Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” is a short story written by the American author Washington Irving and published in 1819. The story was originally published as part of a collection called “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”. The story was written while Irving was living in Birmingham, England. The story was one of the biggest successes of the collection and has since been adapted into plays, operettas, concerts, poems, comic books, cartoons, TV shows, claymation, web series and films.

The story tells the tale of a kindly but lazy man named Rip Van Winkle, who lives in a small village at the foot of the Kaatskill mountain in New York. Rip is constantly henpecked by his nagging wife and takes to hunting with his dog all day in the mountains in order to avoid her.

One day, Rip realizes that he has accidentally gone farther up the mountain than he ever has before and as he is heading down again he is happened upon by a small man carrying a very large keg on his shoulders. The man beckons to Rip and Rip helps him carrying the keg through the mountain to a party filled with other small men who are playing nine-pin. The men are quiet and seem to be suspicious of Rip but he begins to relax and drink some of the beer from the keg. Soon, Rip begins to feel quite drunk and falls asleep. When he awakes, the men have vanished.

Rip descends the mountain to return to his town and finds that rather than sleeping on the mountain overnight as he supposed, he has actually been asleep for 20 years. Everything he knew of in the town is gone and his wife has died. While he was asleep, the Revolutionary War took place and Rip must navigate this new world as a free citizen of the United States. Eventually, Rip is reunited with his daughter and goes to live in her house with her. He spends his days sitting outside the local inn and telling his story to whoever will listen, quite happily.

Book Summary

The story begins with a short postscript informing the reader that this story was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York, who was very curious in the Dutch history of the province and the manner of the descendants from its primitive settlers”. Knickerbocker completed the history of the province during the reign of the Dutch governors after exhaustive research and has become the unquestionable authority on the subject. He died shortly after his life’s work was published and the author of this story relates that now that Knickerbocker is dead, it may not be lamentable to suggest that he might have spent his time on a weightier labor. However Knickerbocker is remembered by his critics, his name is still said with praise among good folks whose good opinion is well worth having and even now his face has been stamped onto new-year cakes by the biscuit makers of New York.

The story truly begins in the Kaatskill mountains which the good wives of the town use as weather predictors. When the weather is fair the mountains are clothed in blue and purple but when the weather is rougher the mountains gather a “hood of gray vapors around their summits”. At the foot of these mountains is a little village that hasn’t ancient Dutch roots having been founded before America won the Revolutionary War. The village was founded during the times of the government of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director-General of the colony of New Netherland in 1664. Some of the small yellow houses of the original settlers still stand in the village. In one of these small houses lives a man named Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle has lived in the house for many years and is a descendant of the noble Van Winkles, who accompanied Peter Stuyvesant in the siege of Fort Christina. However, Van Winkle himself is a good-natured, kind man who inherited little of the warring nature of his ancestors. Van Winkle is married to a wife who bullies him and has two children. However, Van Winkle himself is much revered in the village and the children of the town shout with joy whenever they see him.

Van Winkle enjoys spending time with the neighborhood children and teaches them to fly kites, shoot marbles and tells them long ghost stories. In fact, the only problem that Van Winkle suffers from is a lack of drive to do any profitable work. Although Van Winkle spends much time doing odd jobs and helping his neighbors with any chores that they need, attending to his family and keeping his farm in order seem to be nearly impossible for him.

Van Winkle feels that his own little farm is the most difficult piece of land to care for in the entire country and so many things went wrong with it, from his cow going astray to weeds growing faster there than anywhere else that he eventually gave up tending it all together. Although he was left more lands by his ancestors, Van Winkle’s tended land dwindled down until it was only one patch of corn and potatoes.

Van Winkle’s children are as ragged as his farm and his son Rip takes after his father in the sense that he does not like to work and wears ragged clothes. Despite all of this, Van Winkle himself is happy. He is described as: “one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easily, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound”.

His wife, however, continually nags him about his lack of work ethic. Rip merely shrugs at her when she does so. Rip’s only ally at home is his dog, Wolf who is courageous although he still fears Dame Van Winkle. As the years drag on, Dame Van Winkle only grows more bitter and Van Winkle himself begins spending his time at a club of philosophers who hold their meetings on a bench in front of a small inn. He sits with other men and tells stories about the people and the town endlessly. Until a newspaper happens to fall into their laps and then they begin talking about world events and the level of discussion picks up.

Derrick Van Bummel, the village’s schoolmaster is a fellow member of the club. Van Bummel is a learned man who is well-read and “not to be daunted by a gigantic word in the dictionary”. Another member of the club, Nicholas Vedder, is the patriarch of the village and the landlord of the inn. Vedder rarely speaks, but sits faithfully on the bench from morning till night, smoking his pipe. The men sit like this all day until inevitably Dame Van Winkle arrives to roust her husband and scold him for wasting his day.

Eventually, Van Winkle is reluctant to even join the men and begins going hunting in the woods every day for peace and quiet instead. Van Winkle travels deep into the woods and sits at the foot of an old tree where he commiserates with Wolf.

One fine autumn day he and Wolf accidentally walk to one of the highest parts of the Kaatskill Mountains. Tired from his walk, Van Winkle sits down on a green knoll the overlooked the town. He sits for some time admiring the view and resting and begins thinking about his most recent fight with his wife. Suddenly Van Winkle begins hearing someone calling his name. Wolf hears the call too and becomes fearful, clinging to his master’s side. In the distance, Van Winkle sees a strange, hunched figure approaching and, thinking that it someone from the village, hurries down to help them with the large bundle they are carrying on their back.

When he gets closer to the man he realizes that he does not recognize him. The man is “a short, square-built old fellow, with thick bushy hair and a grizzly beard. His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion”. And on his shoulder, he carries a stout keg that seems full of liquor. The man signals for Van Winkle to approach and help him with his load. Van Winkle, being helpful, hurries down to him.

Van Winkle helps the man climb up a narrow gully and into a hollow that appears to be a small amphitheater. Inside the amphitheater is a group of odd-looking people playing at ninepins. The people are dressed in a strange fashion and have oddly large heads, broad faces, and small, piggish eyes. All of them have beards of various shapes and colors. One of the strange men seems to be the leader: “He was a stout old gentleman, with a weather-beaten countenance; he wore a laced doublet, broad belt and hanger, high-crowned hat and feather, red stockings, and high-heeled shoes with roses in them”.

The whole party reminds Van Winkle of an old Flemish painting he had seen in the parlor of one of the people of the village. Odder still is the grave, stern expressions on all of the men’s faces as they amuse themselves and the complete silence that surrounds them. As Van Winkle and his companion approach, the men all suddenly turn and stare and Van Winkle finds himself afraid. His companion, however, does not and goes to empty the keg into large flagons. The men begin drinking the liquor in silence and return to their game. Van Winkle continues to watch them and begins to get more comfortable and less awed. He even begins drinking the beer that he helped to bring and soon becomes quite drunk and falls asleep.

When he wakes, he finds that he is back on the green knoll that he first saw the little man approaching from. Van Winkle realizes that it is morning and that he must have slept there all night because of the flagon of liquor he drank. Van Winkle begins worrying what he will tell his wife and begins gathering his things to return home. But, instead of finding his gun he finds an old firelock lying in its place. The barrel is rusted, the lock is falling off and the stock is worm-eaten. Van Winkle suspects that the little men from the party have played a trick on him and robbed him of his gun. Wolf is gone as well, but Van Winkle suspects that he may have just strayed away.

Van Winkle decides to return to the scene of the party so that he may demand his dog and gun. As he rises to walk he finds that he is uncommonly stiff from his sleep but assumes that it is because he slept on the ground. When Van Winkle returns to the gully that he traveled through, he is shocked to see that the dry stream bed from the night before is now a fresh, rushing stream. He scrambles along it anyway and forces his way through plants and growth that now cover the path. When he returns to the amphitheater, he cannot find the opening. Now in its place is only a high rock with a waterfall descending from the top of it.

Confused and bewildered, Van Winkle realizes that he is hungry and must return to town to eat. He is reluctant to give up his dog and gun but realizes that it will not do to die of hunger in the mountains either. Van Winkle descends the mountain to return to the village and is surprised to see groups of people none of whom he recognizes. The people seem to be dressed in a fashion that he does not recognize as well and they stare at him as if he is the strange one. The people begin stroking their chins in wonder at him which causes Van Winkle to do the same and he realizes that his beard seems to have grown a foot long overnight.

As he walks into the village, Van Winkle becomes surrounded by a group of strange children who point at his gray beard and laugh. He sees the village and notices that it seems to have changed, too. It is larger and more populated. Rows of houses seem to have cropped up overnight and all of his familiar landmarks have disappeared.

Van Winkle begins to feel that he is going insane. He wonders if the village or himself is bewitched. He tries to reacquaint himself with natural landmarks around the town – like the Kaatskill Mountains and the Hudson river – in order to ascertain that he is, in fact in his village. Van Winkle wonders if the flagon of beer may have addled his mind. He approaches his own house, expecting to hear his wife’s angry voice. Instead, he finds the house is badly decayed, the roof has fallen in and the windows are shattered. A dog that he does not recognize but who looks like Wolf is waiting inside. Van Winkle calls him by name but the dog is half-starved and in bad condition. He snarls and shows his teeth on defense. Van Winkle, thinking that the dog is still Wolf, laments that even his own dog has forgotten him.

The house itself is empty and abandoned on the inside. Van Winkle calls for his wife and children but his call is met with only silence. He runs from the house straight to the village inn, his old haunt, but finds that it is gone too. Another hotel stands in its place called ‘The Union Hotel by Jonathan Doolittle’. Instead of the old tree that used to sit in front of the inn a large flag pole now stands. Atop the pole is a flag that Van Winkle does not recognize but that has an assemblage of stars and stripes. Now instead of a portrait of King George outside the inn, a portrait of a man named Washington is hung.

Outside the inn, a crowd of people is gathered and Van Winkle thinks that even their disposition seems changed. There is a busier tone about them as opposed to the lazy tone that he is used to. He looks for Nicholas Vedder, as he knows that the man will always be sitting outside of the inn and then for Van Bummel but finds a lean, bilious-looking fellow in their place. The man is handing out handbills and shouting about the rights of citizens, elections, members of congress, liberty, Bunker Hill, heroes of seventy-six and other things that are all complete nonsense to Van Winkle.

Van Winkle’s grizzled appearance and the children surrounding him soon attracts the attention of the inn’s politicians. The man handing out handbills approaches Van Winkle and asks him “on which side he voted”. Van Winkle, not knowing how to answer this, merely stares at him. Another man bustles up and pulls him by the arm, rising on tiptoe to ask “whether he was a Federal or a Democrat”. Van Winkle is equally confused by this question.

Suddenly a “knowing; self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat”, elbows his way through the crowd and marches up to Van Winkle. The man stops, and with one hand on his cane and one on his hip, asks with a penetrative look in his eyes what brings Van Winkle to an election with a gun on his shoulder and a mob at his heels. The man wishes to know whether Van Winkle is trying to start a riot. Van Winkle, trying to defuse the situation, announces that he is a quiet, peaceful man and a loyal subject of the king. This causes an uproar amongst the people. They begin shouting that he is a Tory and a spy and calling for him to be taken away.

The self-important man in the cocked hat gets the crowd under control again with great difficulty. He asks Van Winkle again why he is there and whom he is seeking. Van Winkle assures him that he means no harm and that he is in search of some of his neighbors who used to meet at the inn. The self-important man asks him to name the neighbors that he seeks. Van Winkle asks for Nicholas Vedder and silence descends over the crowd. A man speaks up and tells him that Nicholas Vedder has been dead for eighteen years. He says that there was a wooden tombstone for him in the churchyard, but is has since rotted and fallen apart.

Van Winkle then asks for another neighbor, Brom Dutcher and is told that he went off the join the army at the beginning of the war and that popular rumor is that he was killed during the storming of Stony Point. Or possibly drowned in a squall at the foot of Antony’s Nose. Either way, he did not return from the war. Van Winkle asks for Van Bummel and is told that he also went off to join the war, became a great militia general and is now in congress. Van Winkle becomes saddened that everything he knew in the town appears to be gone and puzzled that so much time seems to have elapsed since he was last there. Unable to discover the fate of any more friends, he asks himself, asking if anyone in the crowd has heard of Rip Van Winkle.

Some of the crowd are delighted and tell him that Rip Van Winkle is just across the square, leaning against a tree. Rip turns to see another man who appears to be the exact match of himself when he first went up the mountain that fateful day. He becomes confused, doubting his own identity and whether he truly is himself. The crowd asks him who he is and he confesses that he does not know and that he doesn’t appear to be himself. “God knows”, exclaimed he, at his wit’s end; “I’m not myself – I’m somebody else – that’s me yonder – no… that’s somebody else got into my shoes. I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”.

At this exclamation, the bystanders seem to assume that the old man is crazy and decide to treat him kindly but secure his gun so that he will not do any harm.

The self-important man in the cocked hat goes back into the inn, assuming that Van Winkle is just a crazy old man. At this point, a beautiful woman with a small child in her arms walks through the crowd. The little child begins to cry when he sees the old man and the woman comfort him, calling the baby Rip. Van Winkle feels that he recognizes the woman and asks for her name. She says that she is Judith Gardenier. He asks for her father’s name and she tells him that her father was Rip Van Winkle, but that he disappeared into the mountains 20 years earlier and his dog came home without him. Judith says that she does not know if her father shot himself or was carried away by Native Americans. Van Winkle, overcome, asks her in a faltering voice where her mother is. She tells him that Dame Van Winkle has also died a short while earlier after breaking a blood vessel yelling at a peddler.

Van Winkle finally seizes Judith by her arms and tells her that he is her father. “I am your father!” he cried “young Rip Van Winkle once – old Rip Van Winkle now! Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle?”. The crowd is silenced again until an old woman totters out and takes Van Winkle’s chin in her hands. She peers at him and announces that he is Rip Van Winkle. She welcomes him home and asks where he has been. Van Winkle tells them about the little men and the flagon and says that the whole 20 years he has been missing have been to him like one night. The crowd still doesn’t quite believe him and they decide to ask old Peter Vanderdonk for an opinion on whether or not he is telling the truth.

Peter Vanderdonk is only just arriving at the scene. The oldest man in the village, Peter is a descendant of the historian of the same name who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the province and is well versed in the stories of the area. Peter recognizes Van Winkle at once and tells the crowd that he is telling the truth about the little men in the story. He knows as he has been told by his ancestors that the Kaatskill mountains are inhabited by strange beings.

He says that the great Henrick Hudson, the discoverer of the river and country, knew of the little men in the mountains and that his father had once seen them in their old Dutch outfits playing nine-pins. And that Henrick himself had once heard the sound of the balls rolling in the game like peals of thunder in the mountains. After this, the crowd believes Van Winkle and disperses to return to the more important concerns of the election.

Van Winkle’s daughter brings him to her small, well-furnished home to live with her. Her husband is discovered to Van Winkle to be one of the children who used to follow him around the village. Van Winkle’s son, Rip, now the man who was seen leaning against the tree and the striking image of his father was employed to work on his brother-in-law’s farm but, much like his father, had a lazy disposition.

Van Winkle begins resuming his walks and former pastimes. He finds many of his old friends still in the village although they are much older now. Van Winkle returns to making friends out of the children in the village and helping them with their games. “Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench at the inn-door and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village and a chronicle of the old times before the war”.

Van Winkle soon learns about the Revolutionary War that has passed while he was sleeping and is delighted to learn that he is now a free citizen of the United States. He is also happy that he is free of his wife and may do as he pleases without her input. He sits on the bench in front of the inn and tells his story to travelers that pass. He is sometimes found to differ on some details of the story although that is forgiven as a quirk of a man who has only recently awakened.

The narrator asserts that the tale that he has related is precise, settled down version of the story and that everyone in the village knows it by heart. Many in the village doubt the validity of it, but the old Dutch inhabitants know it to be true. They still hear the peel of the nine-pin balls in the mountains and many of the henpecked husbands in the village wish that they could have a quiet drink of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.

Characters Analysis

Rip Van Winkle – the title character and protagonist of the story. Van Winkle is a quiet, kind man who lives in a village at the foot of the Kaatskill mountains just prior to the Revolutionary War. Van Winkle is a good neighbor, always helping out the neighborhood children with their games and willing to lend a hand to their parents for household chores. However, at his own home he a bit of a layabout who does not see the point of working on his own farm or tending to his own chores.

Van Winkle is notoriously henpecked. Everyone in town knows that his wife is usually keen to nag him and hunt him down where ever he is to drag him home. He takes to hunting in the mountains for peace and quiet and one-day stumbles across a party of small, gnome-like me who are playing nine-pins and drinking beer.

After his transformation and 20-year sleep, Van Winkle returns to town and is shocked to find it so different. In the end of the story, he is happy to live with his grown daughter and stay in retirement. This is probably the life that Van Winkle really wanted all along.

Dame Van Winkle – Rip’s wife. Dame Van Winkle is painted in the story as a mean, bullying woman whose sole occupation seems to be nagging Rip to go about his chores and dragging him home from where ever he spends his time all day. Dame Van Winkle is probably the main antagonist of the story although she disappears halfway through after Rip’s sleep. In the end, she dies from breaking a blood vessel shouting at a peddler in the street.

Nicholas Vedder – an old man and patriarch of Van Winkle’s village who is the landlord of the inn outside which many of the men in town gather to gossip and tell stories. Vedder is well-respected and the leader of the opinions in his group although he rarely speaks. The other men have developed a system to gauge his opinion by noting how forcefully he smokes on his pipe. Vedder is a calm man, who spends his days sitting outside the inn on a bench, only moving when the sun gets in his eyes.

Washington Irving Biography

Washington Irving was an American writer and the first U.S. Author to achieve international renown. He was the creator of such fictional characters as Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle. Irving was born on April 30th, 1738 in New York City. He went to private schools and studied law. After graduation, he served in several law offices. Because of his health, he traveled across the Europe from 1804 to 1806, when he was eventually admitted to the bar.

But his interest in law wasn’t deep. It wasn’t long-lasting either. At that time, he began to write and send satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 to 1803 and collected under the title, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle”, Gent’ won for Irving his earliest literary recognition. From 1807 to 1808 he was the leading figure in a social group that included his brother William Irving (1766-1821) and Peter Irving (1771-1838) and his brother-in-law, James Kirke Paulding. Together they wrote “Salmagundi or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and others”. This was a series of satirical essays and poems on New York society. Irving’s contributions to this miscellany established his reputation as an essayist and his wit. This reputation was enhanced bu his next work, “A History of New York” (1809), ostensibly written by Irving’s famous comic creation, the Dutch-American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker.

In 1815, Irving went to Liverpool, England as a silent partner in his brother’s commercial firm. After a series of losses, the business soon went under and Irving returned to writing. It was in England that he wrote “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”, which contained one of his most famous works, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

From 1826 to 1829 he was a member of the staff of the US legation in Madrid, Spain. It was during this period that he wrote several historical works.
In 1832, after an absence of 17 years, Irving returned to the US where he was welcomed as a figure of national importance. In 1846, he settled at Sunnyside, his country home near Tarrytown, NY. There he remained until his death in November of 1859 at age 76. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.