The story opens with a parenthetical note written by an omniscient third person narrator, who tells us that the following tale was written by the late historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was keenly interested in a province in New York at the base of the Catskill mountains, and which was founded by Dutch settlers long ago.He researched the history of this province by listening to first person accounts of Dutch families who lived there. Many agree that Knickerbocker’s talents would have been better spent on more important subjects. However, even those who doubt the literary merit of his writings must acknowledge his accuracy. Knickerbocker died shortly after composing the history we are about to read, and, though he is not remembered well by critics, commoners in New York remain fond of him. Some bakers have even printed his face on cakes, which the narrator maintains gives Knickerbocker “a chance for immortality almost equal to being stamped on the waterloo medal or a Queen Anne’s Farthing.” Knickerbocker remained devoted to his hobby until the end, despite the fact that it offered so little prestige.
This opening, despite being bracketed in parentheses, is of crucial importance in framing the story. The strange insistence on Knickerbocker’s historical accuracy introduces questions about the difference between history and storytelling or folklore. The author admits that Knickerbocker did not use books or impartial sources, and that critics were at first very skeptical of the truth of Rip Van Winkle’s story, and remain skeptical of its literary merit. The comical suggestion that cakes immortalize Knickerbocker reveals that he isn’t well-respected, but also suggests that other forms of immortalization – like getting your face on a penny – are also sort of silly and not all that permanent either. That Knickerbocker enjoyed his research mirrors Rip’s own philosophy of work: that it’s less important for it to be profitable than for it to be done freely and happily.
Knickerbocker’s story opens with a poem by Cartwright about truth. He then proceeds to describe the “magical” beauty of the Catskills. He zeroes in on a small village at the foot of these mountains, where a good-natured man named Rip Van Winkle lives. Rip’s greatest trouble is his wife, Dame Van Winkle, who is shrewish and constantly nagging Rip about hisbiggest weakness: that he can find no motivation to engage in profitable labor of any kind.Though he is happy to help on properties that are not his own, he avoids work on his own farm and his land is severely run down. His children are unruly, and his son, Rip Van Winkle Jr. is determined to grow up to be just like his father. His wife’s lecturing is incessant, but Rip’s response is always resigned: he shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, and looks up to the sky.
The initial juxtaposition of Cartwright’s words about truth and Knickerbocker’s description of the “magic” of the Catskills again complicates the notion of historical “accuracy.” Can “history” incorporate folklore or mythology? What’s more, we discover that much like Knickerbocker himself, Rip Van Winkle prefers and enjoys labor that is not profitable or held in high esteem. Though Rip cherishes his freedom, he does not actively rebel against his wife’s control. He still lives as he wishes, however, and it is suggested that his habits (along with his name) are being passed down to his son.
The only way Rip can avoid his angry wife is to escape his home. Rip used to enjoy going to the inn and participating in idle talk with his neighbors. Much of the conversation is simple town gossip. But the schoolmaster Derrick Van Bummel is said to have facilitated many a meaningful discussion of politics and current events. He is a well-spoken and well-educated man who, when he happens to find an old newspaper, debates earnestly about the eventsdescribed within, months after they’ve taken place. The landlord of the inn is an old patriarch named Nicholas Vedder, who spends every day pursuing the shade of a large tree outside the inn: when the sun moves enough that the shady spot changes, Vedder moves with it. However, even this pleasant environment fails to protect Rip. Eventually his wife discovers him there and hounds him.
The inn is a hotspot of unproductive labor. Lazy Nicholas Vedder spends his whole day pursuing, rather than profit or personal gain, the shade of the big tree. Even more notable is Derrick Van Bummel, who uses his considerable intelligence to debate about events that happened many months ago. Though the narrator notes how articulately and passionately Derrick spoke about the papers, the reader can understand that the exercise is ultimately useless. The inn is a place to avoid duty and productivity, where labor is enjoyable, not profitable. Dame Van Winkle’s discovery of the inn therefore drives Rip to seek escape elsewhere.
Rip must now find a new sanctuary from his wife’s berating. He takes to roaming the woods with his gun and his dog, Wolf. One day in autumn, he absently wanders high up in to the mountains while hunting squirrels. He is fatigued from the climb and sits down to rest in a scenic glen. He falls asleep. When he wakes, he seems to hear a voice calling his name and soon perceives a stranger standing on the trail, carrying a stout keg on his back. Rip is compelled to follow this stranger, though he can’t say why. He helps the stranger carry the keg up to the top of a peak, where a group of men is playing a ghostly game of ninepins (a game similar to bowling). Rip notices their clothing is antiquated, traditionally Dutch garb, and that they seem to take no enjoyment out of their game. When they see Rip they stop playing, andsilently direct Rip to pour the drink from the keg into flagons to serve the men. Rip is scared at first, but eventually calms down and even goes so far as to sneak a sip of the drink. He finds it so irresistible that he consumes a great deal of it and falls asleep.
The introduction of these ghostly figures transforms the story from a supposedly dry historical account to one containing fantastical and mystical elements. The magical appearance of the Catskills mentioned in the first line is revealed as no mere metaphor: there are in fact (at least in Knickerbocker and Rip’s mind) magical beings that inhabit the highest peaks of the mountain. Once again it is suggested that historical fact is not the only thing relevant to a country’s history. The antiquated dress of the strangers (and Rip’s confusion about it) foreshadows Rip’s return to town later in the story (when he will appear strangely old-fashioned to the residents there). The magical drink that Rip takes is irresistible, just like the promise of escape and freedom that drew Rip up the mountain in the first place.
When Rip wakes up it is bright and sunny outside. The strangers on the mountain are gone, and there is no sign that they had ever been there. He fears that he has spent the entire night asleep on the mountain and dreads the inevitable fury of his wife. When he looks for his gun, all he can find is a rusty old one, and he believes someone swiped his gun and replaced it. Wolf is nowhere to be found. Strangest of all is that Rip’s beard is now a foot long. Rip spends some time searching for his lost dog, but the terrain is strange to him and hunger eventually drives him down the mountain.
Rip’s disorientation in this scene begins to build a sense of strangeness and dread that contrasts with the bright and pretty natural surroundings. Rip’s worries (about his wife) are quickly made to seem inconsequential in the face of these mysterious circumstances. While Rip is worrying about the same things he has always worried about (evading his wife’s anger), the clues in his environment tell us—the readers—that something has changed even if Rip doesn’t quite yet realize it.
When Rip reaches his village at the base of the mountain, he notices that it seems more populous and the buildings more numerous. A group of children, none of whom are familiar to him, begin following him and pointing at his beard. He goes to his home, expecting at any moment to hear the shrill reprimand of Dame Van Winkle, but when he arrives, his usually tidy home has fallen into a state of utter disrepair. An old, emaciated dog resembling Wolf lurks around the yard, but does not recognize Rip and growls at him.
The tension continues to climb as Rip slowly begins to register the dramatic changes that have taken place since his time on the mountain. His wife is gone, his dog is old and does not recognize him, and his house and property look as though they’ve been abandoned. The clash between expectations of sameness and evidence of dramatic change is coming to a head.
Increasingly unsettled, Rip hurries to the old inn, but finds in its place an establishment called The Union Hotel. The portrait of King George III on the sign has been changed to a portrait of someone called General George Washington. Rip’s panicked demeanor, ratty clothes and unkempt face draw attention from tavern politicians and townsfolk. They inquire about his intentions and wonder if he has come to interrupt the election. Utterly bewildered, Rip introduces himself as a native of the village and a loyal subject of the King. The response is an uproar from the villagers who accuse Rip of being a spy.
The transformation of the inn is even more significant: it has changed from a place of idle unproductivity where lazy men talk over long-past news to a bustling political hub contemplating a coming election. Future elected President George Washington (unknown to Rip) now oversees the industrious activity of free citizens. Before, the face of Tyrant King George presided over the unproductiveactivities of the village men enjoying their leisure. The rage Rip incites when he declares himself a subject of the king definitively confirms his status as a strangeoutsider.
The crowd is finally calmed enough to hear Rip’s version of events. He offers to give the names of the neighbors he was searching for, and in doing so hears that Nicholas Vedder has been dead 18 years, that Brom Dutcher has died in the American Revolutionary War, that Derrick Van Bummel is now working in the American congress, and that he, Rip Van Winkle, has been missing for 20 years. His son is now grown, and a perfect likeness of himself. His wife has died after she burst a blood vessel in a fit of rage at a New England peddler. Rip cries in confusion but is comforted when a woman carrying a baby comes forward to get a look at him soon identifies herself as his daughter, Judith Gardenier. She is now grown and has an infant son, Rip Van Winkle III. Rip now accepts that he has been asleep for 20 years, and tells his incredible story to his remaining family and the village.
The implications of Rip’s sleep become increasingly clear. He has dozed peacefully through the American Revolution, while all of his friends are either dead or permanently changed by the war (such as Derrick Van Bummel who now works, productively, in Congress. Rip slept while his world utterly changed. Yet the comical death of Rip’s wife means that Rip Van Winkle is freed (though through no action of his own) from more than one tyrant. And, even in the face of all this change, certain elements of stasis stand out: Rip’s son is identical to his father, and the introduction of a third Rip Van Winkle suggests a kind of comforting indefinite continuity.Thus the hero’s ultimate accomplishment is his ability to resist the drive to progress and change.
The villagers wonder at his story, and are unsure whether or not to believe him. Eventually Rip’s story is corroborated by the most ancient man in the village, Peter Vanderdonk. Vanderdonk recalls Rip Van Winkle from before his disappearance, and explains that the Catskill Mountains have long been haunted by Hendrick Hudson and the Half Moon crew. (Hudson was a Dutch explorer in the early 17th century who sailed up the river in New York that now bears his name. Later, he was mutinied by his crew and set adrift along with those loyal to him and never seen again.) Having been completely convinced of Rip’s story’s veracity, the villagers turn their attention back to the more important matter of the first presidential election in the newly minted United States of America.
Once again, the issue of credibility is raised—the villagers question Rip’s story in much the same way Knickerbocker’s critics did. The corroboration offered by Vanderdonk, while meant to relieve doubts, raises even more questions for the reader, as his story involves the haunting of the Catskill mountains by a mutinied ship captain. (It should be noted that the mutiny of Hudson by his crew echoes the violent overthrow of King George III’s rule by his citizens who then created the United States.) That it turns out that the villagers are happy to believe Rip and return to their work on the election, reminds us that this “history” is not merely factual—perhaps a nation’s “history” must include more than factual details.
Rip moves in with his daughter and lives out his days in leisure (as he did before, but without his wife’s haranguing). Because of his advanced age, no one has any expectation that will perform any duties or chores. He tells his story daily at The Union Hotel, and though he initially varies on some details, he eventually becomes completely consistent. In a final note, Knickerbocker suggests those who doubt Rip’s credibility are only pretending to doubt him, and assures the reader that the Dutch inhabitants of the Catskills are almost universally agreed on the story’s truth.
In spite of all of the dramatic changes just revealed to us, Rip goes on living in much the same way he did before. He thus becomes a figure who stands for sameness and the past, and links the peaceful and slow time before the Revolutionary war to the bustling time after. There is a wisp of a suggestion here that Rip – with his generous laziness, his meandering pursuit of minor, personal, joyful unproductive labor, and his story of magic and connection to the deep past –offers a kind of necessary balance to this new country built on rational enlightenment thought and a zest for economic growth. The issue of Rip’s perfectaccuracy is raised one last time, emphasizing the integral role mythology and folklore has played in this village’shistory (and perhaps suggesting the need for adistinctly American folk history).