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Literary Devices in Rip Van Winkle
Epigraph: An epigraph is an excerpt from another text that an author provides at the beginning of their work to provide context or perspective for what’s to follow. Epigraphs frequently suggest themes or points of view, and are generally associated with longer serious or epic works. Here, Irving’s choice of specific source text shows him to be employing his epigraph in a satirical way, mockingly elevating to literary status a narrative he has constructed to mimic a folk story.
Frame narrative: Washington Irving published “Rip Van Winkle” as the work of a fictitious “Geoffrey Crayon.” The pseudonym allowed Irving to interact with his stories for the benefit of his readers, creating a dynamic rather like that of being told a story by a trusted friend. Within this collection, “Rip Van Winkle” and another famous story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are both attributed (in the voice of Geoffrey Crayon) to another fictional persona of Irving’s, that of the Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. The description of Knickerbocker’s work that pre- and postfaces the story itself is part of a frame narrative, that of Crayon’s finding and publishing Knickerbocker’s papers. By so layering the content of the story, Irving calls attention to questions of narrative reliability and trustworthiness, as well as to the process by which stories become legends through the process of repetition.
Literary Devices Examples in Rip Van Winkle:
Rip Van Winkle
"good Peter Stuyvesant..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Peter Stuyvesant (1610–1672) was appointed director of New Netherland by the Dutch West India Company in 1645. He was largely involved in the beginnings of New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York when it was taken over by the English in 1664. Referencing a historical figure adds authenticity to the story because realistic foundations anchor the fictional story to history. By describing Stuyvesant as “the good,” Knickerbocker is also creating an idealized past, a “once upon a time,” a common setting in folk tales.
"swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
By giving life to this area of nature that surrounds the relatively peaceful town the author gives the mountains a mystical aura. Doing this sets a magical tone early on in the story, before the reader enters the forest. Irving will continue to personify the natural environment—the mountains, the river—as “lordly” throughout “Rip Van Winkle.” A common theme in romantic literature is the relative smallness of the individual contrasting with the unknowable vastness of nature, with the latter held to be inherently superior.
"the tavern politicians..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
This is a sign that perhaps things have not changed as much as Rip fears. Much as his coevals were called “philosophers” and compared to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto, these men are no true politicians. Despite their intense and focused debate, they’re still hampered in their topics by distance and delay.
"filling the glen with babbling murmurs..." See in text (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 mountain stream was now foaming down it..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
In folklore, running water frequently denotes a barrier between the magical and mortal realms or something over which magic cannot cross. Here it has replaced the site of Rip’s adventure, showing that any otherworldliness has left the glen.
"They all had beards..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Norse and Germanic gods of thunder were frequently depicted with beards. It is already apparent that the men Rip has encountered in the mountain are unusual, and combining this allusion with the thundering sounds of their ninepins gives them a distinctly supernatural air.
"CARTWRIGHT..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Beginning with a quote from another text is what’s known as an epigraph. Each chapter of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, in which “Rip Van Winkle” was first published, opens with a different epigraph. This one is from the play The Ordinary, written in 1634 by English playwright William Cartwright. While popular in his time, Cartwright’s work may not have been widely familiar to Irving’s readers. Moreover, the character quoted in this passage explicitly copies his words from Chaucer’s “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” Neither Chaucer’s nor Cartwright’s speaker has any intention of keeping the promise he’s made with this oath. For Irving, this provides multiple layers of commentary. The presence of the epigraph, the elevated tone of the words themselves, and the oath of truth to a pagan god all imply that his story is weighty and worth believing. However, appropriate understanding of the quote’s original context reveals that it is actually implying the complete opposite. By employing an epigraph from the consciously plagiarizing work of a lesser-known writer, Irving both alludes to his own frame device and sets a mocking tone for the story to follow.
"He was after his favorite sport of squirrel-shooting, and the still solitudes had echoed and re-echoed with the reports of his gun...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
The repeated “s” sound in “squirrel,” “still,” “solitudes,” and “reports” is an example of alliteration. It serves here to link Rip’s “squirrel-shooting” with the “still solitudes” of the mountains, subsuming him within his environment on a linguistic, as well as a spatial, level.
"He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Rip himself is added as another dubious layer through which his story percolates to the reader. As Knickerbocker explains away the variances in Rip’s story, so has Crayon explained away the poor veracity of Knickerbocker’s. The result is a narrative that is completely untrustworthy, presented with every assurance of its truthfulness and value.
"There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Irving uses the sounds of words as well as their meanings to inform his sentences. The hissing, biting consonance of “busy,” “bustling,” and “disputatious” moves quickly and sharply through the mouth, while “phlegm” and “drowsy tranquillity” use more languid vowels and softer consonants. This contrast in sound supports the contrast between Rip’s experience and his memories, emphasizing the newness of what he’s experiencing.
"Peter was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Peter Vanderdonk’s description here hearkens back to the prefacing introduction of Diedrich Knickerbocker. His inclusion in the story creates yet another layer through which the explanation of Rip’s adventure must pass before reaching readers. Vanderdonk’s authority is trusted implicitly by the village, much as Diedrich Knickerbocker’s is by Geoffrey Crayon, and by extension, Irving semi-satirically wishes to be trusted by his readers.
"There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
The villagers are celebrating the freedom to elect their leaders, and Rip is discovering a freedom of a different sort. He is able to become a full member of the community again after sharing this experience with them, but the cynical implications of its cause—his wife’s death—show Irving to be somewhat dubious about the degree to which liberty reflects well on its beneficiaries.
"the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
One of the themes Irving returns to throughout his story is that of the freedom of the natural world set against the confinement of civilization. By invoking an industrial metaphor—that of a blacksmith’s furnace, used to make tools such as plows—to describe the natures of men with difficult wives, Irving is potentially making a larger statement about the damaging effects of societal expectations on the character of the individual.
"henpecked husband..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
In colloquial usage, “henpecked” refers to someone who is overwhelmed and controlled by a nagging wife. It derives from the communal behavior of chickens, which use pecking to maintain a social hierarchy that controls access to resources. There is also a metaphorical layer to the phrase: the hen, the wife, is described as petty and domestic, and her nagging is as sharp and repetitive as the pecking of a hen.
"The following Tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Washington Irving introduces “Rip Van Winkle” in the voice of “Geoffrey Crayon”. Crayon relates the story from the papers of the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, allowing Irving to raise questions of reliability and truthfulness. Irving first introduced Diedrich Knickerbocker as the purported author of his 1809 book, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. That work was explicitly satirical, and readers familiar with it would know not to trust Knickerbocker’s word.
"The old gentleman died shortly after the publication of his work..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
The introduction to this short story uses a “framing device”; that is, the narrator tells us that he’s recounting a story that was told to him. This accomplishes several things: it draws attention to the fictional narrator, which encourages us to question the truth of the story, and it gives “Rip Van Winkle” an element of historical truth mixed with legend. Since we are encouraged to question the truth from the start, all themes and statements present in the text must be considered both at face value and satirically.