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Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story


While “Sleepy Hollow” may be Irving’s pop culture masterpiece – indelibly leaving its imprint on the American celebration of Halloween – it is “Rip Van Winkle” that has kept his name in print for two hundred years. “Knickerbocker’s History” may be a masterpiece of American satire, “Dolph Heyliger” may have laid the groundwork for “Tom Sawyer” and “Treasure Island,” and his biographies of Washington and Columbus may have influenced the way we view those men for over a century, but all this is nothing to the influence which “Rip Van Winkle” has had on American culture and literature.

It is Irving’s greatest masterpiece – a treatise on the ambiguous nature of the American national character, and a brilliant psychological study of the universal struggle between the human needs for independence and belonging. Existential in its themes, satirical in its treatment of politics, and tender in its approach to deep emotion, it bears all the hallmarks of Irving’s Knickerbocker persona. As with “Sleepy Hollow,” “Dolph Heyliger,” and “Golden Dreams,” Knickerbocker’s wry voice leads us through the humorous melodrama of an 18th century Dutch-American settlement, introducing us to pleasant caricatures of weakness and vice. By the time we have finished tarrying through this strange realm, we have the keen sense that we have learned something, but may have to concentrate before it comes to mind.

The story of Rip Van Winkle, as Irving was desperately hasty to acknowledge when accused of plagiarism, was largely borrowed from the German fairy tale of “Peter Klaus.” This story tells of a lazy goatherd who keeps losing a single goat each night. After recovering the prodigal several times, the lad decides to trail it, and finds that it has been slipping into a cleft in the mountain, where a subterranean cavern looms. Having entered the cave, Peter finds himself confronted by a group of gloomy knights playing nine-pins. The strange men welcome him and offer their wine to his lips, whereupon he slips into a twenty-year nap.

He wakes up with a foot-long beard, returns to his home, finds his friends are mostly dead, and meets his grown daughter and grandson. The knights are suggested to have been fairy folk – bringers of mischief and havoc. Just as “Sleepy Hollow” descended from “Der Wilde Jaeger” and “Tam O’Shanter,” and “Tom Walker” parodied “Faust,” “Rip” emigrates and repatriates a European folktale on American soil. While some have cited this as lazy art, a more nuanced interpretation – and one with a less nationalistic need for American exceptionalism – will acknowledge that Irving’s transportation of the European story into the slumbering Kaatskills is a creative means of discussing the nascent American character with both unfamiliar European audience and an introspective Yankee readership at home.

II.

The motif of sleep is fitting for Irving – he often felt that he had himself slept through life. Like Rip, he was averse to work, and seemingly allergic to responsibilities of all kinds. Also like Rip, he was quick to help his neighbor (spending years working on his brother, Peter’s, failing business and eventually bankruptcy), but rejected his family’s suggestions for his personal advancement. He denied opportunities to better his circumstances, eschewed marriage with vigor (only getting involved with girls who were far too young, too rich, or too tubercular to be a realistic nuptial threat), and spent over twenty years overseas, hoping to avoid his family’s interference, and delay his looming duty to grow up. By the time “The Sketch Book” made an international splash, he had accidentally employed his love of idleness and people watching to make himself a career. It would take until “The Alhambra” – a popular anthology of fiction and essays – and the “Life of Columbus” – his first serious, scholarly work – before he allowed himself to return to America after having left seventeen years previously on the excuse of helping Peter’s business.

Though not quite twenty years, his return certainly seemed prophetic: like Rip, he returned to a home which had transformed culturally, politically, socially, architecturally, geographically, and personally. His mother and eldest brother – his twin guiding stars – were dead, and all of his bachelor friends were settled down or else mired in their careers. Beard aside, it was an experience which he had foreseen in 1819 when he penned “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving always admired and pitied drifting mavericks, cut off from convention and alienated by their genius, stubbornness, or both, and formed just such a Prometheus in Rip Van Winkle. Spirited but lazy, independent but chummy, stubborn but flexible, aloof but social, irresponsible but kind – Irving seemed to suggest in Rip an amalgamation of the American character that so puzzled class-conscious, social climber Europeans. Who were these rebels who ignored social rank, demanded liberty, and yet seemed so strangely indifferent the winds of history and their own position in a world overrun by ambitious empires? In Rip Van Winkle Irving found a suitable metaphor for his own carefree lack of ambition, and for his whole country’s contradictory personality.

III.

The story begins with a meditation on the Catskill Mountains -- their beauty, sublimity, and allure -- before introducing us to a little Dutch-American settlement in the shadow of these rolling hills. Before the Revolutionary War, one of the residents -- Rip Van Winkle -- was famous for his good nature and terrible work ethic. He was universally adored by children, befriended by men, and pitied by women, but his wife -- the stolid scold, Dame Van Winkle -- constantly berated his laziness, for his house and farm were a shameful ruin and his children ran wild in rags due to his lack of ambition. He spent his days lounging at the King George Inn where the village men talked politics and current events, but was often driven away by his angry wife. One autumn day, eager to avoid work and his wife, Rip shoulders a hunting rifle and heads into the Catskills with his dog. There he is intoxicated by the peace, beauty, and timelessness, watching the sky glow will a single eagle wheels in the sky. About to turn around, he is startled by the sound of his name being beckoned in a deep, commanding voice. He looks around and notices a short man dressed in very old fashioned Dutch garb, shouldering a small keg of liquor. The man repeats his summons, and Rip (who never lifts a hand to help his family but is well-known for helping anyone who asks for free) takes the keg onto his own shoulder, and follows him down a ravine (despite his dog's bristling distrust of the stranger). There at the bottom he sees a melancholy assembly of grotesque men in hose, doublets, and sugarloaf hats (the dress of the late 16th century) who are mirthlessly bowling nine-pins while their leader -- a morose but stately man in a large hat -- looks on. Rip enjoys watching their activities and is happy to accept a drink from the keg. Sipping from the flagon given him, he recognizes the taste of very excellent hollands (a type of spiced, Dutch gin) and eagerly drinks it before dozing off to sleep.

When he awakens, he is horrified to realize that it is a different day and that he has been robbed by the strangers: his well-oiled musket has been replaced by a rusted, moldering relic. Weary and dizzy, he looks around for his dog but finds that he is alone. Afraid of his wife's rebuke, he hesitantly returns to the village where he is surprised to see strange houses, is heckled by strange children, and realizes that he is sporting a foot-long beard. He finds his house a ruin, and resorts to the King George Inn where he hopes to find his mates. To his surprise, even the Inn has changed (it is now the Union Hotel, and the signboard with George III's portrait has had his crown and sceptre painted over with a sword and cocked hat, his scarlet coat painted over with a blue and buff uniform, and the words "General Washington" underneath). A crowd has assembled for an upcoming election, and nearby a strange flag -- red and white stripes with a blue canton spangled with white stars -- is fluttering from a flagpole.

A leading citizen asks Rip why he dares to bring a musket to an election, and then questions his politics. When Rip responds that he is apolitical other than that he is the loyal subject of the king, the crowd assail him for being a Tory spy. Utterly confused, Rip begs their patience and asks if anyone remembers Rip Van Winkle. To his surprise, some of the elder citizens inform him that the man of that name went hunting one day and never returned -- twenty years earlier. Of his old friends, he learns that some are dead, some killed in war, and some are holding elected office in the new country that was founded during his sleep. He also encounters his children -- Rip Jr., his spitting image and a lazy ne'er-do-well, and his daughter Judith, who is shushing her infant son, named Rip. Upon learning that his wife is dead (after suffering a stroke during an argument), Rip completely reconciles himself to his lost years and embraces his family. One old timer notes that Rip's story lines up with an old legend: the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men are said to return to the Catskills which they explored in 1609 every twenty years (implying that Rip encountered them in 1769 and woke up in 1789), when they are said to play nine-pins which make thundering sounds throughout the valley.

Easygoing as always, Rip goes along with the shifting politics, becomes the idol of the town children, and is known to tell fanciful exaggerations of his story to visitors (leading some to imply that he never slept for twenty years at all, but merely became lost in a lazy reverie). Having escaped his wife, responsibility, and work, he is the envy of many young husbands, and more than one henpecked father relishes the idea of taking a sip from Rip's intoxicating flagon.

IV.

Rip Van Winkle was not the first character in literary history to undergo the transforming powers of a good, deep nap. Nor was Peter Klaus even the first. In Ancient Greece it was said that a lazy herdsman named Epimenides tried to escape the misery of a summer’s day by napping in a cave – before waking fifty-seven years later. In pre-Christian Rome the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus – a group of persecuted Christian youths – were said to have found refuge in a cave, hibernating for nearly four centuries. Of course there is also the most famous of lengthy nappers, Sleeping Beauty, who drowsed with her family and their entire court for 100 years before love’s true kiss breaks the spell. There are many legends of slumbering leaders – dead, really, but capable of being awoken in a time of national crisis – such as the Fisher King, King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, Sir Francis Drake, and more. This merely scratches the surface, but you clearly get the idea: there is something mythic and timeless about the regenerative powers of sleep, and its ability to drink up our lives at the same time.

Popular wisdom informs us that we spend on average one third of our lives asleep, and yet those of us (myself included) who attempt to better employ our time by staying up later than we should do so at our peril: increasing the likeliness of cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and anxiety. Like life and death itself, the balance between sleep and wakefulness seems to be a finely tuned balance which demands acceptance and surrender. In our waking life we can function practically – enjoy love and relationships, do good work, and see the world’s wonders – but in our sleeping life we can enjoy the same things without limits: the release of the dream world. Imaginative people have long sought to juggle the balance between the pleasures of the dreaming mind and the drudgery of waking life. H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe were particularly obsessed with this philosophical conundrum: Lovecraft genuinely enjoyed dreaming more than living, and Poe – more realistic than his 20th century disciple – addressed the absurdity of living to sleep in many of his most famous works (“A Dream Within a Dream,” “The Sleeper,” etc.). Rip Van Winkle could have benefited from reading some of Poe’s more dream-squashing poetry (“Eldorado” in particular smacks of Rip’s wandering spirit).

While the story’s ending is unabashedly optimistic, with every henpecked young man longing for a sip of Rip’s mysterious flagon, the implications which have made it a literary classic are far less apparent. Rip’s return to a changed world is inauspicious and humiliating: while his peers were out fighting battles, building republics, and building their legacies, Rip finds himself an alien in his native land – as outdated, unfashionable, and redundant as a Druid priest. In one sense Irving is making a famously cynical commentary on the meaninglessness of politics, and we can’t discount that. He intentionally plays up the relativity of government systems by showing how with a little blue and sand-colored paint a dynastic king can be turned into an elected president. Rip eases comfortably into the American republic as soon as he knows what not to say, what to praise, and whom to vote for in order to keep from rocking the boat, and doesn’t seem to be nostalgic for his former government in the slightest. Indeed, many commentators note that Dame Van Winkle’s so-called tyranny should be read as analogous to Great Britain’s maternal rule. Rip appears to reject the overseas monarch as just another extension of his wife’s disapproving heavy hand.

And yet, as much as many readers have strived to make “Rip Van Winkle” little more than a misogynistic wish fulfillment – either because they too would like to leave their wives behind and live without responsibility, or because they resent Dame Van Winkle’s characterization and see sexism where they wish to see sexism – Rip’s fate is hardly clean cut. He finds himself alienated from his community, reduced to a curiosity, and discredited by his peers as either a lunatic or an absentee father. His own legacy is stained by his behavior: while his daughter and grandson appear to be well adjusted, his son has grown into just as lazy and disrespectful a cur as he himself once was. Deeply devoted to his male friendships, he is forced to find company in small children now that his mates are all either dead, in places of power, or too disturbed by his story to resurrect their intimacy.

While he appears to revel in “the younger generations,” it seems unlikely that this isn’t a forced connection brought about by his polite ostracizing from adult society. One of the great concerns about Rip’s story is its believability – this prevented him from being openly embraced as a restored son of the town, and has continued to prevent him from being accepted by many critics. Feminist critics in particular have a penchant for arguing that Rip – a deadbeat dad – abandoned his family for two decades, allowing his poor wife to take up the responsibilities of raising a family and leading to her pathetic demise. In an essay written in 2009 – “Ego, the Unconscious, and Homoeroticism in Irving’s Rip Van Winkle” – I myself argued that this was an entirely valid interpretation, and that Rip could even be interpreted as a homosexual finding himself in Pan’s domain of self-indulgent Nature – an interpretation somewhat easily made due to the tremendous amount of homoerotic symbolism and subtext in “Rip” (the rusting up of the phallic musket is probably the most obvious example).

V.

Whether Rip is or is not gay no longer strikes me as a terribly pertinent debate, however. What is certainly true, though, is that he journeys to the mountains to tap into his innermost, unconscious desires. Whether they are for homosexual expression, to indulge a repressed wish for his wife’s death, or a longing to escape the constraints of time itself is immaterial: unquestionably Rip flees to Nature to escape his restrictions and responsibilities, and unquestionably it serves as a metaphysical touchstone to conjure and feed his ego. Whether Rip really did mindlessly spend twenty years wandering the mountains in a self-indulgent, decadent daze, or whether (as Irving truly does indicate through his third person narrator) he was drunk on Hudson’s spell, it is certain that he went there to find relief from the complications of his waking life – only to find that sleeping through life is only a temporary cure (and one which brings its own complex problems).

That Henry Hudson – the hapless English explorer who froze to death, vainly seeking the source of the non-existent Northwest Passage – should be the source of his enchantment is fitting. Hudson was, in a sense, another man disappointed by life and driven away from the comforts and community of home, and found himself literally adrift in a world that didn’t have room for him. Hudson and his men discovered the main artery of the New Netherlands – sailing from Manhattan, upriver to Albany, before turning around in disappointment – in September of 1609. One hundred and sixty years later, in 1769, Rip Van Winkle goes on a similar mission: leaving the tidy houses of Kingston, New York in search of independence and freedom. When he awakens, twenty years later, his own country has begun a similar journey: the election season of 1789 had recently seen George Washington elected president, a Constitution established, and a dangerous experiment begun.

In so many ways Rip resembles both his native country and his own author: young, reckless, imaginative, independent, arrogant, creative, unresponsive to shame, and motivated by curiosity and pleasure rather than duty or obligation. At his best – like Irving, or America itself – Rip is a maverick who marches to the beat of his own drummer – a Thoreauvian, Whitmanesque genius of self-reliance, independence, and free will. At his worst – like Irving, or America itself – Rip is a self-involved egotist too distracted by his desire to avoid responsibility to others to change his stubborn habits – a deadbeat who uses his “independent spirit” as an excuse to leave his community hanging. So what is the Rip Van Winkle’s flagon? Is it the narcotic of self-involvement and chronic irresponsibility? Is it the invigorating liquor of the spirit of freedom and self-determination? Or is it something more complicated, something in the middle: a fortifying indulgence that emboldens the will – that enhances the drinker’s character: its strengths and its weaknesses alike? A beverage that turns Rip the imaginative lay-about into a larger-than-life dreamer and a deadbeat of mythic proportions. Whatever was in that flagon, we can unquestionably be sure that it’s made of more than just flavored gin.

You can read the original story HERE!

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Irving's best ghost stories HERE!

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