Rip Van Winkle

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The protagonist of the story, Rip Van Winkle is a genial, passive man living in a small Dutch province in the Catskills, who spends his time engaging in work that is not useful or profitable, such as hunting squirrels and doing odd jobs in houses and gardens that aren’t his own. He is the “henpecked husband” of his constantly nagging wife, Dame Van Winkle, from whom he is often hiding, and who is the cause of most of Rip’s unhappiness. Rip ventures up to the top of a mountain one day while squirrel hunting and encounters strange beings who bewitch him with liquor such that he sleeps for 20 years, missing the American Revolution and the dramatic transformation of both his town and the country around it.

Rip Van Winkle Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

The Rip Van Winkle quotes below are all either spoken by Rip Van Winkle or refer to Rip Van Winkle . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tyranny vs. Freedom Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Rip Van Winkle published in 1999.
“Rip Van Winkle” Quotes

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance; for he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod as long and heavy as a Tartar’s lance, and fish all day without a murmur, even though he should not be encouraged by a single nibble…in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Rip Van Winkle, as Washington Irving describes him, is both a quintessentially American archetype and noticeably un-American. Winkle embodies the popular 19th century American brand of Romanticism, embraced by writers like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Just as Whitman celebrated those who "loaf and lounge," Irving affectionately portrays Winkle, a lazy man who seems to be mortally frightened of doing any useful work -- he's busy all the time, but never doing the things he seemingly out to be doing. (He's like someone who spends more time and effort figuring out how to cheat than it would take to just study for the test.)

And yet Winkle is also distinctly un-American. His inability to provide for his family and take care of his land puts him at odd with the dominant ethos of the early 19th century. Thomas Jefferson argued that American democracy could only succeed with the ingenuity of the American farmer; a figure who had to be able to own land and take care of it himself. Winkle, of course, can do nothing of the kind.


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His son Rip, an urchin begotten in his own likeness, promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes of his father.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle , Rip Van Winkle, Jr.
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In the early pages of his short story, Washington Irving depicts an ironical "lineage" for Rip Van Winkle and his family. Rip is a lazy guy, and his son is destined to be lazy too. While Irving could be said to criticize Rip and his kid for their habits, his tone is remarkably affectionate and easy-going--he seems to admire Rip for his slow pace and calm way of looking at life, in contrast to the increasingly frantic industriousness of the American ethos surrounding him.

There is, in short, a reassuring familiarity in Irving's description of Rip and his son. We know that Rip's kid will grow up to be just like his dad--that's the natural order of the universe. But as we'll soon see, the natural order of the universe will disappear in the turbulence of Rip's (sleeping) life and the events of the American Revolution.

Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, 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

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Washington Irving conveys the full extent of Rip's pleasant laziness in this passage. Rip, we're told, is almost incapable of doing work. He enjoys his leisure, and avoids doing labor even when doing so would benefit his fortunes greatly.

Rip is, in short, a distinctly American character. He lives in a place where it's still possible to do little work and still live off the "fat of the land." At the time when Irving was writing, however, the world that Rip stood for--the world of free soil and free food--had almost vanished. Thus, there's something deeply nostalgic and sentimental in Irving's portrait of Rip: at a time when human beings were increasingly being measured and judged based on their capacity to do hard work, Rip's idleness is a blessing, not a sin.

His wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence. Rip had but one way of replying to all lectures of the kind, and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle , Dame Van Winkle
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

The final ingredient in Rip's life is his nagging wife. Rip's wife doesn't share his fondness for idleness and leisure--on the contrary, she wants Rip to work hard to support her and their child. Rip resents his wife's nagging, but not enough to lash out against her. Instead of yelling back, or actually changing his behavior, just Rip shrugs and says nothing.

Rip's actions (or rather, his lack of actions) signal to us that he's afraid to "rebel" against his wife's tyranny. Rip could be said to stand for the average American leading up to the time of the Revolutionary War--dissatisfied with English rule, but reluctant to do anything to upset it.

On nearer approach, he was still more surprised at the singularity of the stranger’s appearance. 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 around the waist—several pair of breeches, the outer one of ample volume, decorated with rows of buttons down the sides, and bunches at the knees.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle , Hendrick Hudson / the crew of the Half Moon
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to the mysterious figure of a Dutchman (later revealed to be Henry Hudson, the famous explorer). The figure, we later deduce, is a ghost, haunting the wilderness area around Rip's town. Irving conveys the Dutchman's old-fashioned demeanor by describing his clothing and beard.

The Dutch occupy a small but important space in American history. Dutchmen were stationed on the east coast of America for a mere two generations, but during this time, they introduced an incredibly broad range of beloved American foods, activities, and names. New York, waffles, maple syrup, Santa Claus, Wall Street, and ice skating are all 18th century Dutch imports.

In short, the Dutch settlers in the U.S. were ghostly figures, at least from the perspective of their English successors: they were gone almost as soon as they'd arrived, leaving behind a strong yet ethereal legacy. It's entirely appropriate that Irving chooses the Dutch to be the ghosts in his short story--they represent the "vanished past" that Rip will quickly become a part of. (It should be noted that Hudson himself was English, but his explorations were on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.)

As he approached the village, he met a number of people, but none whom he knew, which somewhat surprised him, for he had thought himself acquainted with every one in the country round. Their dress, too, was of a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed. They all stared at him with equal marks of surprise, and whenever they cast their eyes upon him, invariably stroked their chins. The constant recurrence of this gesture induced Rip, involuntarily, to do the same, when, to his astonishment, he found his beard had grown a foot long!

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Rip Van Winkle, who's just woken up from a decades-long sleep, returns to what remains of his old town. Rip immediately notices that the townspeople find him odd: he doesn't recognize them, and they look at him for too long, stroking their chins. Rip begins to realize what's happened to him when he discovers that his own beard is a foot long--evidently, he's been asleep for a very long time.

The passage reinforces the differences that have arisen between Rip's culture and the present day. It's not only because of his beard that Rip stands out from the townspeople--his clothing is different, and his easygoing way of life is a thing of the past.

He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the little village inn—but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken, and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle.” Instead of the great tree which used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red nightcap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes…he recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George…but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was stuck in the hand instead of a scepter, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle , Jonathan Doolittle
Related Symbols: The Union Hotel
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rip Van Winkle struggles to come to terms with his new reality. He's been asleep for twenty years, meaning that almost everything about his life has disappeared or changed enormously. Rip's favorite places to hang out, such as the local inn, have been torn down and replaced with new structures. Notice that the building standing in place of the inn is larger and less personal than its predecessor--a symbol, perhaps, of the way America has become bigger, more industrial, and altogether less friendly to an easygoing sort like Rip.

Perhaps the biggest change in American society in the twenty years Rip missed is the replacement of George III's monarchy with home-grown American democracy. Rip has missed the Revolutionary War entirely. Irving implies that the subtler cultural changes Rip notices--the new emphasis on industry and productivity, which make his old way of life impossible--are also consequences of the Revolution.

Rip now resumed his old walks and habits…[he] was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times “before the war.”

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this amusing conclusion, we learn that Rip Van Winkle basically picks up where he left off. Rip was a lazy young man, and now he's a lazy old man. The difference is that as an old man, Rip is respected and even "reverenced" in his community--there's no wife to nag him or urge him to do work, and he's not young enough to be expected to contribute.

A further implication of the passage is that, following the Revolution, America has become deeply nostalgic for the "old days." Even if nobody seriously wants to go back to a time when George III ruled America, the people of the U.S. are nostalgic for a time when life was more easygoing, and it was possible to be laid back and apolitical. Rip Van Winkle is the very embodiment of his country's nostalgia (both within the story and for Washington Irving).

He used to tell his story to every stranger that arrived at Dr. 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. It at last settled down precisely to the tale I have related, and not a man, woman, or child in the neighborhood but knew it by heart. Some always pretended to doubt the reality of it, and insisted that Rip had been out of his head, and this was one point on which he always remained flighty. The old Dutch inhabitants, however, almost universally gave it full credit.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Rip Van Winkle , Jonathan Doolittle
Related Symbols: The Union Hotel
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we take our leave of Rip Van Winkle. Rip enjoys spending his time telling people his remarkable story--he sits in the Union Hotel that's replaces his old inn, talking to anyone who'll listen to him. Although Rip has lost some of his old family (his wife), he's gained a new family--the informal "family" of hotel patrons who listen to him every evening, as well as his own grown children and grandchild.

Amusingly, the story ends exactly where it began--by simultaneously affirming and questioning its own veracity. Knickerbocker assures us that Rip has gotten his story straight, but the very fact that it used to "vary" in its details undermines the likely truth of the account. And either way, its now been repeated so many times that some details have surely been erased or exaggerated along the way. Such are the pitfalls of the American folk tradition that Washington Irving lovingly celebrates.

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Rip Van Winkle Character Timeline in Rip Van Winkle

The timeline below shows where the character Rip Van Winkle appears in Rip Van Winkle. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
“Rip Van Winkle”
Tyranny vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Active vs. Passive Resistance Theme Icon
Truth, History and Storytelling Theme Icon
Labor vs. Productivity Theme Icon
Change vs. Stasis Theme Icon and his land is severely run down. His children are unruly, and his son, Rip Van Winkle Jr . is determined to grow up to be just like his father. His wife’s lecturing... (full context)