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Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Summary and Analysis

by Washington Irving

"The Author's Account of Himself," "The Voyage," "Roscoe," and "The Wife"

“The Author’s Account of Himself”: Geoffrey Crayon introduces himself to the reader by saying that he has been fond of traveling and observing people and places since he was a child. As a boy he would explore all the different regions of his city and its surrounding country, learning all of the histories and legends of these places. As he grew older he continued to travel and explore, and he explains that had he just been interested in scenery and nature, he never would have felt the need to leave America, which is extremely rich in natural beauty. Crayon finds greater charm, however, in the long histories of art, literature, and people to be found in Europe.

Crayon finds the past much more tempting than the present, and he finds that Europe has a larger share of the world’s great men, whom he is anxious to see. He is able to go to Europe as he desires, where he travels around, pen and paper in hand, and takes notes of his travels. Looking back over his notes, however, he notices that he has somehow missed the great sites and focused instead on obscure nooks, small cottages, and the more mundane histories.

“The Voyage”: Crayon believes that the long sea voyage from America to Europe is the perfect way to prepare the traveler because the emptiness of the sea creates a blank slate for the impressions of Europe that will follow. The gradual transitions one gets when traveling by land are absent, so the voyager feels freer to explore this new land. The great distance and danger of the voyage also make home feel far away and precarious to return to.

Crayon enjoys his voyage, uncertain that he will ever return but happy to spend his days daydreaming and letting his imagination take over. He enjoys watching the sea creatures from up above and thinking of all the sailors’ stories he has heard or read pertaining to them. One day while at sea they spot a wrecked boat which has probably been drifting along for a while. It clearly had no survivors. This sighting makes everyone on the boat a little more afraid about the weather, which has just become bad, and they spend the evening sitting in the cabin, telling stories of shipwrecks and disasters.

Crayon is particularly struck by a story the captain tells about a time when he was sailing across the banks of Newfoundland. The fog was so extreme that they had practically no visibility, and as a result one night they only saw a much smaller schooner at anchor when they were about to come upon it. They sailed right through it, and the ship sunk quickly under them with no one able to escape. They turned around as soon as they could to try to find the wreck and see if there were any survivors to help, but they never saw or heard any sign of the ship.

The storm gets worse, and Crayon is quite terrified and depressed, but by the next day the weather is good again and his good spirits return. Soon after they arrive in Liverpool, England, on a beautiful day, and Crayon gets off the ship, excited but very alone in a strange land.

Roscoe”: Crayon visits the Athaneum, which he calls the great literary resort of Liverpool. He encounters Roscoe, a famous historian of the Medici. Roscoe was born into a trade-oriented society, without fortune, connections or patronage, but he has been able to rise to great literary success through his motivation and self-teaching. Crayon seriously respects him for the fact that even though he has talent and success, he lives virtuously and provides a good example to all.

Roscoe has done his best to help Liverpool become a place that furthers academic and literary pursuits, even with its greater commercial success. Crayon hears that Roscoe has had some failings in business, but he does not pity him because he knows him to be above such worldly things. Later, exploring Liverpool, Crayon comes upon Roscoe’s former home, now empty and with all of his goods sold at auction. Roscoe has handled this development well except for the forced selling of his valuable library, which he deals with by writing a sonnet to his books.

“The Wife”: Crayon’s good friend Leslie married a woman who had no fortune but was beautiful, accomplished, and brought up fashionably. Leslie himself was rich and excited to be able to provide for Mary and give her everything she could desire. They seemed perfectly suited, for his romantic and serious personality complimented her lively optimism.

A few months into their marriage, however, his fortunes reversed and he was reduced to near poverty. He tried to hide it from her for her protection, but Crayon says he must tell his wife—his lies will only distance her, whereas if he tells her he can have her sympathy. Crayon also predicts that she will bear the news well, for she loves him truly and would be happy with him in a hovel. Leslie is not so sure, but he tells her. Fortunately, Crayon was right. After they move to a humble cottage in the country, Mary makes the very most of it and turns it and their new lifestyle into a paradise for Leslie.

Analysis

These opening sketches introduce many of the themes and motifs of the collection. “The Author’s Account of Himself” introduces the very prevalent theme of the dichotomy between the youthful promise of America and the old and storied Europe. This sketch is rather unlike the rest of the book in the importance it puts on Crayon himself, being the only time that Crayon is a character more than a narrator. Crayon’s important characteristics are described: in particular, he loves to travel, mostly to learn about and hear the stories of the places to which he travels.

Although this close study of Crayon is unusual in focusing on Crayon, it sets the model and reasoning behind the other sketches and characterizations. Crayon is always either searching for stories and transmitting them to the reader, or marking down customs and traditions for the reader. It is histories and rituals that excite him most, so America, with its beautiful untouched landscape, is not enough. Since America, in its youth, lacks much of a history, Crayon is excited about Europe.

At the end of this sketch, though, he tells us that these stories ended up not being so much about the great monuments of Europe but about little, rural scenes, such as of a country house or a small town. Thus we see that it is not so much the “big” histories that matter to Crayon but the little ones, the more romantic stories of individuals who may never have ruled a country or written a sonnet but who make up the large bulk of a country’s past and its indigenous culture and traditions.

The next two stories bring forward another of the most prevalent themes of the collection: the power of storytelling and writing. In “The Voyage,” the captain tells a story so dark that Crayon finds himself in a depression until the next day. In “Roscoe,” we see the true respect that Crayon has for a writer who has real talent. We also see the difference between writing as a profession in England and in America.

In England, where writing is highly respected and the people believe English writers to be masters of the craft, a writer can make a living is the profession, and he can travel in literary circles and be among the top strata of society. Writers in America at this time, however, are inherently not respected, especially in England, so they cannot successfully write for a living. This means that the writers have lives and professions outside of their books. While Crayon wishes they would be better respected and could support themselves with their literary talent, he apparently sees some virtue in the fact that these people must work and really live before they can write.

Life stories like that of Leslie and his wife are just the kind of material that makes Crayon admire human perseverance regardless of wealth. The rural life provides a setting where virtue can more easily flourish, even for those of limited means. What matters is the love and the relationship, supported by resourcefulness and cheerful traditions.

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