Rip Van Winkle

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Rip Van Winkle, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Active vs. Passive Resistance Theme Icon

Though Rip Van Winkle values his own freedom greatly, he cannot be said to actively fight for it. Rip is the perfect example of a passive resistor. He responds to his wife (and eventually to the mention of his late wife) by throwing up his hands, shaking his head, and looking up at the sky. This characteristically resigned gesture neither denies nor accepts. What’s more, when Dame Van Winkle was alive, Rip freed himself from her simply by avoiding her. There is never a single moment of confrontation between Rip Van Winkle and Dame Van Winkle, despite the fact that she is Rip’s primary antagonist. Rip’s passivity in attaining freedom from King George III is even more pronounced: he becomes a free citizen of the United States by napping peacefully through the American Revolution.

Rip’s passivity is held up in contrast to various examples of active resistance. One of Rip’s friends dies in the War. Another ends up working in the American Congress. Both of these men became integral to the birth of a new nation. The patriot in front of the Union Hotel, so focused on the upcoming election, is another figure who is actively maintaining the integrity of the new democratic America. Even the spirit of Hendrick Hudson, who bewitched Rip on the mountain, calls to mind active resistance and revolt: Hudson was a Dutch ship captain who was violently overthrown by mutineers on his boat and set adrift, never to be seen again. He and the other characters tied up in the activity of revolt, revolution, and nation building help to set Rip apart as distinctly not active.

This division between passive and active resistance could be seen as a response to the country’s violent recent past. Perhaps Irving’s suggestion, by making an almost impossibly passive character the protagonist and hero of the story, is that passivity is (or can be) effective. Rip is free, generous, kind, and happy—without fighting, campaigning, or competing. Irving (in line with the American Romanticism his writing exemplified) might be wondering if America’s incessant emphasis on industriousness and active patriotism is in fact necessary for the happiness and fulfillment of its citizens.

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Active vs. Passive Resistance Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

Below you will find the important quotes in Rip Van Winkle related to the theme of Active vs. Passive Resistance.
“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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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.

How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper, learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary; and how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Derrick Van Bummel
Related Symbols: The Inn
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the "wise man" of the community, Derrick Van Bummel. Derrick claims to be an educated man (although Irving never gives us any real evidence that he is), and spends long hours at the Inn talking about the "news" that he finds in old, discarded newspapers.

The passage does a good job of subtly conveying the disjointedness of life in Rip's community. Rip's town as a whole is isolated from the rest of the world--even when the people get their hands on a newspaper, it's hopelessly out of date. It's as if the entire town operates on a different schedule than the rest of the world. In other words, Rip isn't all that different from his town itself. For the time being, Rip lives in a place that enables his lazy, unproductive, but overall pleasant way of life.

The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Rip himself becomes aware of the subtle changes in American culture in the last 20 years. Where before the people of his town were more slow-paced, laid back, and friendly, they're now busier, more irritable, and generally not as fun to know. Rip missed out on the crucial years during the Revolutionary War, when America (historians have often argued) became more focused on industry, work, and materialism.

As Rip explores his new town, it becomes clear that he's the last relic of a bygone time--a time when people weren't so concerned with conflict or productivity, but also a time when people submitted to the rule of a distant king. Irving treats Rip as a nostalgic hero, not a lazy fool--Rip might not be good at working, but in a society where work has become the only thing that matters, laziness isn't such a bad thing.