Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Themes

Themes

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New World and Old World

The premise for The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. is that Crayon is an American traveling through Europe and writing down his impressions. This premise inherently calls for some kind of comment on the differences between Europe, the Old World, and America, part of the New World. This commentary is a significant theme in the collection.

That Crayon tries to give a fair and balanced portrait of both Old and New Worlds becomes clear in “English Writers on America,” in which he criticizes the often unfair and incorrect impression these writers give of America. He also warns, however, against American writers doing the same in return, and he certainly avoids this pitfall himself. Although he often edges into satire and caricature, his portrait of Europe, especially England, is quite positive on the whole.

The main distinction that Crayon makes between the two worlds is that of age—America is new and exciting, full of promise and untamed landscapes, while Europe is ancient, with the relics of great men and great stories everywhere. In forming the dichotomy in this way, Crayon can flatter both worlds, and he does not have to place one above the other. He embodies this kind of non-judgmental comparison in “The Voyage,” when he explains that he liked having the long, empty trip as a way to separate the two places, which makes it possible to visit one without always comparing it to the other.

Imagination and Reality

The power of imagination to preclude reality is a very important theme in The Sketchbook. Crayon’s own imagination is very powerful and it is often the only entertainment he needs, as in “The Voyage.” It sometimes borders on or even becomes hallucinatory, as in “The Mutability of Literature,” when he believes he has a conversation with a book. There are less extreme but still powerful imaginative moments, too, as when he daydreams or allows himself to fantasize that Shakespeare’s fictional characters traveled where he travels.

Crayon makes explicit a few times that he is choosing to let his imagination overpower him, even though he knows it is not real, as with the above examples of believing Shakespeare’s fictional characters to have been real people, or when he allows himself to believe that, for example, the chair in Shakespeare’s house is Shakespeare’s original, even though he knows that the chair was sold years earlier.

This ability to choose whether to give into one’s imagination is closely linked to Crayon’s role as a storyteller. He declares his kind of storytelling to be that which aims only to give pleasure, not to educate, from which he concludes that he is not bound by the limitations of telling the truth. In this way, when he allows his imagination to almost transport him from his present situation, he is enacting his role of storyteller, even when his audience is only himself.

Books and Bookmaking

Bookmaking comes up frequently in the collection. Crayon’s perspective on it tends to shift. In “The Art of Book Making,” Crayon displays the most cynical point of the spectrum of his views, which is reflected in the highly ironic title. Here authors are nothing more than men making collages out of other people’s work—and bad collages at that. The way that Crayon introduces this story, too, as the solving of the mystery of where all the bad published books come from, makes it clear what tone he is going to take. This story establishes that Crayon has some literary taste, suggesting that his own stories are going to be worthwhile if he is going to tell them.

In “The Mutability of Literature,” however, when Crayon actually speaks to a book, he again emphasizes the plethora of mediocre works produced, but this time we are also made aware of another of the problems with books and bookmaking—books are very easily forgotten. A book, which is meant to be a timeless object, bestowing immortality upon its author, often ends up completely forgotten and lost, or stowed away in a musty old library that nobody ever visits.

Many of the sketches, however, emphasize the positive side of books. One can focus on the great authors and great works, which can achieve some measure of immortality. In “Westminster Abbey,” we see that the only section of the building that does not make Crayon focus on his mortality and the uselessness of human ambition is Poets’ Corner, where not only he, but everybody, lingers a little longer, for these tombs are the tombs of people with whom visitors seem to have had direct contact, even across centuries, through words and books.

Crayon’s fixation with writing, books, and bookmaking seems likely to be related to his knowledge that he is a storyteller himself. He does not acknowledge this explicitly except at one moment after the Christmas section, when he imagines a reader asking him what the purpose of his stories are, that is, what can be learned from them. He defends his stories by saying that he writes not to educate the reader, but to give the reader pleasure. In this way, he excuses his own book from some of the judgment he gives to others, because whether it is a great work or not, if it succeeds in giving pleasure, it is worthy of publication.

Conservatism

Crayon is a fairly conservative character in the sense that he prefers the old ways and has a certain distaste for change and modernity. He does not take this preference to an extreme, but many of the characters in his sketches do. The most obvious and prevalent example of this character is the Squire, whose very nickname denotes his eccentric fascination with holding on to the past and the way things were.

Although the Squire is meant to be an extreme example, that Crayon approves of such characters to some degree is made clear by his narration prior to the Squire’s appearance. Crayon bemoans the fact that most of the best, old Christmas traditions and customs are no longer adhered to. Thus, when he meets Frank Bracebridge and is invited to his family’s Christmas gathering, and is then warned that the Squire is very old-fashioned, this is just what he was hoping for.

The other character who clearly embodies Crayon’s conservatism is the narrator of “Little Britain,” whose taste for the neighborhood, although shabby, comes from its adherence to old customs and ways of life, and who judges Little Britain to have lost all value once it started to move into modernity.

Finally, Crayon’s conservatism is clearly denoted in his preference for the rural over the urban. Although he likes London, he likes it best when he stumbles upon a relic of the ancient world, and he much prefers rural England. Even in rural England, the towns that are most off the beaten path, and thus the furthest from modernizing, are the ones that he likes best. This conservatism seems closely linked to his preference for the romantic over the realistic. Things distanced by time can be simplified to fit into the romantic, whereas this reshaping is much harder to accomplish with modernity.

It is important to remember that Crayon’s views are not necessarily anything like Irving’s. Readers might perceive something of Irving’s view of conservatism by examining carefully how Irving presents Crayon’s conservatism.

Death and Decay

Although the tone of the collection is most often light and humorous, Crayon does delve into more depressing topics and themes fairly often. Of these, most prevalent is that of death and decay, a topic that apparently fascinates Crayon deeply.

This fascination is clearest in “Westminster Abbey,” when Crayon leaves thinking that all human ambition and work are pointless because everyone dies and their accomplishments are wiped out, and their cities or countries eventually fall. “The Mutability of Literature” tells us that even language changes and dies, and “The Broken Heart,” “The Pride of the Village,” and “The Widow and Her Son,” all highlight the fragility of life. In “Rip Van Winkle,” when Rip returns to his village after twenty years, not only has his friend Nicholaus Vedder died, but his tombstone has already decayed past the point of recognition. That death will figure so prominently in his traveling and collecting stories is foreshadowed in “The Voyage,” when what Crayon’s hopes will be his cleansing ship ride to Europe is disturbed by the sight of a wrecked ship, presumably with everyone who was aboard now dead.

Really, though, his fixation with death is not surprising, for that is a necessary side effect of being so consumed with the past. Crayon immerses himself in the past, in the relics of former times, and though his imagination may bring some of the characters of this past temporarily back to life, in the end, the figures who populated the world he is obsessed with are all dead. The idea of the immortality of literature is only figurative, an imaginative way of looking at words and books but not a reality.

Class Structures

Class figures rather importantly throughout the sketches, as can be expected in the travel journals of an American visiting Europe. Crayon explicitly contrasts the American lack of rigid class structure and the European system of nobility only once, in “English Writers on America.” Here he does not argue that one system is better than the other necessarily, but he imagines that someone growing up in Europe, not at the top of the class structure, ends up believing that being treated well inherently means that the person treating him well must be inferior.

Although Crayon does not otherwise explicitly compare the class structure in Europe to the American, he does frequently take notice of it and its effects. In “The Pride of the Village,” a young, beautiful, virtuous girl ends up dying because of heartbreak, essentially because the man she falls in love with cannot marry her because of her class. This can be juxtaposed with “The Wife” or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which marriages occur between individuals having significantly different means.

In the Christmas section, Crayon shows that the conservatism he evinces does not just mean continuing quaint old-fashioned customs and rituals, but for someone like the Squire, conservatism is an attempt to maintain the status quo and keep the lower classes content being in their lower station. Although Crayon generally portrays the lower classes romantically as being, especially in rural areas, content where they are, the Squire’s comments about keeping them happy—so that they do not educate themselves and become discontented—shows that all is not as calm and happy as it may seem.

Rural versus Urban Settings

Crayon prefers rural settings to urban ones, not only because of his deference to tradition. He prefers the old-fashioned, and although London has its ancient monuments, the rural settings are where Crayon can feel like he truly has traveled back in time, for the rural settings lack modern fashions and continue traditional customs. He also seems to believe that rural settings imbue a deeper and better morality on their inhabitants. Crayon goes so far as to say that the English gentleman is of the best race of man because of how closely tied he is to the countryside and to nature.

Crayon does not hate the city, however. He enjoys stumbling upon surprising instances of antiquity in London. Still, the only time we see him harried is in London, and he closely equates it with business and busyness, as well as with people not living by the best values.

Crayon also suggests that people are remembered longer after their deaths in the country than in the city, and only in the country can deaths be properly mourned. His fixation with death and being remembered thus influence his preference for the rural. There, where things move more slowly, decay also moves more slowly; things last longer before changing. The rural setting is where his fight against mortality, his fight for post-mortem immorality, has a better chance.