Rip Van Winkle


Washington Irving

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Rip Van Winkle Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Washington Irving

Washington Irving was a fiction writer, biographer, historian, essayist and US ambassador who worked during the first half of the 19th century. He is most famous for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving was born in New York and was named after General George Washington (who hadn’t yet been elected President at the time of Irving’s birth, as the Constitution had not been either written or ratified by 1783). Irving studied law before becoming interested in historical writing and short fiction. His writing eventually earned him fame and status, and he was one of the first American authors whose writings received international recognition. He spent 17 years living in Europe (primarily Britain and Spain) and was well regarded abroad. Later in his life he moved back to Tarrytown New York, and lived on an estate he named “Sunnyside.” He left this estate to serve as the US ambassador to Spain for four years before returning. He continued writing and keeping up with correspondence until his death in 1859.
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Historical Context of Rip Van Winkle

The story, technically, is set over the course of 20 years. It’s opening occurs around 1769 or 1770, while it’s second half after Rip wakes up takes place around 1789. The beginning of the story therefore takes place before the Revolutionary War, when the United States did not exist and the colonies were still colonies of England, and not even contemplating the revolution to come. The second part takes place after the war has ended, the United States has become an independent nation, the period of the Articles of Confederation is over and the Constitution has been ratified, leading to the first presidential election, which will result in George Washington becoming President. In short, the twenty years that Rip sleeps through contain extraordinary change on both a national and local level, with profound effects on how the people of the just-created United States perceived of themselves and behaved.

Other Books Related to Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” borrows much of its content from Dutch folklore and other mythologies. The story appeared in a book (called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.)alongside Irving’s other very famous short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which displays a similar interest in mystical happenings and forces of nature. Though Irving’s mythology is borrowed, the work represents a significant departure from its American predecessors by employing less formal and even vernacular language as well as emphasizing nature, magic, and other irrational forces. Much of these techniques are tied into Irving’s Romanticist ambitions—he sought to emphasize individuality and nature in a country that was increasingly valuing communality and industry. Irving was writing at a time when America had recently fought once again for its freedom in the War of 1812 and was just starting to become an increasingly industrial and mercantile nation. His decision to set “Rip Van Winkle” before American Revolutionary War (and to imagine a hero who slept through the entire thing, thus serving as a kind of time capsule from the past) likely grew out of his nostalgic longing for a more peaceful past, before America was so determined to represent production and progress, and before the communality of “The American People” was emphasized over the individual. This American Romantic tradition would be carried on by writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose short stories bear many thematic resemblances to Irving’s.
Key Facts about Rip Van Winkle
  • Full Title: “Rip Van Winkle”
  • When Written: 1817
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1819
  • Literary Period: American Romanticism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: The Catskill Mountains, late 1700’s
  • Climax: Rip Van Winkle is bewitched by strange beings on the mountain and passes into a deep sleep. When he returns home, nothing is the same.
  • Antagonist: Dame Van Winkle
  • Point of View: The story has layered narrators; the omniscient voice of the author presents us with the first person account of the fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, who has personally investigated and recorded the events of Rip Van Winkle’s story.

Extra Credit for Rip Van Winkle

Just in Time.Washington Irving also wrote a comprehensive biography of his namesake George Washington, which he completed less than a year before he died.

Overnight Success.Irving composed his first draft of “Rip Van Winkle” over the course of just one night in Birmingham, England.