What Happens in Rip Van Winkle?

Rip Van Winkle lives in a village in the Catskills with his wife and children. He's an easygoing man whose nagging wife constantly criticizes him. One day, Rip goes hunting in the mountains and meets Henry Hudson, the famed explorer who discovered the Hudson River. Rip eats and drinks with Hudson and his crew, then falls asleep under a tree.

  • Twenty years later, Rip Van Winkle wakes up to find that the world has changed. His wife has died. His kids are grown. At first, the only person in his village who recognizes him is Peter Vanderdonk, the eldest man in the village.
  • Eventually, Rip's daughter Judith accepts Rip as her father and brings him into her home. Judith has since grown up, married a man named Cardenier, and had a child. Though Rip loves his family, he feels alienated from them, unable to adjust to the fact that twenty years have passed. He tells and retells his story in hopes of keeping alive the old traditions. 

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Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” was published in 1819 and 1820 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Like other short stories in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving uses the character of Geoffrey Crayon to narrate. The story of “Rip Van Winkle” is also backed up by a fictional historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving previously used Diedrich Knickerbocker’s character to publish A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a hoax history book which fooled many readers. Knickerbocker is an unreliable character. His presence reminds readers to question the truthfulness of the supposedly historical narrative at hand. However, although shaped like a folktale, “Rip Van Winkle” is still based on some truth. For example, the setting is under the Catskill Mountains and on the Hudson River—both real and prominent places in New York state. Additionally, the inclusion of Henry Hudson, who was a Dutch explorer in the late 1500s, brings an element of truth and realism to “Rip Van Winkle.”

Plot Summary

“Rip Van Winkle” focuses on the idle and simple character of Rip Van Winkle. Most of the villagers love him, but he is constantly nagged by his termagant wife, Dame Van Winkle. Rip is good at helping others, but he is inept at helping himself or his family. He leaves Dame Van Winkle to run the house, care for the children, and work the farm. Yet, Rip Van Winkle is not a lazy man. He is good at hunting and fishing, and is willing to do things for others. When it comes to his own land, however, he seems to have bad luck. He can’t make anything grow and, out of frustration, often spends time away from his nagging wife and failing farm.

Rip likes to spend time with his friends, who are other idle men like him, on a bench in front of the inn. They are called the town’s “philosophers,” and their musings are languid and lighthearted. The main leader of the group of men is the inn’s landlord, Nicholas Vedder, who never speaks and always smokes. The other men who hang around the inn include Van Brummel, the school master, and Brom Dutcher. Dame Van Winkle believes that these men are a bad influence on Rip Van Winkle. She follows Rip to the inn, and nags him and all the other men. Unable to escape his wife in the town, Rip finds solace by going hunting in the woods. He takes his dog, Wolf, who is equally afraid of Dame Van Winkle, and his gun. While exploring the Catskill mountains, Rip and his dog reach the highest point. Rip rests, laying down on a grassy knoll and surveying the land around him.

As it grows dark, Rip reluctantly begins to head home. He then hears a man calling his name. Rip at first can’t find the source, but finally he spies a strange man climbing up the mountain. The man is wearing antiquated Dutch clothing and carrying a large barrel of beer upon his back. Rip, helpful by nature, goes to assist the man, who doesn’t say a word. The man leads Rip up a strange...

(The entire section is 1,284 words.)