ways things are just the same."