Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Irving erected an elaborate facade for the book in which this story first appeared. Purporting to be the work of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman,” The Sketch Book featured primarily literary “sketches” of the type popularized by Joseph Addison a century earlier and influenced writers as late as Charles Dickens. Irving’s sketches are chiefly travel essays of an American in England, written in a graceful, well-bred manner calculated to appeal to the English gentleman as well as his American readers. As a result, Irving became the first American literary man widely read abroad.

Irving further distanced himself from his narrative by means of a headnote alleging the story to be a posthumously discovered work of “Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York” and a postscript to the effect that Knickerbocker himself had it from a “German superstition,” though Irving more or less retracts this suggestion by including a note reputed to be Knickerbocker’s own in which the old gentleman claims to have talked with the real Rip Van Winkle himself.

This sort of elaborate hocus-pocus was common in American fiction up to about the middle of the nineteenth century, and readers may compare Irving’s frame for this story with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lengthy customhouse essay at the head of The Scarlet Letter (1850). Common to both works is a desire both for the freedom from any obligation to respect prosaic everyday life and for an air of authenticity these writers seemed to feel readers of the time required.

Unlike Hawthorne, however, Irving does not aspire to profundity, and his style is much more colloquial and familiar. The dialogue is extremely simple and straightforward, and the descriptions, while effective, are rather understated. Irving’s simplicity, which has helped make his tales enduringly popular school texts, is somewhat deceptive, for although Irving is not an ambitious artist, he has an artful way of suggesting more than he seems to say. Thus, the allusions to Franklin and Washington establish the standards of duty and accomplishment against which Rip’s withdrawal from responsibility is to be measured. Unlike his greatest American contemporary in fiction, James Fenimore Cooper, Irving seldom overwrites. By describing his mountaineers very little and keeping them absolutely silent, he creates the desired atmosphere of enchantment. He understands the value of describing Dame Van Winkle indirectly through her effect on Rip. In a century of writers always poised to spin great webs of words, Irving demonstrates the virtues of an economical and unpretentious style.

For all its derivative nature, simplicity, and modest statement, “Rip Van Winkle” achieves universal significance. It depicts the pastoral contentment yearned for in a society aware of its own increasing complexity but shows this peace to be purchased at the expense of the protagonist’s full manhood and maturity. With considerable justification, “Rip Van Winkle” has been called the first successful American short story.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Dutch village

Dutch village. Unnamed village of Dutch settlers in New York that is the home of Rip Van Winkle, who sleeps in the woods for twenty years and then returns to the village. Rip’s twenty-year absence from the village gives Irving a chance to reflect and comment on changes that occurred in the United States between the period shortly before the American Revolution and the early years of the independent republic.

Irving first describes the village as one of “great antiquity,” founded by the original Dutch colonists who settled in New York. The village rests at the foot of the Catskill Mountains and seems to be a charming and quaint place. Its people are friendly and—except for the henpecked Rip—happy. When Rip escapes from his wife’s nagging, he plays with the children of the village and runs errands for all the goodwives. All the village dogs know him and greet him. The familiarity and friendliness of the village before Rip’s sleep is shown so that Irving can contrast it with Rip’s return from the mountain. When Rip returns from his long nap, children stare at him and mock him, and dogs bark at him.

Before Rip’s sleep, the village had a “busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity.” Rip returns when an election is taking place, and villagers want to know for whom he is voting. The town’s former tranquillity has been usurped by the new politics. Rip eventually comes to grip with these changes, even if he does not quite understand them. He even takes his place as a patriarch of the village on the bench. He settles into place and his new role, much like the new country he encounters.

Village inn

Village inn. Besides moving the plot along, the changes in the village after Rip’s sleep also provide a pointed look at the changes in the new republic. Before Rip’s twenty year absence, the center of town was an old inn sporting a portrait of England’s King George III. On a bench in front of the inn, the elders and idle of the village would gather and discuss events. The innkeeper, Nicholas Vedder, presided over the gatherings and let his feelings on the discussions be known by how he smoked his pipe. Outside the inn stood a great tree that shaded the building. When Rip returns, the inn has changed, and definitely for the worse. Its great tree is gone, replaced by “a tall naked pole” from which hangs a strange flag. The old inn itself has been replaced by a “large rickety wooded building . . . with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats.” It is no longer the old country inn, but the Union Hotel. King George’s portrait has been painted over with one of George Washington.

*Kaatskill (Catskill) Mountains

*Kaatskill (Catskill) Mountains. New York range bordering the village. From the beginning of the story, Irving describes the beauty of the mountains and gives them a magical air as he describes them as “fairy mountains.” Rip goes up on a mountain to hunt and avoid his nagging wife. The mountain is also the home of the somber Henrik Hudson and his men who play at ninepins. In a hidden amphitheater, the strange little men drink wine and play their game. Rip also helps himself to the wine which leads to his twenty-year sleep. He awakens outside the amphitheater only to find the scenery changed. The use of the Catskills, a chain familiar to American readers of Irving’s time, helped to Americanize the German folktale.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Becoming a Nation
Washington Irving was born in 1783, the year that the American Revolution was formally ended by the Treaty of...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Frame Structure
Although the part of the story that carries the plot is relatively straightforward and chronological, this main...

(The entire section is 910 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

Late 1700s: Husbands and wives divide up labor according to a strict system. Men are responsible for farm work and handling money and...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Many critics have studied Irving's familiarity with seventeenthcentury Dutch or Flemish painting, and Rip himself thinks of an "old Flemish...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Three excellent unabridged readings of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle'' are available on audiocassette or compact disc. In each case, ‘‘Rip Van...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ also from Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., is the second of the two Irving...

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Banks, Jennifer S., ‘‘Washington Irving, the NineteenthCentury American Bachelor,’’ in Critical Essays on...

(The entire section is 391 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A general introduction to the work, including a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Bowden emphasizes the integrity of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which “Rip Van Winkle” first appeared, and suggests that Irving’s greatest literary accomplishment was his style.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. Although Hedges believes that Irving reached an intellectual dead end by 1825, he asserts that in his greatest works, including “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving stands as an important forerunner in style to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James and in narrative and thematic concerns to Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. New York: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. A representative sampling of critical writing about Irving.

Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. Argues that “Rip Van Winkle” is one of the few exceptions to a decline in Irving’s work already underway by the writing of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Emphasizes the “Americanness” of Irving, the way he was shaped by, and came to identify himself with, his country and its particular heritage. The tale Irving tells in “Rip Van Winkle” reenacts Americans’ doubts about identity and their fantasies of escape.