Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Suggested Essays
Suggested Essay Questions
Choose one story and explain how its epigraph contributes to it.
The “Christmas” section of the book opens with a line from a hue and cry given after Christmas ends every year: “But is old, old, good old Christmas gone? Nothing but the hair of his good, gray old head and beard left? Well, I will have that, seeing I cannot have more of him.” Although in their usual context, these lines are just about the yearly passing of Christmas, by placing it here, Crayon is emphasizing his concerns about change and his disappointment with the old Christmas rites no longer being celebrated. The idea of taking, at least, what one can get is depicted in the Christmas celebrations with the Squire, who keeps as much of tradition going as he can, despite making some sacrifices.
How does “Rip Van Winkle” deal with what became named "the American Dream"?
The protagonist of “Rip Van Winkle” seems completely antithetical to the American work ethic that is said to make Americans work toward the American Dream of prosperity, the possibility of raising oneself above where one was born through hard work. Rip instead loses much of what his family worked for, through pure indolence, and he shows absolutely no ambition, except an ambition to do nothing as long as he can. This life ends up working out for Rip, but the morality of the tale does not condone it, for Rip only ends up in better straits with the help of magic, which makes him sleep through his working years long enough to enjoy his undeserved retirement. In this way he is an American anti-hero who enjoys the American fantasy of a life of leisure, not the American Dream.
Compare Dame Van Winkle with Mary, Leslie’s wife, with respect to what it means to be a wife.
Dame Van Winkle is presented as the worst a wife can be, one who complains and offers nothing in return, not even showing pleasantness to the family dog. It is true that her criticism of her husband's indolence is justified, but she goes too far, and any wife who henpecks her husband too much risks turning him off from the relationship altogether. Mary, on the other hand, also has a husband who is incapable of supporting her in the manner to which they were both accustomed, but she, unlike Dame Van Winkle, supports him fully. They remain happily in love, even through hardship. Although both of these women are strong, each one is strong in a different way as she supports her family. Mary is exalted for making the relationship work, although one might hope she has more to her life than making a rural paradise for her husband.
Explain what Crayon might be recommending for England based on “John Bull.”
John Bull is presented as a character with a good heart who makes many mistakes and gets too much into others' business. Crayon seems to think that many of these mistakes come because John Bull is both generous and proud, which makes his actions very expensive. The possible metaphor here is that Crayon might be saying that England is overextending herself in worrying about her empire and colonies. Crayon’s advice to John Bull, and thus to England, is to focus on the domestic, or else Britain and its traditions will fall apart.
Explain what distinctions Crayon makes between Europe and the United States, and describe how well they hold up.
Crayon presents America as a youthful, exciting country, but one without much history, tradition, literature, or culture, while Europe’s age means that it has history everywhere, including living history in its cultures and traditions. This distinction largely holds throughout the book, although the history is not always positive—it can mean a significant lack of freedom. The exception is that when Crayon deals with American Indians, it becomes clear that America and Europe are fairly similar after all in relation to this third set of cultures.
Explain how Rip Van Winkle can be seen as a parallel to Crayon.
Rip Van Winkle is the extreme portrayal of an indolent man, a man who escapes from life in his imagination, and who has no responsibility. Because he is such an extreme figure, he is only able to maintain this lifestyle through supernatural means. Crayon is similar in that he has a highly dominant imaginative life which often gives him a means of escape and little responsibility, but not nearly to the same extreme. After all, Crayon has a great deal of leisure time as he travels. Since Crayon does something useful with his time, however, and can distinguish between fiction and reality, in Crayon we can see the positive side of the imaginative, leisured life.
What are Crayon's views about literature, writing, and authorship? Consider Crayon as a self-reflective author.
Crayon argues that, thanks to the mutability of the English language, mediocre works, published at greater and greater rates, will fall into decay, allowing new genius to flourish. True genius, however, achieves a mythical immortality for the work, the author, and even for his language. A writer must find his own material in the common things of human nature and human life in order to have a chance of such success, not just take bits and pieces from others. This is what Crayon does as a writer, valuing what romantic, private, rural, stories and histories show about people rather than focusing on what general histories about great political figures have to offer. Crayon claims that as a storyteller, his task is to spread as much pleasure as possible, but he makes sure to leave plenty of instruction in his tales for those who are interested to look for it.
Crayon clearly loves history, but it is not always a good thing in The Sketchbook. How can history have a negative effect?
While Crayon loves coming face to face with history, in certain of the stories he passes on, the weight of history can be restrictively heavy. In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” Baron Von Landshort lives beyond his means in order to live up to the traditions of his ancestors, but the draw of historical prominence will not allow him to give up his castle. His daughter also almost misses out on her true love because of an ancient feud with no modern relevance. Traditions reflect history, but if they are followed without any understanding of their meaning, they make history bind us instead of fulfilling us.
“Rip Van Winkle” is often read on its own, but it was originally published as part of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. How does the story fit into the rest of The Sketchbook? What themes from the book does it complicate, or what themes complicate it?
A major theme in The Sketchbook is the strength of the imagination and whether it should be allowed to overpower reality. It is rarely dangerous in The Sketchbook, but in “Rip Van Winkle” Rip's imagination is part of his escapism, which keeps him asleep for a generation. Crayon's other tales show that it is not necessary to pick reality if one can imagine something better, provided that one can stay aware of the difference and return to reality when it matters. Also of note is the relationship between Rip and his wife, usually in severe contrast to the other relationships in the sketches.
In “Philip of Pokanoket,” Crayon makes clear that history can be strongly biased. How can he take a biased story and make it unbiased without any additional sources?
Crayon might say that the facts are clear enough, even in the biased portrayal, that he can re-present them without the original writer’s bias. What Crayon does is change the perspective from anti-Indian antagonism to seeing the story through the experience of Philip and his defenders. Crayon’s desire to paint a fairer portrait of the American Indians, however, leads him to portray Philip as a kind of American-style hero who fights against the odds for the things he believes in. This version of history seems overly romanticized and biased in a different direction. Crayon is, after all, a storyteller and not the dry kind of historian.
Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Essays and Related Content
- Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories: Major Themes
- Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories: Questions
- Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Washington Irving: Biography
- Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Summary
- About Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of "Rip Van Winkle"
- Summary and Analysis of "The Author's Account of Himself," "The Voyage," "Roscoe," and "The Wife"
- Summary and Analysis of "English Writers on America," "Rural Life in England," "The Broken Heart," and "The Art of Book Making"
- Summary and Analysis of "A Royal Poet," "The Country Church," and "The Widow and Her Son"
- Summary and Analysis of "A Sunday in London," "The Boar's Head Tavern, East Cheap," "The Mutability of Literature," and "Rural Funerals"
- Summary and Analysis of "The Inn Kitchen," "The Spectre Bridegroom," and "Westminster Abbey"
- Summary and Analysis of "Christmas," "The Stage Coach," "Christmas Eve," "Christmas Day," and "The Christmas Dinner"
- Summary and Analysis of "London Antiques," "Little Britain," and "Stratford-on-Avon"
- Summary and Analysis of "Traits of Indian Character" and "Philip of Pokanoket"
- Summary and Analysis of "John Bull," "The Pride of the Village," and "The Angler"
- Other Rip Van Winkles
- Related Links on Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources