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“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving Essay


“Rip Van Winkle” is a classic story from the 19th century that focuses on the relationship between the past and the present. The titular protagonist goes to sleep for 20 years, missing the American Revolution in the process, and finds his familiar environment entirely different from what it used to be, though he adjusted to it quickly. At the same time, the story draws a parallel to the uprising itself, with the tyranny of Rip’s wife leading him to try and escape, only for this woman to disappear before his return. Ultimately, the central idea of the story is that progress waits for no one and must happen, and one can only adapt to the new situation.

The story takes place in a small Dutch American village located near the Catskill Mountains. It begins during the final years of the British dominion, which is overthrown in the American Revolution while Rip sleeps. However, the village is mostly removed from the active flow of political events, receiving news irregularly and months after the events’ occurrence. Overall, the location is quiet and idle, reflecting the character of Rip himself. The protagonist is described as a simple and good-natured man, beloved of most women and children of the village, with his foremost flaw being an inability to maintain his well-being.

This trait leads his family to live in near-poverty, much to the chagrin of Dame Van Winkle, his wife, who grows more bitter and aggressive with time. Confrontations lead him to frequently escape – at first, to a gathering of men near the village inn, then into the woods, to hunt. There, he encounters a group of mystical creatures that put him to sleep for twenty years, paralleling the folk stories of fairies spiriting people away for years. When he awakens, his rifle is rusted to unrecognizability, and as he discovers later, he has aged considerably.

The setting parallels the situation of America at the time, with Rip seeking freedom from the increasingly abusive reign of his wife. Nothing he does satisfies her, and she lets her displeasure be known throughout the entire village. The protagonist does not actively oppose the scolding, choosing to stay silent and inviting further ire in doing so. However, eventually, Rip decides to escape into the forest, similarly to how America’s distance from the British Isles contributed to its isolation once it severed ties, which ultimately made the prospect of sending forces there unaffordable for the Crown. Wolf, Rip’s dog, symbolizes the wild and independent nature of the American frontier, which was at odds with the views of the metropolis, reflected in Dame Van Winkle’s hatred of the animal.

The supernatural event that occurs to the protagonist is a device used by Irving to provide a perspective of the average American from before the Revolution on the state of the country afterward. The small, culturally and politically, the isolated village becomes considerably more diverse and active on both fronts. The inhabitants adopt new habits and styles, demolishing old, classic Dutch buildings to construct cruder but larger versions to suit their needs.

Most of the former residents have disappeared, whether dead or gone on to more important duties, leaving Rip isolated and disconnected from events until one surviving person recognizes him. His wife is gone, having retained her self-destructive habits in the husband’s absence and eventually succumbing to them. The changes to the village reflect the overall progress brought on by the struggle for independence, with Britain becoming mostly irrelevant, much like Rip’s late spouse.

Nevertheless, Rip adapts well to his new circumstances. His daughter lives in the village and agrees to take care of him in his old age, and he quickly discovers that more of the past survived the march of time than he had initially assumed. Rip’s son is also an inhabitant, having inherited much of his father’s nature, thus showing its timelessness and that of the American way. The protagonist chooses to associate with the new generation over his old acquaintances, and the character that made him popular before his disappearance wins him the favor of young people once more.

Rip eventually becomes a fixture at the local inn, telling his supernatural story to everyone who will listen. He is happy because the only problem that ever plagued his life, the presence of his termagant of a wife, has resolved itself, and so every hen-pecked husband wants to take a sip from his flagon, a possible allusion to lands that were still under the British rule at the time of the Revolution.

Rip Van Winkle only spends twenty years outside of society, but what he sees upon his return still confuses him immensely. Nevertheless, he adapts quickly and attains happiness instead of choosing to remain trapped in the past. At the same time, the story draws parallels to the American Revolution and the relationship between the United States and Britain. The times may change and leave people behind, but the traits that define a good person remain constant, and so one can always catch up to the tide.

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IvyPanda. (2020, November 29). "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/rip-van-winkle-by-washington-irving/

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""Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving." IvyPanda, 29 Nov. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/rip-van-winkle-by-washington-irving/.

1. IvyPanda. ""Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving." November 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rip-van-winkle-by-washington-irving/.


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IvyPanda. ""Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving." November 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rip-van-winkle-by-washington-irving/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. ""Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving." November 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/rip-van-winkle-by-washington-irving/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) '"Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving'. 29 November.

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