Rip Van Winkle

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Change vs. Stasis Theme Analysis

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
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Change vs. Stasis Theme Icon

There is a dynamic tension in “Rip Van Winkle” between change and stasis (and by extension past and future). When Rip wakes up on the mountain he returns to discover that everything has changed. The town is bigger and more populous, his children are grown, his wife is gone, and he now has a grandson. Plus, the Unites States of America is now an independent free nation and Rip is no longer a subject of the King. All of this is true, yet Rip eventually resumes living just as he did before.

Because Rip manages to live through the American Revolution without participating, his perspective is uncontaminated by the tumultuous change that brought the US from the past to the present. As a result, the town comes to regard Rip as a kind of keeper of the past. They gather around him and listen to his stories every day at the Union Hotel. Rip functions as the link between the past before the Revolutionary War and the future after it. Rip’s stories are attractive in two ways: one as a connection to a nostalgic past now lost to history given that the world and the country had changed dramatically and profoundly, and yet in many ways Rip is a comforting example of the fact that life goes on as it did before. In addition, the fact that Rip Van Winkle Jr. has grown to be indistinguishable—in both appearance and behavior from his father—suggests even more thoroughly Rip’s almost mystical continuity. And, of course, at end of the story we meet the infant Rip Van Winkle III.

It is as though the story wants us to believe that some version of Rip Van Winkle will always live—lazily and happily—in the Catskills, regardless of the rapid change of his environment. This again is a very clearly romantic gesture on Irving’s part, indicating a nostalgia for the past and a suspicion of political and technological advances that were rapidly changing the American experience and the American landscape during the time Irving was writing. And it is also an insistence that the past as represented by Rip Van Winkle will live on within that future.

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Change vs. Stasis ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Change vs. Stasis appears in each chapter of Rip Van Winkle. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Change vs. Stasis Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

Below you will find the important quotes in Rip Van Winkle related to the theme of Change vs. Stasis.
“Rip Van Winkle” Quotes

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.


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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.

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.

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).