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 the King. All of this is true, yet Rip eventually resumes living just as he did before.
Because Rip manages to live through the American Revolution without participating, his perspective is uncontaminated by the tumultuous change that brought the US from the past to the present. As a result, the town comes to regard Rip as a kind of keeper of the past. They gather around him and listen to his stories every day at the Union Hotel. Rip functions as the link between the past before the Revolutionary War and the future after it. Rip’s stories are attractive in two ways: one as a connection to a nostalgic past now lost to history given that the world and the country had changed dramatically and profoundly, and yet in many ways Rip is a comforting example of the fact that life goes on as it did before. In addition, the fact that Rip Van Winkle Jr. has grown to be indistinguishable—in both appearance and behavior from his father—suggests even more thoroughly Rip’s almost mystical continuity. And, of course, at end of the story we meet the infant Rip Van Winkle III.
It is as though the story wants us to believe that some version of Rip Van Winkle will always live—lazily and happily—in the Catskills, regardless of the rapid change of his environment. This again is a very clearly romantic gesture on Irving’s part, indicating a nostalgia for the past and a suspicion of political and technological advances that were rapidly changing the American experience and the American landscape during the time Irving was writing. And it is also an insistence that the past as represented by Rip Van Winkle will live on within that future.
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Change vs. Stasis Quotes in Rip Van Winkle
His son Rip, an urchin begotten in his own likeness, promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes of his father.
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.
As he approached the village, he met a number of people, but none whom he knew, which somewhat surprised him, for he had thought himself acquainted with every one in the country round. Their dress, too, was of a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed. They all stared at him with equal marks of surprise, and whenever they cast their eyes upon him, invariably stroked their chins. The constant recurrence of this gesture induced Rip, involuntarily, to do the same, when, to his astonishment, he found his beard had grown a foot long!
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.
The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.
Rip now resumed his old walks and habits…[he] was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times “before the war.”