Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on August 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

Allusions to Colonial History: The short story “Rip Van Winkle” is set in New York in the mid-to-late 1700s. Irving alludes to the colonial history of this region—such as the Dutch colony of New Netherland, English control over the region, and the American Revolution—to emphasize the historical “reality” of the story. For example, “Hendrick Hudson” and his “crew of the Half-moon” are supernatural characters based on actual figures in history:

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  • Henry Hudson (1565–1611) was an English explorer for the Dutch East India Company who, with his ship Half Moon, explored the Hudson River in 1609.
  • The Hudson River was the site of the Dutch colony of New Netherland for the majority of the 1600s before being ceded to England in 1674. 
  • “Rip Van Winkle” includes several references to Dutch culture and influence, including the “old Flemish painting” that Hudson and his men resemble, the old Dutch clothing that Hudson and his men wear, and the flavor of the alcohol that Rip drinks. 

Allusions to the American Revolution: “Rip Van Winkle” takes place over a twenty-year period that encompasses the American Revolution. Irving describes the village both before Rip’s long sleep and after, showing how the national identity of the town has changed over time:

  • Before the revolution, Rip’s village is small. The village inn displays a painting of King George III, who ruled England from 1760 to 1820.
  • When Rip returns to the village, many things have changed. There are more people, the town is bustling, and the painting above the inn has been modified and relabeled to “General Washington.”
  • Rip, who is unaware of the revolution, claims his allegiance to King George III. The villagers call him a “tory,” a word for colonists who sided with the British during the revolution.
  • Rip overhears his fellow villagers making other references to the revolution. “Heroes of seventy-six” likely refers to the members of the Continental Congress, who declared a plan for American independence in 1776. “Bunker’s Hill” was a famous battle of the revolution, fought in 1775. “The Storming of Stony Point” refers to another battle of the revolution, which took place in 1779.

An important element of these allusions is how casually they are combined. The villagers’ lumping together of political topics indicates their lack of understanding and discernment. The village, although more crowded and bustling, is still isolated from the nation’s political centers and, for the most part, the consequences of political change.

Literary Allusions: Irving uses literary allusions to cue readers as to the unreliability of his story’s narrators.

  • “Rip Van Winkle” begins with an epigraph from a 1634 play titled The Ordinary. The lines in question represent an oath of honesty in the name of Odin (Woden), a Germanic god. The author of The Ordinary, William Cartwright, modeled the phrasing of this oath after one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue.” By including an epigraph, specifically an oath in elevated diction, the fictional Geoffrey Crayon contextualizes the story that is to follow as important and believable. However, neither Cartwright’s nor Chaucer’s character says these words intending to keep his promise. Thus, the epigraph nods to Crayon’s and Knickerbocker’s assurances of truth, subtly indicating their falsehood without discrediting them.
  • The presence of Diedrich Knickerbocker stands as an allusion to Irving’s own work. Knickerbocker is a creation of Irving’s, first appearing as the fictional author of Irving’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty in 1809. Knickerbocker’s History is a satirical work, and so his inclusion as the recorder of “Rip Van Winkle” implies that the facts of its narrative are not to be trusted.

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