Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle: Summary and Analysis

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  1. 0:06 Rip Van Winkle
  2. 0:48 Characters
  3. 1:29 Rip's Twenty-Year Sleep
  4. 3:14 Analysis: Romantic Characteristics
  5. 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

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.
Rip Van Winkle Nagging Wife

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.

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