Student Question

What words describe the changes in Rip Van Winkle after his twenty-year absence in "Rip Van Winkle"?

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Washington Irving's story "Rip Van Winkle" relates an old Dutch tale about a man who falls asleep one day, has astonishing dreams, and then wakes up twenty years later. 

Before Rip Van Winkle has a little drink and falls asleep, he is not a very productive man. In fact, he cares little for his family and spends most of his time trying to avoid work. 

Rip Van Winkle...was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound.

Unfortunately for him, Van Winkle is married to a nagging woman who thinks a man should work and provide for his family rather than sit, content with his idleness.

If left to himself, he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment; but 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. Rip had but one way of replying to all lectures of the kind, and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing. This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife; so that he was fain to draw off his forces, and take to the outside of the house—the only side which, in truth, belongs to a hen-pecked husband.

This was Van Winkle's life before his long sleep, and his only ally was his dog. He was not a happy or productive man.

During his twenty-year absence, many things in the world have changed but Van Winkle has not. In fact, there is only one great change in his life: his wife died (from yelling too hard at a peddler). So, one word which best describes this formerly hen-pecked husband is relieved. Now he can still sit around and do nothing, but he never has to hear his shrewish wife harp at him about his idleness. Van Winkle  was not productive before, and he is not productive now; but he is relieved.

He is also content because he has no obligations, has ‘‘nothing to do at home.’’ Even as he watches his same lack of productivity in his son, he is unconcerned because it does not affect him. Another reason for his contentment is that he has a story to tell--and he tells it to everyone who will listen. Irving tells us that before long, there was "not a man, woman, or child in the neighborhood, but knew it by heart." He is content in his idleness.

The last word to describe the older Rip Van Winkle is up to the reader to decide: is he sane or crazy? Either his fantastical story is true and Van Winkle is sane, or he is just a crazy old man who went away and came back with this fantastical account of "a company of odd-looking personages playing at nine-pins" in an amphitheatre. 

In short, Rip Wan Winkle did not undergo the grand change one might have expected after so long an absence; instead he was happier for having rid himself of anything that hindered his idleness. Rip Van Winkle is certainly relieved and content, but each reader must determine whether he is crazy or sane.

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