Freedom and revolution in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”

Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” has endured as an American classic that places timeless themes against a backdrop of the American Revolution. Rip Van Winkle, the placid, charitable, idle Dutch-American protagonist enjoys his slow life in a town at the base of the Catskill Mountains. His sole source of agitation is Dam Van Winkle, his wife, who reprimands him constantly for his reluctance to do domestic or farm work. One day while on a walk in the mountains with his dog, Wolf, Rip encounters a group of men dressed in antiquated Dutch clothing, playing nine-pins. Rip is unconcerned with who they are, and drinks their gin, and falls asleep. Upon waking and returning to his village, he realizes that his wife is gone, he recognizes no one, and that the life he knew has vanished. Eventually he is told that one night on the mountain was twenty years, and that the American Revolution has taken place. Although Rip has lost many years, he is now able to enjoy the quiet without his nagging wife. In “Rip Van Winkle”, Irving uses Rip’s story to depict the dramatic changes of the new America following the revolution.

Dame Van Winkle’s nagging is the core inhibitor of Rip’s freedom, and thus is the symbol of the past and the undesired, as well as the factor by which productive change is judged. Although Rip responded to her complaints with his “well-oiled disposition” by “[shrugging] his shoulders, [shaking] his head, [casting] up his eyes, but [saying] nothing” (473), “times grew worse […] as years of matrimony rolled on” (474). The increasing trouble Dame Van Winkle gives Rip resembles a revolution within Rip itself: the worsening times lead up to a significant transition in which the negative qualities of the past are rid of. The life Rip leads under his wife’s scrutiny and criticism is to an extent repressed and causes him to constantly seek the freedom of the wilderness, solitude, and exploration, similar to the motives behind the discovery of America. On his walk in the mountains, Rip Van Winkle runs literally into the past with the appearance of Henry Hudson and his men. The men are dressed in “antique Dutch fashion” (475), and they reminded Rip of “the figures in an old Flemish painting” (476). The group of men are playing nine-pins, a British game. This scene is saturated in representation of the past; it’s a glimpse of America’s British roots during a significant era of change.

Rip Van Winkle’s return to his village the next day, or two decades later, is Washington Irving’s meditation on the change that the Revolution instilled. Initially, Rip is “sorely perplexed” (478), and upon discovering that he is surrounded by strangers and his family is gone, is like his house, “empty, forlorn, and apparently abandoned” (478). In his desolation he even calls out for his wife, his only reason for unhappiness in his past life. The portrait of King George, who is described fondly as having a “ruby” face and a “peaceful pipe” (478), is replaced with a painting of George Washington, who is foreign to Rip. New terms that Rip has no understanding of confuse him: “war, congress, Stoney-Point” (479). Irving uses the universal symbols of the American Revolution to depict the massive changes that have occurred during the time that Rip has been gone. As seen in Rip’s emotional state, change without continuity is not progress. The shock that Rip experiences in the face of a changed homeland is proportionate to the amount of change that has occurred in those twenty pivotal years. However, Rip Van Winkle slowly finds familiar faces again, or continuity from the life he knew. He sees “himself or another man” (480) – almost an exact reflection of himself in his son, whose name is also Rip Van Winkle, and his daughter takes him in. His life reverts back to the way it used to be, excluding the absence of Dame Van Winkle. Her death is the meaningful development in his life: “he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased” (481). Rip has attained full freedom and is no longer chained to the repressive elements of the past. He is living the change, but is able to see elements from his earlier life.

Rip Van Winkle’s new life in the revolutionized United States is the embodiment of change for progress yet maintaining continuity. Rip’s new life is an improvement of the past, not a replacement, for although Dame Van Winkle and all the restriction that she embodies is gone, Rip finds that he “[prefers] making friends among the rising generation, with whom he soon [grows] into great favour” (481). Rip’s preference for the younger generation, and the absence of the ways of the past, reflect the positive changes Irving sees in the revolution. Even longer after Rip’s return, during every thunder storm, the townspeople imagine that “Hendrick Hudson and his crew are at their game of nine pins” (482). This acknowledgment and legacy of one of the first and most important explorers of America highlights how early 19th century Americans acknowledged and remembered their British past.

“Rip Van Winkle” has been integrated into the collective historical memory of Americans because of Washington Irving’s riveting portrayal of a people’s transition into a new era. Rip’s sudden awakening to a changed nation reflects the confusion and disorganization likely felt by commoners during the revolutionary era. The pleasant ending to his story emphasizes that the change is for the better as long as continuity remains, and history is remembered.