The story of 'Rip Van Winkle' is one of enchantments and escape. In this lesson, we look at how Washington Irving uses his words and Romantic characteristics to create the story's theme.
Rip Van Winkle
Like many of Washington Irving's other famous stories, 'Rip Van Winkle' was inspired by German folklore. The general plot of the story, a man who mysteriously sleeps for 20 years to find himself in a changed world, is easy enough even for children to understand, which is probably why its story line has often been adapted in other works and forms of entertainment. Even my personal first encounter with the story was an old Pac Man cartoon version called 'Pac Van Winkle.' And there's a reason this story is still so fun to read. It has all the fixings of a great story: a nagging wife, dogs, guns, ghosts, liquor and of course, long, gray beards.
Rip Van Winkle is depicted as a henpecked husband.
The story starts before the American Revolution, when King George is ruling the colonies. Right away, Irving explains that Rip is a pretty good man. He is friendly, and people in town tend to like him. If someone needs an extra hand, Rip is always ready to lend one. He is often flocked by children and has a loyal dog companion named Wolf.
Rip's problem, we quickly learn, is that he isn't terribly motivated to do much work around his house or even enough to really take care of his family. As a result, his wife Dame Van Winkle, isn't exactly his biggest fan. Here, Irving paints Rip as the henpecked husband, a man who is constantly being nagged by his wife.
Rip's Twenty-Year Sleep
In order to escape his wife's constant harassment one autumn day, Rip decides to go out into the Kaatskill Mountains with his dog. He takes his gun and heads out for some peace. Once he's secluded, he hears someone calling his name and sees a man wearing old Dutch clothing carrying a keg. Yes, a keg. The poor guy obviously needs some help, so without saying anything, Rip helps the guy carry his keg to an amphitheater in the woods. Here he finds more men dressed in old Dutch frocks playing a game of skittles, or nine-pins, which is like bowling. The racket of the game makes a thunderous sound, and no one is speaking, so Rip says nothing and begins to drink some of the liquor from the keg. Next thing you know, he's getting a bit drowsy.
Rip awakes in the morning to find that his dog is gone, his gun is rusted and he's had an abnormal amount of beard-growth over night. He remembers the men playing nine-pins and is worried about Dame Van Winkle's reaction to his late return.
But when he enters town, things are different. There is a picture of George Washington at the inn, and all of the townspeople look different. After pledging his loyalty to the King (which doesn't go over so well in the post-Revolution state) and meeting another man by the name of Rip Van Winkle (who turns out to be his son), Rip is assisted by the crowd that has since grown around him and learns that he has been missing for 20 years. He is also told of the legend that Henry Hudson and his ghosts revisit the Hudson Valley every 20 years and many believe that Rip has been away with Hudson and his men in that time.
It is then decided that Rip will live with his now-grown daughter and continue to live the life that he lived before, only he has escaped having to face a war and even worse, his hen-pecking wife.
Analysis: Romantic Characteristics
Before any reader can really enjoy this story, they have to buy into the idea that a man can sleep for 20 years - and through a war at that. The Romantic element of the supernatural is the basic essence of this story; without it, there is nothing to tell. Once we buy into the idea that Rip does sleep for 20 years, we can look at other mystical elements. The presence of what seems to be the Hudson clan playing nine-pins provides us with ghosts, a sleeping potion and one seriously awkward party. We can also see that the tale alone of Hudson's return every 20 years is in-and-of-itself supernatural - if we choose to believe it.
This is enhanced by Irving's flowering language which creates a beautiful picture of the setting in the reader's mind. This is called imagery. The first two paragraphs of the story are devoted to creating the image of the 'Kaatskill Mountains' and the village at its foot.
'Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains…they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky.'
Washington Irving uses surreal Romantic elements to describe the woods and village.
These mountains stand tall and appear alive beyond natural realms. They change with the season, as do people, and provide insight to the weather to come. Their 'magical hues' make the onlookers believe that there is something more to the scene than just a bunch of trees.
Even the town is painted with a surreal image of times past, another Romantic characteristic. Irving says, '…there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing within a few years, built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland, having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weather-cocks.' This sets the antiquated scene that readers, both then and now, need to visualize the cozy little Dutch village.
Like most Romantic writers, Irving glorifies the rural setting as opposed to the city life. This Romantic element drives the story, giving it supernatural qualities and a place for Rip to escape this horrible marriage. Remember, the Romantics saw the woods as mystical, full of the supernatural and magic. And in this story, that was just what Rip needed to live a life free of Dame Van Winkle. This is the story's theme, the central idea or the message in the text. Sometimes we must escape the harshness of our lives and to do so, the countryside is always welcoming.
To recap, the Romantic elements of this story really fuel the plot. Thanks to the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men, Rip is able to break free from his nagging wife and live the life he wants. We see supernatural fueling the theme of escapism - two monster characteristics of Romantic writing. Irving makes us buy into the mystical tale through his use of imagery, which not only sets the scene but creates a feeling of enchantment for the reader.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to describe the plot, Romantic imagery and theme of Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle.'