“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 is not productive. Additionally, Derrick Van Bummel, the highly intelligent schoolmaster who has earnest discussions about long out-of-date newspapers with others at the old inn, is notably occupying himself with an ultimately irrelevant exercise. (Van Bummel’s later work in the American congress suggests he eventually reforms himself into a productive laborer.) Knickerbocker himself, it is suggested, is also guilty of laboring without productivity. He slaves over his historical accounts though they are believed by most to be—however thorough and accurate—basically inconsequential.
In the early 1800’s America was an increasingly industrious, mercantile, and profit-driven culture. The cultural emphasis on productivity was ever-present. The idea that Americans—like Knickerbocker or Rip Van Winkle—might labor not out of a desire to advance and be productive, but rather out of generosity, interest, or the simple pursuit of joy was perhaps refreshing to Irving and his readers, who would have felt the increasing pressure of their growth-obsessed culture. This idea, of resisting industrialization and hyper-productivity, is something that would only intensify in certain strains of literature over the course of the century as the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe and the US.
Labor vs. Productivity ThemeTracker
Labor vs. Productivity Quotes in Rip Van Winkle
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.
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.
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
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.