Rip Van Winkle Theme Essay Conclusion

As children, many readers have been told some version of the story of Rip Van Winkle before they ever get around to reading Washington Irving’s tale. Moreover, a number of theatrical adaptations have made the basic elements of the story familiar to many who have never read it. As a consequence, the story comes across as one without an author, a product of the folk imagination, and there is much in the genesis of the tale that reinforces this impression. In these circumstances, it is altogether too easy to overlook the art involved in Irving’s telling of his tale, especially given that it would be difficult to find anywhere in American literature a more compelling example of an art that conceals art.

“Rip Van Winkle” first appeared in Irving’s collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). Much of the content of this book, the first by an American to enjoy a transatlantic reputation, focuses on subject matter derived from Irving’s stay in England, to which he had sailed in 1815. It expresses an attitude toward England, announced as that of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving’s persona, that is often critical and sometimes melancholy. In this context, the American qualities of “Rip Van Winkle,” set in the time of the revolution that established the independent United States of America where previously there had been only British colonies, make themselves emphatically felt.

Irving places the tale in a second context as well. The story was found, we are told, among the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker is, of course, one of Irving’s earlier creations, the fictional author of Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasties (1809), Irving’s first masterpiece. How the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker came into the possession of Geoffrey Crayon is never explained. Two personae, Geoffrey Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker, separate Irving, the actual author, from the work; the separation encourages in the reader an air of ironic detachment toward the story Irving tells. It may also constitute a sort of authorial self-effacement, a disappearance of the author behind his work. It is ironic that this success results in a diminished sense of the author’s accomplishment.

The actual source of the story is a German folktale; it is Irving’s genius that resets the story in America and in history. The twenty years that Rip sleeps are not merely an arbitrary period, suggesting simply a long time, as is common in folktales. Rather, they are the twenty years during which the American nation was born in revolution. Rip himself is also historically situated. At the beginning of the story, he is a loyal subject of England’s King George III. As his name suggests, however, he is descended from the Dutch settlers who preceded the English in the area that became New York. Before that, the Dutch the area was inhabited by American Indians. They are present in the story only as figures in the tales Rip tells to frighten and amuse the children of the village. History has pushed them to the margins, to dwell with the witches and ghosts who otherwise populate Rip’s yarns, yet they remain in memory and imagination.

Irving thus suggests a multiplicity of historical layers beyond the surface of his tale. Even the most fantastic element, the apparition of Hendrick Hudson and his crew playing at ninepins, recalls the importance of Dutch exploration in American history. The background to the dynamic of history is provided by the Catskills, emblematic on this occasion of the American landscape, the theater in which the acts of the historical drama are played out. The latest (and not the last) act of this drama is the age to which Rip awakens. His awakening leads swiftly to a crisis of identity: He no longer knows who he is.

In his confusion, as he begs someone to identify him to himself, Rip articulates a version of one of the central questions of classic American literature: What are these new beings called Americans? Do they represent a new beginning in human history? Or is the change from British colonist to American citizen as superficial as the coat of paint that transforms the George III inn into the George Washington inn? In fusing the materials of a German folktale with the stuff of American history, Irving encourages in his readers an ironic reflection on just such questions.

Part of the art of this story, then, rests in the mastery of touch that allows Irving to bring into play such complexities of time and place while maintaining without rupture a surface of unruffled urbanity and humor. A mastery of narrative craft is at work here as well. The story opens on a panorama of the geographical setting. The passages in the Catskills, including Rip’s encounter with the little men, are developed in more tightly focused, scenic terms. Viewpoint becomes strictly limited as the story moves to Rip’s discovery, through his observation of the reactions of others, of his long beard. This prepares the reader for the inspired confusion of election day in the village as perceived by a befuddled old man who thinks he is coming home. “Rip Van Winkle” is a marvel in its author’s manipulation of point of view.


1. Introduction

2. American Romanticism 1820-1865

3. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”
3.1 Irving as a Romantic Writer
3.2 The Background of the Story
3.3 Truth as a Theme in “Rip Van Winkle”
3.3.1 The Narrative Frame
3.3.2 “Truth” in the Embedded Tale
3.4 Individualism and the Depiction of the Common Man in “Rip Van 9 Winkle”
3.5 The Function of Nature in “Rip Van Winkle”

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Washington Irving was one of the “first notable fiction writers of the American romantic movement” (Keenan 970). His sketch book with tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” “made Irving the first American author to attain an international reputation” (Fender 165). Whereas Irving’s prior work, the History of New York (1809) is written in a neoclassical1 tone right in the sense the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, “The Sketch Book [...], showed that Irving had gradually become a romanticist” (cf. Callow and Reilly 76).

According to the “Oxford Companion to American Literature”, Romanticism is a “term that is associated with imagination and boundlessness” (Hart 724). Furthermore, it was a movement that “elevated the individual, the passions, and the inner life. Romanticism, a reaction against neoclassicism, stressed strong emotion, imagination, freedom from classical correctness in art forms, and rebellion against social conventions” .2

The goal of this paper is to examine and explain the major romantic elements in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”. Therefore, at first the developments and ways of thinking during the Romantic period will be described, and briefly contrasted with those of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Then some information will be given on Irving as a romantic writer and the background of the tale of “Rip Van Winkle”. After that several romantic features will be highlighted within short analyses of parts of the tale. Due to the briefness of the paper, the discussed features are restricted to themes such as “Truth”, “Individualism” and the depiction of Rip Van Winkle as a common man, as well as the function of nature within the story.

2. American Romanticism 1820 - 1865

The Romantic period in America can be set between 1820 and 1865. In 1820, Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book was published, which is considered as one of the first romantic pieces written by an American author. 1865 is the year in which the Civil War ended, and after which different ways of thinking had emerged as an effect of the war.3 American Romanticism is the period that succeeded the Age of Reason and Enlightenment (1763/65­1815/20), in which reason and common sense were the values that people considered highest (cf. Blankenship 203).

Generally, Romanticism can be described as “an ideological shift on the grand scale from conservative to liberal ideas” (Keenan 970). In contrast to the preceding period “the most profound and comprehensive ideal of romanticism is the vision of a greater personal freedom for the individual” (Hart 724/725). The Age of Reason and Enlightenment was marked by a “complete confidence in the unbounded power of human reason, [...] reverence for natural science, and [...] insistence upon natural religion [...]” (Blankenship 118). In the beginning of the 19th century the romantic way of thinking slowly developed. According to Blankenship, [t]he eighteenth century, well called the Age of Reason, had so wantonly disregarded the feelings of mankind that many were already deeply dissatisfied with the spiritual and intellectual life of the time [.] (197).

It should be noted that the origins of a romantic attitude - according to “The Oxford Companion to American Literature” - may, besides other causes, “be traced to the economic rise of the middle class, struggling to free itself from feudal and monarchical restrictions” (Hart 725). On the American continent, such a struggle had taken place in the American Revolutionary War4 (1775-83), and not only for economic reasons of the middle class, but also for political, social and geographic reasons (cf. Blankenship 139). The result of the war was the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence in 1783 by which England and France acknowledged the United States as an independent democratic republic (cf. Baym 175-181). “This first wave of political liberalism and revolution, culminating in the revolution of 1776, was the vanguard of American romanticism” (Keenan 970).

People did not only strive for political and economic freedom, but also “had taken up the struggle for literary independence”, and “some demanded a new, unmistakably American literature which should make use of the language of the common man in order to render more lifelike the several American types such as the frontiersman, the Indian, the Yankee etc” (Kuczynski 297). Moreover, the development of the new literary/cultural movement was influenced by the works of romantic authors from England, France and Germany and by “the idealistic philosophy of Kant”5 (Hart 725).

American Romanticism is a very diverse phenomenon that results in many different features and styles: “So diverse are they that often one wing of romanticism will flatly contradict the most cherished tenets of another” (Blankenship 196). The author comprises the movement as “a protest against the dominant ideas of the mid-eighteenth century”, which “tended to substitute imagination for logic” and “preferred a life governed by feeling and emotion to one of cold reason” (196). In addition, Blankenship stresses that Romanticism “[b]eyond everything [...] stood for individualism, emphatically rejecting scrupulous observance of established rules and regulations in favour a life of individual liberty” (ibid.). Besides “the primacy and validity of feeling and emotion, the freedom and value of imagination and intuition”, other features of the literary period were the nobility of the common man [...], the primacy of the subjective view of the individual, the beauty and spirituality of nature, and the evocation of the picturesque American past, complete with its legends and folklore, were the common aspects of American romanticism (Keenan 970).

3. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”

3.1 Irving as a Romantic Writer

“Rip Van Winkle” was “first published 1819 as part of The Sketch Book 6 and is “one of the best-known American short stories” (Callow and Reilly 78). The Sketch Book is a compilation of sketches about England and the United States that Irving worked on when he lived and travelled in Europe (cf. Blankenship 248).

“American romantics have traditionally sought to move out of time altogether and into some sort of space. Time means history, and history means ‘traces of men’ and society, which is precisely what interested and stimulated Irving” (Rubin-Dorsky, Washington Irving as an American Romantic, 41). „Rip Van Winkle“ is a romantic text because it deals with “the picturesque past”, a theme that Irving was much interested in (Hart 725). The story takes place before and after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) when the American colonies still were governed by the British Crown, more respectively by George III.7, who ruled in Britain from 1760-1801. Blankenship mentions that “Irving sought the romantic in the far away and long ago” (247), and not in the common topics of everyday life “or in feverish agitation for a new order of things” (252) like other writers did, and that “the picturesque was Irving’s one delight” (247). Likewise Hancock maintains: “Irving’s forte was in the ancient: the myth and legend of what had gone before, not in what was to come” (22).

3.2 The Background of the Story

“Rip Van Winkle” can be characterized as a romantic sketch because its origins can be traced “in the romantic area of folklore” (Callow and Reilly 76). During Irving’s stay in Europe, he came across the German tale of “Peter Klaus” which became the model for his short story “Rip Van Winkle” (Zobel 210). “By using the New York Catskills as the background for “Rip Van Winkle”, he furthered his project of providing the young nation with a measure of the folk tradition dear to romanticism” (Dawson 251). Because of the resemblance between “Peter Klaus” and “Rip Van Winkle” Irving was accused of plagiarism (cf. Kuczynski 296). Though, “Irving’s choice of time and place, making the story play in North America and during the transitional period from colonial days to the USA after the War of Independence, imparts to his use of the German folk-tale a historical dynamic completely alien to the original source“ (Kuczynski 297). The changes Irving made by personalizing and localizing his version, and by “giving it a Diedrich Knickerbocker framework, a Hudson River setting, and New World Dutch characters” (Callow and Reilly 78/79) even “create a specific correspondence to American life and thought” (Plung 65), and thereby make “the tale inherently American” (ibid. 66). So, Irving used an old antiquarian folk tale, transferred it into an American setting, and was able to create an American legend which offers a lot of different interpretations down to the present day (cf. Callow and Reilly 79).

“In the romantic area of folklore or popular antiquities [Irving] also made important contributions, not only by perpetuating various Old World legends, but also by finding others for the New World and thus enhancing it with ‘associations’ ” (ibid. 76).


1 “Neoclassicism: An 18th-century artistic movement, associated with the Enlightenment, drawing on classical models and emphasizing reason, harmony, and restraint”

(URL:, posted 2006, accessed on 08/04/2007).

2 URL:, posted 2006, accessed on 08/04/2007.

3 The Civil War (1861-1865) emerged from a conflict between the Northern and Southern states in America, who had „two fundamentally different economic and social systems“ (Serafin 158). The South, with its large plantations, stable crops, and institution of slavery“ (ibid.) wanted to become independent from the North/The Union, and „inevitably came into conflict with the free industrial and commercial North“ (ibid.). North and South went to war in April 1861; the Unionist army won the war in April 1865 (cf. URL:, posted 2006, accessed on 08/04/2007).

4 The American Revolutionary War is the war of independence of the American colonies from Britain. The war started between British troops and colonists in Boston on April 19, 1775. On July 4th, 1776 the American colonies issued the Declaration of Independence which justified their actions before other nations. After the surrender of British troops, a “peace treaty was finally signed in Paris on April 15, 1783 [...]. The Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former American colonies, now states” (cf. URL:, accessed on 08/04/2007).

5 The conceptual framework of German Idealism was provided by Immanuel Kant [...]. By giving the primacy to practical reason, he placed religion and ethics on a sure footing and broke the ban of rationalism. [...] He made it particularly his problem to rescue natural science from the (epistemological) skepticism [...]. Science is valid, but it has to do only with phenomena. This phenomenal world, however, is produced a priori by the activity of consciousness, reacting on that external reality whose eternal nature cannot be known. [...] the principles of science and the laws of nature are universally valid because they are in the subject, not in the object. Knowledge of ultimate reality comes through the practical reason, particularly through the a priori moral law in us. Kant's idea of inner freedom became the inspiration of the creative genius” (URL:, posted 2006, accessed on 08/04/2007).

6 Unfortunately, the quotations from “Rip Van Winkle” in this paper cannot be made directly from the original The Sketch Book, but have to refer to “The Norton Anthology of American Literature” as The Sketch Book will not be borrowable from the university library until August 13th. It is known that the tale only fully resonates when read in context with the whole sketch book (cf. Dawson 266), which is now unluckily impossible.

7 Cf. URL:, posted 2006, accessed on 08/04/2007.


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