“Rip Van Winkle” is an American masterpiece of the short story. It is based on local history but is rooted in European myth and legend. Irving reportedly wrote it one night in England, in June, 1818, after having spent the whole day talking with relatives about the happy times spent in Sleepy Hollow. The author drew on his memories and experiences of the Hudson River Valley and blended them with Old World contributions.
“Rip Van Winkle” is such a well-known tale that almost every child in the United States has read it or heard it narrated at one time or another. Rip is a simple-minded soul who lives in a village by the Catskill Mountains. Beloved by the village, Rip is an easygoing, henpecked husband whose one cross to bear is a shrewish wife who nags him day and night.
One day he wanders into the mountains to go hunting, meets and drinks with English explorer Henry Hudson’s legendary crew, and falls into a deep sleep. He awakens twenty years later and returns to his village to discover that everything has changed. The disturbing news of the dislocation is offset by the discovery that his wife is dead. In time, Rip’s daughter, son, and several villagers identify him, and he is accepted by the others.
One of Irving’s major points is the tumultuous change occurring over the twenty years that the story encompasses. Rip’s little Dutch village had remained the same for generations and symbolized rural peace and prosperity. On his return, everything has drastically changed. The village has grown much larger, new houses stand in place of old ones, and a Yankee hotel occupies the spot where the old Dutch inn once stood. The people are different, too. Gone are the phlegmatic burghers, replaced by active, concerned citizens. Rip returns as an alien to a place that once considered him important; he discovers that life has passed on without his presence.
Irving makes clear that change is inevitable and that one pays a huge price by trying to evade it. He also makes it clear in “Rip Van Winkle” that certain fundamental values may be lost when people prefer change to stability and are willing to sacrifice everything for material prosperity. Rip’s return shows him to be completely disoriented by the march of time.
Irving takes pity on his comical creation, however, and does not punish him. Instead, Rip is allowed back into the new society and tolerated for his eccentricities, almost as if he were a curiosity. Rip has slept through vital political, social, and economic changes, including the Revolutionary War, and he returns ignorant but harmless. Irving’s suggestion, then, is that Rip is a perfect image of America—immature, careless, and above all, innocent—and that may be why he has become a universal figure.
The recurring theme of financial failure evident in two pieces preceding “Rip Van Winkle” is also found here, as is the concept of sterility. Rip awakens twenty years later and discovers that his gun and his faithful dog are gone. He notes the changes in the village and sees another Rip Van Winkle character there, has a sudden loss of identity when he returns, and realizes that there has occurred the birth of a new nation, with the replacement of King George by George Washington. Irving emphasizes the comic rather than the tragic, because Rip turns all the above into a positive affirmation of himself. He acquires a new identity and has a wondrous tale to tell of irresponsibility which counterpoints the stress of puritan ethics.
The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” has found expression in other artistic media. Five stage plays have been made of the story, beginning in 1829. There have been three operas, several children’s shows, and a television film by Francis Ford Coppola in 1985. Perhaps the most famous adaptation was made by noted nineteenth century American actor Joseph Jefferson III, who played the role of Rip for forty-five years in a very popular and much-beloved interpretation. Jefferson’s vehicle proved to be one of America’s most successful plays of the period. In the theater, it far surpassed in popularity Irving’s other masterpiece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Rip Van Winkle is a good-natured but unassertive descendant of the Dutch settlers who assisted Peter Stuyvesant in his military exploits. Every small community has someone like Rip: the entertainer of local children, the willing helper of his neighbor, the desultory fisherman—but a man constitutionally unable to work on his own behalf. Rip’s farm falls into ruin, his children run ragged, and his wife’s bad temper mounts. He takes refuge from Dame Van Winkle in protracted discussions at the village inn, all-day fishing expeditions, and rambles in the mountains with his dog Wolf. It is on one of these occasions that he encounters a company of antique Dutchmen who are playing at ninepins in a natural amphitheater high in the Catskills.
Offered liquid refreshment, Rip drinks himself to sleep, from which he awakens the next morning, as he supposes, to find everything inexplicably changed: his dog gone, a worm-eaten gun in place of the one he had brought, no trace of the bowlers or of their bowling alley. Descending to the town, he finds his old dog strangely hostile, his house abandoned, and even the village inn replaced by a large new hotel.
The first person Rip actually recognizes is his daughter, now a young wife and mother; she kindly takes the perplexed old man home to live with her family. He learns of the death of many of his old friends and of his wife, for whose demise he feels nothing but relief. When he sees his son Rip slouching against a tree, looking much as he himself did “yesterday”—actually twenty years ago—he briefly doubts his own identity.
The larger changes in society are yet more profound. Rip went to sleep a subject of George III and has awakened a citizen of the United States of America under the leadership of George Washington. Although Rip soon falls into his old loitering ways, justified now by his white beard and the absence of matrimonial demands, it takes him some time to absorb the Revolution that has run its full course while he slept. The town has learned to accommodate the new republic, and all the changes lend charm to Rip’s fresh recollections of the old order. Rip tells and retells his story, which is accepted most readily by the older Dutch villagers, who have kept alive a legend that Hendrick Hudson’s men keep a vigil in the nearby mountains and play at ninepins there regularly in the afternoon. Rip prefers the company of the young, however, not so much to be in touch with the new as to preserve the old in a relentlessly changing world.