Rip Van Winkle

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Truth, History and Storytelling Theme Analysis

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Truth, History and Storytelling Theme Icon
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“Rip Van Winkle” is a framed story, in which a fictional storyteller (historian Diedrich Knickerbocker) is said to have collected it and in so doing establishes the story’s status as a credible historical account. But we have reason to doubt its status as such. Knickerbocker does not research using historical texts. He instead collects his stories straight from the mouths of Dutch families. His historical “research” consists of oral storytelling. What’s more, the story includes obviously mythological and magical figures, the “strange beings” that “haunt” the Catskill Mountains (later revealed to be the spirit of mutinied ship Captain Hendrick Hudson and his remaining loyal crew). The story opens with a poem about truth; but in the first paragraph Knickerbocker notes the “magical” beauty of the Catskills. There is the immediate suggestion that “Truth” is not the same as “historical fact.”

We know that Knickerbocker has spoken with Rip Van Winkle, whose own story is (we’re told) beyond doubt, but we are also frequently being clued in on details that make the account seem less reliable. For instance, Rip cannot keep his story straight the first few times he tells it, but we are led to believe his eventual consistency is reason enough to believe him. We are repeatedly prompted (paradoxically by Knickerbocker’s constant reassurance) to wonder what is real and what isn’t—and what “truth” itself consists in. Where does the line between history and fiction occur, and can “truth” still be present where facts are in dispute?

Washington Irving was himself a historical writer and biographer as well as a fiction writer in the tradition of American Romanticism. So, his interest in the relationship between truth and fiction, history and the mystical or irrational, is unsurprising. At the time of “Rip Van Winkle’s” publication, America was growing and beginning to construct its national identity. Perhaps the conflation of “history” and “fiction” demonstrated by Diedrich Knickerbocker is meant to suggest that storytelling, art, and culture develop a country’s history and identity as much as so-called “factual” events do. Irving’s interest is not only in compiling America’s historical record, but also in developing (and calling for the further development of) an American mythology, American folk history, and a new and distinct American voice.

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Truth, History and Storytelling Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

Below you will find the important quotes in Rip Van Winkle related to the theme of Truth, History and Storytelling.
“Rip Van Winkle” Quotes

There have been various opinions as to the literary character of his work, and, to tell the truth, it is not a whit better than it should be. Its chief merit is its scrupulous accuracy, which indeed was a little questioned on its first appearance, but has since been completely established; and it is how admitted into all historical collections as a book of unquestionable authority.

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

In the framing device of the short story, Irving playfully insists that the story we're about to read is accurate—and then he deliberately creates confusion about its accuracy. We're told that Knickerbocker was scrupulously accurate in his writing; yet we're also told that there have been serious questions about the contents of his stories.

As we'll come to see, Irving is right: the story is both true and false. On a literal level, there was no Rip Van Winkle. And yet the story uses metaphor and fantasy to convey a deeper, historical truth--the rapid changes that took place in the United States during Irving's lifetime, and during the generations immediately before his own.


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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.)

It was determined, however, to take the opinion of old Peter Vanderdonk, who was seen slowly advancing up the road. He was a descendant of the historian of that name, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the province. Peter was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood. He recollected Rip at once, and corroborated his story in the most satisfactory manner. He assured the company that it was a fact, handed down from his ancestor the historian, that the Catskill Mountains had always been haunted by strange beings. That it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Hendrick Hudson / the crew of the Half Moon , Peter Vanderdonk
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this long expository section, Irving gives us something of an explanation for Rip Van Winkle's misfortune. Peter Vanderdonk explains that Rip was bewitched and tricked by the spirits of departed Dutchmen--it's on account of Hendrick Hudson that Rip has fallen asleep for so long.

It's interesting that Vanderdonk seems to accept Rip's story almost immediately--Vanderdonk has heard a lot of information about Hudson's ghost, and trusts that Rip really has had an experience with the ghostly explorer. Irving isn't (here) concerned with historical plausibility; his goal is to convey the sense of the passage of time. Peter Vanderdonk's explanation is a necessary bit of information, but Irving doesn't linger on the details, except to show how blurry the line is between historical scholarship and local legend.

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.