Rip Van Winkle Themes
The main themes in “Rip Van Winkle” are tradition versus modernity, the tribulations of marriage, and the natural versus the supernatural.
- Tradition versus modernity: Rip represents America’s traditional, colonial past, as he wakes from his twenty-year sleep having missed the Revolutionary War and finds his village much changed.
- The tribulations of marriage: The conflict between idle Rip and his domineering wife reflects the tension between peaceful past and busy present that Rip encounters after his slumber.
- The natural versus the supernatural: Irving frames his story as a real example of American folklore and includes actual places and figures as well as supernatural events.
Tradition versus Modernity
Rip Van Winkle’s timely twenty-year sleep resulted in his missing the American Revolution altogether. Rip stands as a relic of the past. He is an example of the simple, idle, and gentle villager. The village moves on to become bustling, crowded, and disputatious during his absence. There is a large contrast between the village Rip leaves and the village he returns to twenty years later. This contrast suggests how Irving views the clash between the traditional and the modern. The village and its villagers are portrayed as markedly altered after Rip’s twenty year departure. To Rip’s mind, some of those alterations are for the worse.
Rip was able to skip over the revolution, he was never required to take part, and politics and “changes of empire” mean little to him. Rip instead spends his time after his return enjoying the absence of his wife. He stays idle, goes on walks in the woods, and tells his mystical story. Rip Van Winkle stays in the past in this way, holding on to traditions and a simple, quiet life that is free from ambition and work. Although the village appears to be entirely different, it is also possible to see glimpses of the past just underneath the new changes. This can be seen in the changes that happened to the inn. The inn has a new owner, and the people there look different, but the painting of King George III still hangs. It is now painted over with a visage of George Washington, but the face of King George III still shows through. This layered portrait reveals the remnants of the past that the new country is based on, suggesting that the past, present, and future are inseparable parts of the same continuity.
The Tribulations of Marriage
One of the central themes in “Rip Van Winkle” revolves around Rip’s turbulent relationship with his abrasive wife. Rip is an obedient, simple and good man who has to deal with his nagging wife. Irving purposely gives only Rip’s point of view. Rip's wife, Dame Van Winkle, has no dialogue, and readers are not given her side of the story. Although Rip eventually gets what he wishes for—freedom from his wife and the ability to be idle—his wife lives on and dies without him. Rip’s laziness and inability to care for his farm, children, and home highlight why Dame Van Winkle is so domineering. Although she is portrayed negatively, Dame Van Winkle appears to have had good reasons to nag Rip. Rip is always working for others. Instead of fixing his own broken fence, he fixes a neighbor's. Instead of spending time with his own children, he spends time with the village children, letting his own go ragged and wild. Dame Van Winkle is left on her own because of Rip’s idle ways and tendency to help others instead of himself and his family.
Their conflict serves as a major catalyst in the story. Had Dame Van Winkle not nagged Rip as much, he may never have wandered into the woods to get away from her and find peace. Rip’s stroll into the mountains spurred his encounter with Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon. This gave him the ability to skip over the years of his life that he otherwise would have had to spend in conflict with his wife. Thus the story’s central tensions play out in both private and public spheres. The conflict between the idyllic past and the bustling present parallels the marital conflict between the leisurely Rip and the boisterous Ms. Van Winkle.
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Natural versus Supernatural
"Rip Van Winkle" is set near the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River, both real places. Despite the reality of the setting, the short story slowly begins to fill with supernatural elements. The characterization of the Catskills as “fairy mountains” points to the mystical elements of the land. Furthermore, before Rip has his encounter with Henry Hudson and his crew, he lies on a “grassy knoll.” This event has roots in German and Celtic mythologies, in which people who fall asleep on green knolls find an opening to the fairy realm. These people may experience changes in time, just as Rip experiences his forward jump through time.
Further supernatural elements are found through the “peals of thunder” that Rip hears. The thunder turns out be the spirits of Henry Hudson and his men playing a game of nine pin. The spirits of Henry Hudson and his crew from the Half Moon are the most obviously supernatural element in the story. According to the village’s eldest man, Peter Vanderdonk, they keep vigil in the mountains every twenty years. In doing so, Hudson is able to survey his land much like a monarch would. This connects to the “king in the mountain” motif seen in European mythologies. The “king in the mountain” watches over his land and promises to return to it someday. Although Hudson is no king, Irving uses this story to create a viable, American piece of folklore.