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.
Labor vs. Productivity Theme Icon

“Rip Van Winkle” distinguishes between labor on its own and productive labor, or that which is profitable. Rip is the most obvious example of someone who labors without profit. He is happy to help in gardens and farms that are not his own—while his own land becomes severely run-down. He will hunt squirrels or fish all day, even if he knows he will have very little to show for it. Though he is busy, he is not productive. Additionally, Derrick Van Bummel, the highly intelligent schoolmaster who has earnest discussions about long out-of-date newspapers with others at the old inn, is notably occupying himself with an ultimately irrelevant exercise. (Van Bummel’s later work in the American congress suggests he eventually reforms himself into a productive laborer.) Knickerbocker himself, it is suggested, is also guilty of laboring without productivity. He slaves over his historical accounts though they are believed by most to be—however thorough and accurate—basically inconsequential.

In the early 1800’s America was an increasingly industrious, mercantile, and profit-driven culture. The cultural emphasis on productivity was ever-present. The idea that Americans—like Knickerbocker or Rip Van Winkle—might labor not out of a desire to advance and be productive, but rather out of generosity, interest, or the simple pursuit of joy was perhaps refreshing to Irving and his readers, who would have felt the increasing pressure of their growth-obsessed culture. This idea, of resisting industrialization and hyper-productivity, is something that would only intensify in certain strains of literature over the course of the century as the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe and the US.

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Labor vs. Productivity Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

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

The old gentleman died shortly after the publication of his work, and now that he is dead and gone it cannot do much harm to his memory to say that his time might have been much better employed in weightier labors. He, however, was apt to ride his hobby in his own way.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The short story begins with a "framing device"--we're told that the story we're about to read was compiled by one Diedrich Knickerbocker. By drawing attention to this fictional author, Irving encourages us to question the truth of the story itself, while also giving it the flavor of historical veracity mixed with personal legend and experience.

 Furthermore, the avatar of Deidrich Knickerbocker allows Irving to exercise some false modesty about his own writing--he claims that the story is subpar, or perhaps not worth the reader's time ("his time might have been much better employed in weightier labors"), and yet Irving's aside is also an early reference to the themes of memory, productivity, and idleness in the story. What is the point of writing, or pursuing one's particular "hobby"? Irving seems to ask us. Perhaps there's no more point to writing than there is to sleeping.


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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.

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.

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.