Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
"A Sunday in London," "The Boar's Head Tavern, East Cheap," "The Mutability of Literature," and "Rural Funerals"
“A Sunday in London”: The quiet of a Sunday in London is especially striking in contrast to the usual bustle. The peace is only broken with the ringing of the church bells and the sudden outpouring of everyone going to worship, and then again when everyone leaves church to return home. Crayon finds something especially enjoyable in seeing the city-dwellers going to enjoy a few moments with nature in the city’s parks.
“The Boar’s Head Tavern, East Cheap”: While rereading Henry IV, Crayon is so taken with the scene at the Boar’s Head Tavern that he decides to make a pilgrimage there. When Crayon gets to East Cheap, however, he finds it much changed from Shakespeare’s days. The Boar’s Head Tavern itself is gone, its former place marked only by a boar head carved in stone. Crayon is told to go to the woman across the street, who has the best knowledge of the history of all of East Cheap.
The Boar’s Head tavern burned down during the great fire of London but was soon rebuilt and continued to flourish. When the landlord, remorseful for his sins, was on his deathbed, he decided to leave it to St. Michael’s Church, so it became the site of many vestry meetings. Eventually it fell into disrepair and closed down about thirty years before Crayon’s pilgrimage.
It has since been turned into shops, but a picture of the old tavern still hangs in St. Michael’s Church, so Crayon decides to go there. He finds the sexton, who is about to go to the church anyway. He takes Crayon there, but they cannot find any evidence of the painting. They instead go to another old tavern which has inherited some of some of the Boar’s Head Tavern’s best vessels. Among these vessels is a very large tobacco box, which has on its cover the painting of the Boar’s Head. They also show Crayon a goblet, which he decides can be none other than that on which Falstaff made his vow to Dame Quickly.
“The Mutability of Literature”: Crayon visits Westminster Abbey and asks a verger to take him to its library. The library is deep in the Abbey. Crayon finds it profoundly quiet. He imagines the library as a kind of tomb where works of literature are buried, and he muses that the supposed immortality of literature is proved false by this desolate library. As he sits thinking about this idea, he (apparently) accidentally unclasps a book in front of him, and he is shocked when it begins speaking to him.
The book complains that it has not been opened for 200 years and that all the books in the library just sit there and age and have no purpose. Crayon tells the book that it should consider itself lucky, for had it not been locked away in a library, it would have been lost long ago. The book complains that it is not really that old and that it is written in immortal English and thus will remain relevant, but Crayon explains that English is a highly mutable language. Thus, for a work of literature in English to achieve permanence is very difficult. Crayon thinks this is a good situation because it allows room for new genius to flourish in each generation.
Moreover, because printing presses are now so efficient, there is nothing to prevent almost everyone from believing they can write a book. Consequently, book stores and libraries are getting more and more overcrowded with mediocre books. Under these circumstances, it is better for the future if most of these books are lost to time. Crayon believes that writers like Shakespeare are the exception and can last beyond the time period of their language because they root themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. Because Shakespeare stays relevant, he protects the rest of the literature from his period, too, since his works protects that period’s language.
The verger comes and tells Crayon the library is closing, and Crayon must leave before the book has a chance to respond to Crayon’s points. After the verger leaves, it is silent. Crayon returns to the library a few more times, but he can never get it to speak again. In retrospect he is never sure whether the chat with the book actually happened or was just a daydream.
“Rural Funerals”: In some rural parts of England, various funeral customs from long ago persist. Crayon describes many of these customs as well as older ones that he has read of but which no longer occur. He focuses especially on the custom of decorating gravesites with flowers imbued with different symbolic meanings. Crayon explains that customs like this, along with the general way of life of the countryside, allows memories of the deceased to last much longer in the countryside than in the city.
Both “A Sunday in London” and “Rural Funerals” are fairly simple sketches presenting a traveler’s take on different scenes in England. In “A Sunday in London,” Crayon proves that he is not totally averse to what is urban just because he prefers the rural, for he finds London on Sundays a wonderfully peaceful and happy place. The peace on Sundays is broken only by the rushing of people to and from church, but this religious activity pleases Crayon in ways that business-oriented busyness does not.
In “Rural Funerals,” Crayon returns to the rural and shows that one of the reasons for his preference for the rural is its slower pace of change. The old customs that Crayon has read about and admired can still be witnessed. Thus, being in a rural setting is like going back in time. Crayon spends a great deal of time in this sketch describing old funeral customs, which shows how fascinated he is by living history and the customs that tie the past to the present. The ties are among the strongest in funeral customs, which tie the dead to the living almost by design. (Compare how books tie generations together as well in, for instance, “The Mutability of Literature.)
In “The Boar’s Head Tavern, East Cheap,” we see again Crayon’s romantic tendency to enjoy fiction at the expense of reality, particularly when it is the more pleasant choice. His strong imagination convinces him that, not only was the Boar’s Head where Shakespeare got his inspiration for the setting of one of Shakespeare’s scenes, but also that the characters had actually been patrons there. Thus, he believes that Shakespeare’s Falstaff was real enough to have drunk from the very vessel that exists at the neighboring pub.
This literary imagination does not work completely to overcome reality, however, because Crayon’s description of his own journey shows that he is aware of the process of merging fiction into reality and, thus, cannot believe it completely. If he knows he is fooling himself, he cannot be truly fooled. Crayon is making an active choice to enjoy his daydreams and his imagination. Good fiction does not make us delusional; it enriches our actual experience, and an active reader engages with the author as he presents himself through his writing. This point shows once again that Irving is providing literary theory in the course of portraying Crayon’s thoughts about literature.
For Crayon, such reflections are connected to his explanation of his own intention in writing—to please, not to instruct, the reader. When pleasure is the goal, truth becomes of secondary importance. The storyteller can choose to construct a fiction in such a way as to provide pleasure enough to make the story seem worthy of being the truth.
“The Mutability of Literature” remains on the theme of literature as a subject of criticism and reflection. Here, Crayon considers its importance and its lasting power. In the old, barely used library, the books have survived for hundreds of years but are never read. This observation leads him to question whether literature is as immortal as many believe, for not only are the books unread, not connecting the generations after all, but also the language used in these old books has become outdated and decreasingly accessible to contemporary readers.
This situation, however, serves to underscore the true power of the greatest literary talents, like Shakespeare, by way of contrast. Shakespeare manages to stay relevant, even though the language he wrote in is no longer current. What is more, he keeps the language of his time relevant through his works. His writing is thus not only immortal in itself, but it conveys immortality to other works written at the time because their language remains relatively accessible so long as his own works are read and re-read. Here, again, we see Crayon’s true faith in the greatest literature.
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