Analysis

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Last Updated on June 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1204

“Rip Van Winkle” was published among several other popular short stories in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in 1819 and 1820. Rich topics of analysis include narrative style, setting, and historical background. Irving’s narrative style highlights the question of reliability through a removed narrator and simple yet stark prose. Irving’s use of setting and historical background highlights the uniquely American aspects of “Rip Van Winkle” while clarifying the divide between old and new America after the Revolution.

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Narrative Style

Irving’s narrative style blends simplistic prose, a factual tone, and an unreliable narrator to create a story that is caught between fact and fiction. Irving uses the narrator, the amiable Geoffrey Crayon, to share the story of “Rip Van Winkle.” However, Irving adds another layer with the introduction of the historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker is yet another degree of separation from Rip Van Winkle, who purportedly experienced the events. Irving employs this separated narrative style in his other short stories within The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The history and actual truth of “Rip Van Winkle” is unclear, even though it is credited to apparently viable sources. The narrative acts as a multi-sourced story, asking readers to believe its truth because it has many authors.

These layers of narration place the central narrative into a frame. Rip’s story begins with a quotation and an excerpt explaining Diedrich Knickerbocker's findings. It ends with an excerpt about Native American lore and a postscript by Diedrich Knickerbocker. This framing detracts from the reliability of the narrative. Diedrich Knickerbocker’s excerpts are supposed to add truth and background to Rip’s story. The dramatic quotation lends the story a “mock-heroic” beginning. This dramatizes Irving’s simple prose and the sometimes absurd story of Rip Van Winkle. The addition of the Native American lore, on the other hand, adds a historical and uniquely American element. “Rip Van Winkle," however, ignores the impacts of colonialism and the American Revolution on Native Americans.

Irving’s simple prose is also a large factor in his narrative style. Rip’s mystical journey is presented clearly and factually. This straightforward writing allows the story to be accessible to most readers, lending to its popularity. It helps readers to grasp the odd and potentially difficult parts of “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving’s narrative style also tends to combine absurdity with seriousness. For example, Rip wanders into the forest and encounters magical spirits. These spirits, however, are solemnly playing nine pin, a bowling-style game. The solemnity of the men, who are playing a pleasurable game and drinking beer, confuses Rip Van Winkle. Their lighthearted actions don't match their silence or their deadpan faces, giving them an inhuman quality.

Setting

The setting of “Rip Van Winkle” showcases the sometimes adverse effects of change. Rip begins his story in his village, a colony of New Netherland under the rule of Britain, located in the northeastern United States. The village is described as quaint and still connected to its Dutch heritage. The changes that take place in the village and among the villagers show Rip’s personal progression. He moves from being a well-known and loved man to being a complete stranger whom the villagers distrust at first. The change in the villagers’ knowledge of Rip show a distinct shift from the small, rural village to a bustling, excitable town.

The village also is also the locus of familial and political changes. Rip’s house, which he finds abandoned and decrepit after his long sleep, embodies the breakage from his family and from his wife. He admits that his wife had kept the house neat and orderly. This shows that Rip's life before his disappearance had a domestic aspect with some sense of order; now, it is in shambles and has been forgotten. The house shows the damage that occured in his absence and the loss of what once was. Yet, Rip expresses relief at his wife’s death and shows little remorse for having missed a majority of his children’s lives.

The inn where Rip would sit with his tranquil, philosophizing acquaintances changes as well. Rip finds the new version of the inn almost unrecognizable. It at first had been a simple place, with a large sycamore tree and a sign of King George III hanging above it. The new inn, however, has a new owner. It houses a bustling and angry crowd, unlike the calm old men, and the tree has been replaced by a flagpole. The sign of King George III has also been painted over, showing a change in leadership. Although Rip gets to know the people of the inn and takes his place there after his return, the tranquility and leisureliness of the old men and inn are gone.

The Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River add a familiar landscape for American readers. Irving describes the landscape of the Catskill Mountains by employing natural and mystical imagery, the likes of which are often seen in Romantic literature. Irving’s depiction of the Catskill Mountains, a familiar American landmark, helped establish a new American literature. The United States was a fairly new country at the time of the publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving uses American landscapes and descriptions of natural beauty, recalling the interactions with nature that Americans faced in a new, wild land during the era of westward expansion.

Historical Background

Washington Irving was born in 1783, right at the end of the American Revolution. Irving grew up at a time when the United States had broken from the rule of a monarchy and was moving into a new era of egalitarian and democratic thought. Politics were a passionate subject, and Irving showcases this passion in “Rip Van Winkle." For example, when Rip returns, he finds the villagers hotly debating politics on election day. The first thing the villagers ask Rip is what his political stance is. This scene highlights how the world has changed in Rip’s absence and conveys Irving’s conception of politics in the post-Revolutionary War United States. Not only do the villagers change from tranquil subjects to active and political ones, the energy and number of people in the village has expanded. Rip’s idle and quiet way of life has been usurped by a busier and more ambitious culture. This shift reflects the colonies’ efforts to form a country of their own.

Irving also included a postscript at the end of “Rip Van Winkle.” It describes several Native American myths about the Catskill Mountains and the surrounding region. Despite this addition, the impact of colonization on Native Americans—in the Hudson Valley or across the United States—is not touched upon in “Rip Van Winkle.” The postscript inserts “Rip Van Winkle” into a deeper mythical context which includes the roots of Native American stories. Irving’s use of Native American stories, however, parallels the westward expansion of America. Irving penned the postscript in 1848, in the wake of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. It can be argued that, like the act, Irving’s story pushes Native Americans out of positions of power and ownership. Just as colonists took over Native American land, Irving took their stories to further establish his own.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements