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.
Tyranny vs. Freedom Theme Icon

“Rip Van Winkle” examines various kinds of tyrannical power: the tyranny of marriage, the tyranny of day-to-day responsibilities, and the more literal tyranny of King George III of Britain over his American subjects. The story poses various questions about how we can maintain our freedom in face of these tyrannies. By extension, the story also prompts us to wonder what “freedom” from tyranny means, what a “tyrant” really is, and how America and its citizens are especially in need of answers to these questions.

Rip Van Winkle’s long nap has the primary effect of freeing him from three major kinds of tyrannies: the tyranny of government, the tyranny of marriage, and the tyranny of societal expectations. Before his sleep, he is a subject of King George III, the henpecked husband of the ever-nagging Dame Van Winkle, and a man in the prime of his life—he is physically able and reasonably expected to work. But he sleeps through the American Revolutionary War. When he wakes from his nap, therefore, he is freed of the King’s tyranny. Additionally, during Rip’s nap his wife dies after bursting a blood vessel during a tirade she was delivering to a New England merchant. Rip is especially ecstatic about this particular liberation from a tyrannical marriage. Rip no longer has to obey (or, more frequently, hide from) the commands of Dame Van Winkle. And lastly, Rip’s nap has aged him to the point when no one expects him to be productive or even busy. He can live unbothered by the King, his wife, or the expectations of his community. But the reader should note that after his nap, Rip goes on living much the same way he did before, suggesting that perhaps he was free even when tyranny abounded. Irving seems to be asking us if tyranny is really an insurmountable restriction upon living freely, or if it is merely an obstacle the free must overcome with persistence and creativity.

It is even suggested that Diedrich Knickerbocker himself (the fictional historian who narrates Rip’s tale) is exercising his own freedom by doing so. We are told his time would have been better spent pursuing “weightier matters,” but nevertheless Knickerbocker sticks to his hobby even in the face of critical scorn, economic failure, and the societal expectation that he should be doing otherwise. He freely “rides his hobby in his own way.” In this sense, “Rip Van Winkle” is not only a story about freedom, but also an example of freedom. Knickerbocker performs the very freedom about which he writes.

“Rip Van Winkle” was written in 1817, and published in 1819. The United States was still new, and had only recently endured the War of 1812, during which it was reasonable to question the country’s continued freedom from the British. Narratives about freedom would have addressed important questions the United States and its citizens had for their government and themselves. “Rip van Winkle”, for instance, seems to suggest that personal freedom is available to the individual regardless of external circumstances. Rip and the author who writes about him can then be seen as free in spite of the various tyrannies that threaten that freedom. This story about the persevering freedom of the individual would have certainly been interesting (and perhaps comforting!) to American readers in a time when the freedom of the collective nation of the United States of America was still perceived as fragile.

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Tyranny vs. Freedom Quotes in Rip Van Winkle

Below you will find the important quotes in Rip Van Winkle related to the theme of Tyranny vs. Freedom.
“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.

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.