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Imagery in Rip Van Winkle

Imagery is employed specifically in “Rip Van Winkle” to align readers’ experiences with Rip’s. The rich and evocative language describing the sights and sounds of the woods is a product of the story’s placement in the Romantic tradition, which used descriptions of the natural world to isolate and contextualize the relative smallness of the human experience. Similarly, the aspects of village life that receive such detailed attention are the ones most unfamiliar or jarring to Rip himself, such as the industrialized metaphors defining his relationship with his wife. This focused use of imagery places Rip’s narrative within what is implied to be a much larger context, supporting its construction as a piece of regional folklore.

Imagery Examples in Rip Van Winkle:

Rip Van Winkle

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"in light and placid clouds..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Nicholas Vedder is here described using visual imagery very similar to that which defined the Catskill mountains in the story’s opening paragraph. The “hood of gray vapors” gathered “about their summits” is mirrored in the “light and placid clouds” of Vedder’s pipe. Vedder is stolid and reliable, and can be seen to “lord over” his fellow villagers much as the mountains do “over the surrounding country.”

"surrounded by perpendicular precipices, over the brinks of which impending trees shot their branches, so that you only caught glimpses of the azure sky, and the bright evening cloud..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Note how the words “precipices” and “glimpses of the azure sky” give the visual image of how the encroaching path Rip and the stranger take gets smaller and smaller, creating a place resembling an enclosure. This contrasts the once expansive description of the mountains before and depicts the hollow as a mystical place cut off from the rest of the world.

"she would spin light summer clouds out of cobwebs and morning dew, and send them off from the crest of the mountain, flake after flake, like flakes of carded cotton..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The strong visual imagery of these metaphors, which show clouds made of cobweb that look like cotton, develops throughout the remainder of the paragraph to strengthen the connection between the myth of the spirit and the environment of the mountains. “Cobwebs,” “dew,” and “spiders” could all be seen in the Catskills, and the invocation of these tangible elements in the description of the spirit’s powers elevates them to places of power themselves.

"long rolling peals, like distant thunder..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

This is an example of auditory imagery. By depicting the apparently natural sound of thunder—through words like “peals” and “thunder”—Irving not only disturbs the peaceful environment that readers have become accustomed to, but draws their attention towards the ominous path, giving it a foreboding presence. Notice how the sound comes from a rather specific place—from within the ravine. This detail suggests that the sound can’t actually be thunder.

"a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

This “different fashion” is not described at the same length as the clothing of the strange men in the glen. By omitting detail, Irving is instructing readers to focus on the fact of the strangeness itself rather than to look for details or clues regarding its cause.

"filling the glen with babbling murmurs..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Both times Rip enters the glen, he is accompanied by sound: firstly the ninepins, which he interpreted “the muttering of...thunder-showers,” and now the “babbling murmurs” of a stream. Each description invokes the confusion of unclear speech, and each time Rip does not understand what is happening around him. Here, though, the sound is being correctly interpreted and has a natural source; Rip’s confusion is no longer justified by his surroundings alone, and it is apparent something may have happened to him.

"a deep ravine, or rather cleft between lofty rocks..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

“Rip Van Winkle”’s rich visual descriptions of the Catskill Mountains draw from other works in the romantic tradition. For instance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” describes a “deep romantic chasm which slanted/Down the green hill,” the rapturous imagining of which causes ecstasy in the poet and confusion in his onlookers. Like the narrator of “Kubla Khan,” Rip experiences rich and wild natural beauty, and will find himself changed by his exposure to it.

"the muttering of one of those transient thunder-showers..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Whereas Irving has described the sound Rip hears as “long rolling peals,” Rip himself revises the noise to a much gentler “muttering.” The specificity of these words and the huge difference in volume between the sounds they describe show that Rip is either not experiencing his environment accurately, or that he is unwilling to confront what he is experiencing.

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