Student Question

What is the constant image in "Rip Van Winkle" and its significance?

Quick answer:

Rip falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. When he wakes up, he discovers that everything has changed -- the village, the scenery, and his own appearance. But the one thing that hasn't changed is the portrait on the sign of the inn. It's still George Washington, even though George III was king when Rip fell asleep. The mountain scene also remains unchanged. So Rip knows he must be back in his village and his family must be alive somewhere.

Expert Answers

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This is a bit of a tricky question, because the narrator emphasizes that everything has changed in the village. The question might be referring to one of two things -- the mountain scene, or the portrait on the sign of the inn. Let's look in more detail.

When Rip arrives at the village, he sees immediately that change is everywhere ("everything is strange"), and it makes him doubt himself:

"…he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched."

But Rip confirms that it must be his old village when he looks back at the one thing that hasn't changed -- the mountain scene:

"Surely this was his native village, which he had left but the day before. There stood the Catskill Mountains—there ran the silver Hudson at a distance—there was every hill and dale precisely as it had always been. Rip was sorely perplexed."

If that's the "unchanged image" indicated by your question, then its meaning is that Rip really is back in his home village.

Alternatively, your question may be referring to the portrait on the sign for the "little Dutch inn." At the beginning of the story, this is noted to be "a rubicund portrait of His Majesty George III," the ruling king. Later, when Rip returns and discovers that the village has changed, he sees the sign again, and it still has the portrait on it. But the portrait has been altered:

"He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe; but even this was singularly changed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a scepter, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, General Washington."

It seems that the inn keeper changed the appearance of the man in the portrait in order to keep up with changing times. The village is no longer subject to King George. Now it's part of the United States. By altering a few details, the inn keeper can now claim it’s a portrait of the President, not the king. Perhaps he made these changes to save money and fuss -- it saved him the trouble of having to hire someone to paint an entirely new portrait of George Washington.

So the meaning in this case is that we have confirmation that Rip has overslept for many years. He fell asleep before the Revolutionary War, and woke up afterwards.

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There is one image in "Rip Van Winkle" that is unchanged. What is it? And what is the meaning of the image?

Rip Van Winkle” is the story of a henpecked husband who mysteriously falls asleep for twenty years. When he awakes, everything in the village is seemingly different. The only things that remain the same are the Catskill Mountains (called the “Kaatskill Mountains” in the text), revealing the significance of the mystical setting and indicating that the mountains have a profound influence over the events of the plot.

The story opens with an explanation of the setting. The opening line states, “Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains” (Irving). This is followed by an in-depth description of the “magical hues and shapes of these mountains” (Irving). The beginning of the story emphasizes the setting, calling it memorable and magical and effectively foreshadowing the strange events to come.

Later, after another disagreement with his wife, Rip escapes to the mountains. On his journey, he has “unconsciously scrambled to one of the highest parts of the Kaatskill mountains” (Irving). It is at this place that Rip meets the strange group of men and drinks from their flagon. He then falls asleep for twenty years. It is the enchanting backdrop of the Catskill Mountains that helps the reader suspend disbelief and instead see the possibility of the supernatural properties found in the mountains.

When Rip awakes, the village is completely altered, and he is very confused. Soon, however, he looks up, and “there stood the Kaatskill mountains—there ran the silver Hudson at a distance—there was every hill and dale precisely as it had always been” (Irving). It is only because of the Catskill Mountains that Rip can unquestionably recognize his home village and return to his life there.

Throughout the story, the Catskill Mountains are an important element, greatly affecting characterization and plot development. It is through the magical mountain range that Rip escapes from his miserable life, skips twenty years, and, in the end, regains a happy existence near the enduring Catskill Mountains.

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