Themes in Rip Van Winkle
National identity: Washington Irving was deeply invested in questions of American identity. He was born the week his family learned of the ceasefire that ended the Revolutionary War, and was himself named for George Washington. Despite spending a large portion of his adult life in Europe, Irving remained dedicated to the cause of the United States. He was the first internationally read and respected American author and the first author to write explicitly about America in a fictional context. As such, it is natural that questions regarding the nature of national and personal identity should permeate his stories. The ease with which Rip slips out of time during such a key moment in American history, and the relative ease with which he is able to rejoin the life of his village, speaks to the potential for disassociation between personal and national identities.
Historical Veracity: By using a frame narrative and involving multiple narrators in Rip’s story, Irving requires his readers to ask questions about truth and the role of the recorder in composing a region’s history.
Themes Examples in Rip Van Winkle:
Rip Van Winkle
"Nicholas Vedder? why, he is dead and gone these eighteen years!..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Upon his introduction, Nicholas Vedder was described at length, using language that tied him closely to the preceding image of the Catskill mountains. When Rip returns to the village, however, the surrounding mountains are unchanged—”every hill and dale precisely as it had always been”—and Vedder has vanished completely, reinforcing themes of human insignificance and transience as compared to the natural world.
"He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
This latter half of “Rip Van Winkle” combines the inn’s conflation of George III and George Washington with Rip’s own momentary loss of self to show how difficult it can be to place oneself in a political and social context. In this moment, Rip stands in for the rural American everyman, unsure of his place in a new landscape that demands active engagement from its inhabitants.
"the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Mythological traditions of sleeping kings hidden in mountains are prevalent throughout Europe. These traditions frequently include promises of the kings’ eventual return to their countries. The United States is no longer under the sway of a monarchy, but Hudson is fulfilling the role of an attentive ruler, watching with “a guardian eye” over the land he mapped for settlement. By incorporating this European tradition into “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving is elevating the mythology of the United States the the same level as that of more firmly established countries. He is also implying for the US a longevity that will be comparable to that of European empires.
"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.
"precise counterpart of himself..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Despite the revolution and the political investment that the inhabitants exhibit, Rip’s son is just as lethargic and poor as his father was. This perhaps symbolizes that while times have changed, at the core, things have remained the same.
"Rip’s daughter took him home to live with her; she had a snug, well-furnished house, and a stout cheery farmer for a husband, whom Rip recollected for one of the urchins that used to climb upon his back. As to Rip’s son and heir, who was the ditto of himself, seen leaning against the tree, he was employed to work on the farm; but evinced an hereditary disposition to attend to any thing else but his business...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
These familial dynamics should feel familiar to Rip, as they duplicate the gender roles displayed in his own marriage. Rip’s daughter keeps a neat home, and his son is uninterested in profitable work. Unlike her mother, though, Judith appears to have settled down with a husband well-suited to structured commercial work. Perhaps the village is no longer as widely supportive of Rip’s preferred lifestyle, or perhaps Dame Van Winkle’s demands were not as unreasonable as they seemed.
"The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, “GENERAL WASHINGTON.”..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
The appearance of the town, the behavior of its inhabitants, and indeed, the government of the country, have changed significantly while Rip has been gone. However the face of King George III’s looking out from the clothes of George Washington shows that at the core, some things are much as Rip left them. Rip’s blurring together of George Washington and George III is indicative of his “missing time” on a personal level, as he looks for links to the familiar past. It is also symbolic of the distance governments often have from the everyday lives of people, rendering authority figures somewhat interchangeable to Rip and his village.
"there was every hill and dale precisely as it had always been..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
We know from Rip’s reexamination of the wooded glen that this statement is not strictly true: there is a stream flowing where there wasn’t one before. The overall appearance of the land surrounding his village hasn’t changed, though, contributing to the theme of nature’s independence from human governance.
"a strange figure slowly toiling up the rocks..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
This passage shares features with Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” also published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. In both, the titular protagonists meet strange men in the wilderness. Tom Walker finds himself in a “lonely, melancholic place” when he meets his stranger, and Rip’s approaches from out of a “wild, lonely, and shagged” glen. European settlers in America would have been suspicious of the unexplored country around them, and Irving is linking this to the romantic idea of the natural world as a strange and forceful place.
"the muttering of one of those transient thunder-showers..." See in text (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.
"what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
It is notable that Rip’s first thought upon awakening is an expression of fear of his wife. This can be understood to be a fear of leaving the freedom of the forest for the demands of village commercialism. Rip has essentially woken up after a great party and is dreading his return to work.
"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.
"the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
This explicit comparison between Rip and the American colonies does not necessarily show the latter in a favorable light. Irving was deeply invested in the cause of the United States, but he held no illusions about its questionable impact on the everyman. National identity is depicted in this story as a choice made on the individual level rather than the civic one: Rip may technically now be “a free citizen of the United States,” but it is doubtful whether he ever participates in the structures that uphold that status.
"There was a wooden tombstone in the churchyard that used to tell all about him, but that’s rotten and gone too...." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
A wooden tombstone decomposes over time, removing the information about the deceased. The fact that it lasted less than 18 years shows just how uninterested the village of Rip’s time was in leaving a permanent legacy. However, Dame Van Winkle seems to have been a forerunning influence, and the village is moving slowly toward a more participatory role in the world.
"a fact, handed down from his ancestor, the historian, that the Kaatskill mountains had always been haunted by strange beings..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
Despite borrowing heavily from German stories, Irving wants the stories he creates for the United States to stand on their own. To do so, he describes a rich folkloric tradition to which his stories contribute. That a party of ghosts can be treated as a “fact” from a “historian” references the dubious scholastic qualifications of Knickerbocker and by extension the doubtful veracity of all such stories.
"what courage can withstand the evil-doing and all-besetting terrors of a woman’s tongue?..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
It is hard to resolve Irving’s feelings about women in “Rip Van Winkle.” Diedrich Knickerbocker respected them as a rich source of historical information, but he is an unreliable source. The wives of the village are positively disposed toward Rip, except for his own, and she is either a shrewish caricature or has been misrepresented in her silence. This inconsistency of opinion lends weight to the interpretation of Dame Van Winkle as a symbol of a larger tyranny, perhaps that of England or of civilized society, more than as a well-rounded character in her own right.
"there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired awe, and checked familiarity..." See in text (Rip Van Winkle)
While modern readers might find it strange, and even silly, that Rip doesn’t question his circumstances, the theme of human helplessness when confronted by an unknown force was common for romantic writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This contributed to the evolution of gothic literature, in which characters frequently find themselves in thrall to strange and indescribable powers. For Irving’s readers, a character who is unwilling or unable to question a strange experience would not be unusual or jarring.
"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.