Rip Van Winkle


Washington Irving

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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

“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…

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Active vs. Passive Resistance

Though Rip Van Winkle values his own freedom greatly, he cannot be said to actively fight for it. Rip is the perfect example of a passive resistor. He responds to his wife (and eventually to the mention of his late wife) by throwing up his hands, shaking his head, and looking up at the sky. This characteristically resigned gesture neither denies nor accepts. What’s more, when Dame Van Winkle was alive, Rip freed himself from…

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Truth, History and Storytelling

“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…

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Labor vs. Productivity

“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…

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Change vs. Stasis

There is a dynamic tension in “Rip Van Winkle” between change and stasis (and by extension past and future). When Rip wakes up on the mountain he returns to discover that everything has changed. The town is bigger and more populous, his children are grown, his wife is gone, and he now has a grandson. Plus, the Unites States of America is now an independent free nation and Rip is no longer a subject of…

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