This is the part of the blog I was looking forward to when I first started publishing pieces on literature: the part where I get to write about their books and stories. I already did this a little bit with Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, but will now get rolling on some of Washington Irving’s work (and will hopefully get to write about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow this fall). Anyhow, today we are going to be looking at Irving’s short story Rip Van Winkle, which is about a nagging wife, a kindly “Dutch American,” an incredibly long sleep, and some musings on escaping hellish warfare.
“Rip Van Winkle”appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1820. The story itself is narrated by Geoffrey Knickerbocker, who is an unreliable narrator (and he’s also one of Irving’s alter-egos) and Kickerbocker also appears in some of Irving’s other works. Rip Van Winkle is heavily influenced by German folklore and features a very real setting with fantastical elements, which is definitely a mark of Irving’s work.
Long sleep story short
The titular Rip Van Winkle, who is a nice enough farmer, lived a kind, though unworkmanlike, life under the peremptory thumb of his overbearing wife. Irving writes:
“I have observed that he was a simple good-natured man; he was, moreover, a kind neighbor, and an obedient hen-pecked husband. Indeed, to the latter circumstance might be owing that meekness of spirit which gained him such universal popularity; for those men are most apt to be obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home.”
Winkle leaves to venture into the Catskill Mountains on a hunting trip to escape his nag of a wife and dying farm. From a safe spot over the Hudson River, Winkle relaxes during a squirrel hunting trip with his dog Wolf, when, suddenly, he sees a stranger approaching:
“He was a short square-built old fellow, with thick bushy hair, and a grizzled beard. His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion—a cloth jerkin strapped round the waist—several pair of breeches, the outer one of ample volume, decorated with rows of buttons down the sides, and bunches at the knee.”
The stranger turned out to be the explorer Henry Hudson—and his crew—which probably represents the freedom Winkle seeks, as they were adventurers and man of charisma and bravery. Winkle then joined in celebration with the explorer and crew and drank an enormous amount of their special liquor, which put him to sleep. Upon waking, he was alone and he soon discovered that it had been 20 years.
“’Surely,’ thought Rip, ‘I have not slept here all night.’ He recalled the occurrences before he fell asleep. The strange man with a keg of liquor—the mountain ravine—the wild retreat among the rocks—the woe-begeon party at ninepins—the flagon—‘Oh! that flagon! that wicked flagon!’ thought Rip—‘what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle!’”
To make a long story short (though a good story, nonetheless), upon awaking, Winkle has a nice long beard (the one he is synonymous with), and as he comes back to town, he realizes that his old life is no more, as his wife has passed, his children are adults, and the American Revolution was won by the colonists (Britannica.com).
Winkle resume his life, prattling away hours at the local inn, regaling the locals with tales of olden times.
“He used to tell his story to every stranger that arrived at Mr. Doolittle’s hotel. He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it, which was, doubtless, owing to his having so recently awaked…and it is a common wish of all hen-pecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.”
And that’s pretty much the tale!
Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.”