Rip Van Winkle Summary

Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving tells the story of a colonial Dutch American villager who falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains for twenty years.

  • Rip, an easygoing man who spends his time at the village inn, goes hunting in the Catskills to escape his nagging wife.
  • He encounters the spirits of Henry Hudson and his crew before falling into a deep slumber.
  • Twenty years later, Rip wakes up and finds the American Revolution has been won, and only his old friend Peter Vanderdonk recognizes him. With his wife dead, Rip moves in with their daughter and returns to idling away his time at the inn.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

Introduction

Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” was published in 1819 and 1820 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Like other short stories in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving uses the character of Geoffrey Crayon to narrate. The story of “Rip Van Winkle” is also backed up by a fictional historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving previously used Diedrich Knickerbocker’s character to publish A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a hoax history book which fooled many readers. Knickerbocker is an unreliable character. His presence reminds readers to question the truthfulness of the supposedly historical narrative at hand. However, although shaped like a folktale, “Rip Van Winkle” is still based on some truth. For example, the setting is under the Catskill Mountains and on the Hudson River—both real and prominent places in New York state. Additionally, the inclusion of Henry Hudson, who was a Dutch explorer in the late 1500s, brings an element of truth and realism to “Rip Van Winkle.”

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Plot Summary

“Rip Van Winkle” focuses on the idle and simple character of Rip Van Winkle. Most of the villagers love him, but he is constantly nagged by his termagant wife, Dame Van Winkle. Rip is good at helping others, but he is inept at helping himself or his family. He leaves Dame Van Winkle to run the house, care for the children, and work the farm. Yet, Rip Van Winkle is not a lazy man. He is good at hunting and fishing and is willing to do things for others. When it comes to his own land, however, he seems to have bad luck. He can’t make anything grow and, out of frustration, often spends time away from his nagging wife and failing farm.

Rip likes to spend time with his friends, who are other idle men like him, on a bench in front of the inn. They are called the town’s “philosophers,” and their musings are languid and lighthearted. The main leader of the group of men is the inn’s landlord, Nicholas Vedder, who never speaks and always smokes. The other men who hang around the inn include Van Brummel, the school master, and Brom Dutcher. Dame Van Winkle believes that these men are a bad influence on Rip Van Winkle. She follows Rip to the inn and nags him and all the other men. Unable to escape his wife in the town, Rip finds solace by going hunting in the woods. He takes his dog, Wolf, who is equally afraid of Dame Van Winkle, and his gun. While exploring the Catskill mountains, Rip and his dog reach the highest point. Rip rests, laying down on a grassy knoll and surveying the land around him.

As it grows dark, Rip reluctantly begins to head home. He then hears a man calling his name. Rip at first can’t find the source, but finally he spies a strange man climbing up the mountain. The man is wearing antiquated Dutch clothing and carrying a large barrel of beer upon his back. Rip, helpful by nature, goes to assist the man, who doesn’t say a word. The man leads Rip up a strange riverbed and into an enclosed hollow, where several other men are assembled. They are all wearing very old Dutch-style clothing, and one man, who appears to be the leader, wears a high-crowned hat with a feather. The men are all playing a game of nine pin, which sounds like rolling thunder. Although they are all assembled to play a game, the men all stay silent and very solemn. The man who led Rip to the hollow gestures for Rip to begin serving them beer. After Rip has served all the men, Rip begins to feel less afraid of the odd situation. He decides to try the beer himself, and finds it to be delicious. Rip ends up drinking too much, and soon falls into a long sleep.

Rip awakens on the same grassy knoll that he had rested on earlier. Many things have changed, though. His beard is a foot long, his gun is rusted and broken, and his dog has disappeared. Rip at first believes the men stole his gun and his dog. He doesn’t think that the old rusted gun could be his own. When Rip can’t find the hollow where the men were, he decides to head back to town, dreading what his wife will do and say. Rip arrives at his village, only to find that it is very different from when he left. The village has been changed by commerce and newcomers. The political climate has also changed, and people seem louder, angrier, and more energetic. Rip finds that he doesn’t recognize anyone in the village. He goes to his old house only to find it abandoned, with no sign of his wife. He sees his dog, Wolf, but Wolf doesn’t recognize him. Rip then hastens to the inn, where his old friends would hang around. He finds that the inn is almost entirely different. The old painting of King George III that hung above the inn has even been painted over with a new visage of a man labeled “George Washington.” Rip also notices how the men hanging around the new inn are very different. They are argumentative, loud, and energetic, unlike his philosophical friends, who used to sit and discuss matters gently.

Rip’s odd appearance grabs the attention of the villagers. The men at the tavern begin to crowd around him, asking him what political stance he takes. Rip, in his confusion, claims that he is under the rule of King George III, just as he had been when he left. The men fall into an uproar, seeing Rip as a sympathizer with the king. A man with a large pointed hat comes in and quiets the crowd. He begins to question Rip, and soon Rip explains where he came from. The man asks Rip to name his friends from the village. When Rip gives names like Nicholas Vedder and Von Brummel, he is told that those men are either gone or dead. Finally, Rip asks, “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?” The villagers then point to Rip’s son, who looks almost exactly like Rip and bears the same name. Rip at first questions his sanity, but is saved from confusion when his daughter, Judith, arrives. With Judith’s help, Rip realizes the younger version of himself is his son. When Rip asks where his wife went, Judith explains to him that Dame Van Winkle has passed away, which brings great relief to Rip.

The villagers question Rip’s odd disappearance, and he tells them why he was gone for so many years. They call upon Peter Vanderdonk, who is the village’s oldest and most knowledgeable man. Peter recognizes Rip and explains Rip’s disappearance. According to Peter, Rip encountered the spirit of Henry Hudson, the first Dutch explorer of the land. Peter explains that every 20 years, Henry Hudson and his crew of the “Half Moon” have a vigil in the Catskill Mountains. During these vigils, Henry Hudson watches over and surveys the land that bears his name. The villagers decide to believe Rip’s story after Peter shares this context. Judith then takes Rip in, and the new villagers begin to warm up to him. He continues to spend his days in idleness, just as he had done before, but now as an older man, free from his wife. His story becomes well known, but only the Dutch villagers believe in its truth.

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