The story of Rip Van Winkle was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman from New York who was especially interested in the histories, customs, and culture of the Dutch settlers in that state. It is set in a small, very old village at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, which was founded by some of the earliest Dutch settlers. Rip lived there while America was still a colony of Great Britain.
Rip Van Winkle is descended from gallant soldiers but is a peaceful man himself, known for being a kind and gentle neighbor. His single flaw is an utter inability to do any work that could turn a profit. It is not because he is lazy—in fact, he is perfectly willing to spend all day helping someone else with their labor. He is just incapable of doing anything to help his own household. He also is well-known for being an obedient, henpecked husband, for Dame Van Winkle has no problem shouting insults into the neighborhood and tracking him down in the village to berate him. All the women and children in the village love him and side with him against his wife, and even the dogs do not bark at him.
Indeed, when he tries to console himself and escape from Dame Van Winkle, he often goes to a sort of philosophical or political club that meets on a bench outside of a small inn. Here the more idle men actually gossip and tell sleepy stories about nothing, every once in a while discussing “current” events when they find an old newspaper. Nicholaus Vedder is the landlord of the inn and the leader of the group. He never speaks but makes his opinions clear based on how he smokes his pipe. Even here, Van Winkle cannot escape from his wife, who berates everyone for encouraging his idleness.
His indolence is probably to be blamed for his farm’s bad luck, so Dame Van Winkle has more than a little cause to berate him—which she does, morning, noon, and night. As the years pass, things continue to get worse, and his only recourse is to escape to the outdoors. His one companion in the household is his dog Wolf, who for no good reason is just as badly treated by the petticoat tyrant Dame Van Winkle.
On one trip to the woods, Van Winkle wanders to one of the highest points in the Catskills. Fatigued from the climb, he rests, and soon the sun has started to set. He knows he will not be able to get home before dark. As he gets up, he hears a voice call his name. A shadowy figure seems to be in need of assistance, so he approaches the man, who looks very strange. He is short and square, with thick bushy hair and a grizzled beard, dressed in the antique Dutch fashion. He asks Van Winkle for help climbing higher with a keg. They reach an amphitheatre in the woods, where a collection of similarly odd-looking men are bowling, which makes the environs sound like it is thundering. Although they are involved in pleasurable pursuits, they are silent and grim.
The man starts to serve drinks from the keg and gestures to Van Winkle to help. He eventually takes a drink for himself. It tastes delicious, and he goes back for more and more until he is quite drunk and lies down to pass out.
When he wakes up in the morning, he is anxious about what Dame Van Winkle will say about his late return. He reaches for his gun but finds that it is now rusty and worm-eaten—perhaps the men tricked him and replaced his gun. Wolf also is gone and does not respond to Van Winkle’s calls. He gets up and feels quite stiff. When he tries to retrace his steps, the amphitheatre appears to have become an impenetrable wall of rock, and some of the natural features of the area have changed.
Van Winkle returns to the village but recognizes nobody, which is strange for a small village, and he notices that everyone is strangely dressed. They look surprised to see him, too, and he realizes that his beard has grown a foot longer. The children hoot at him and the dogs bark. The village itself has grown larger. He begins to think he must be going crazy, for the natural scenery is the only thing that is recognizable. The flagon must have made him lose his mind.
At his house, he finds it in complete disrepair and abandoned. His wife and children are not there. The inn where he used to meet his friends has disappeared, and where there used to be a picture of George III there is now one of a certain George Washington. The new group of people at the new hotel there is full of completely different people, and their discussions are more argumentative than he remembers. The crowd asks him questions, especially about what political party he belongs to. He is confused and says he is still a loyal subject of the king. They declare him a traitor and a Tory. When he says he has just come looking for his friends, they tell him that Nicholaus Vedder has been dead for eighteen years and Van Bummel is now in Congress.
Rip Van Winkle becomes still more distressed and confused when he asks if they know Rip Van Winkle and the townspeople point out a different lazy-looking man. He begins to think he is crazy. A familiar woman approaches, and he finds out enough to decide that she is his daughter. She explains that her father went out with his gun one day twenty years ago and was never heard from since. Rip Van Winkle tells everyone that for him it has only been one night, which makes them think he is crazy, too. The one piece of good news is that Dame Van Winkle recently passed away.
Peter Vanderdonk, the town’s oldest inhabitant, vouches for Rip Van Winkle and says that he has heard tales passed down about the ghosts of Hendrick Hudson and his men appearing once every twenty years; they bowl and keep a guardian eye on the region that Hudson explored. The tale seems to fit with Rip’s experience. Rip goes to live with his daughter, who is married to a cheerful farmer. He lives much happier than he ever was with Dame Van Winkle. Also, he is now old enough for his idleness to be socially acceptable, and he returns to the hotel and is again well-loved in the village. He eventually learns about the Revolutionary War and everything else that has passed, but the only yoke of government that he cares about having thrown off is that of Dame Van Winkle.
Knickerbocker closes the story with an impassioned declaration of its veracity on personal examination. He also gives a brief history of the magic and fables associated with the Catskills, suggesting that even the Indians tell of similar experiences in the area in their own stories and myths.
“Rip Van Winkle” is one of the most famous stories of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. It is one of the few that take place in America, although it is believed to be a retelling of an Old World folktale. The setting of the tale, in the Catskills by the Hudson, gives the story a fairly precise location that grounds it in America.
The passages that begin and end the story frame it to separate it from the other sketches. Here our narrator is no longer Crayon but Diedrich Knickerbocker, who is quite adamant in vouching for the authenticity of the tale, which serves not to satisfy the reader but instead to make the reliability of the tale and its narrator even more ambiguous. This distance of Crayon from the tale touches on the theme of veracity in storytelling and its importance.
The story itself is an escapist fantasy; Rip Van Winkle is an ineffectual male hero who cannot support his farm or family. Instead of facing the consequences of his idleness and facing his wife, who certainly makes the problem worse instead of better, he sleeps for twenty years. Finally, he is of such an age that his idleness is excusable and allowed. This makes him an antithesis to the American dream. He has no ambition, he does not work hard for himself, and he does not rise above where he began. He just likes to chat and have friends.
He also sleeps through what was the defining moment of American history, and upon waking, he does not even care. This develops him as the American anti-hero, for he takes no part in the country’s founding or history. His story makes sense as more of an Old World story, one that the Dutch settlers, in their relatively old village, can retell. The story also shows that great historical events are often less important than the daily happenings in an individual’s life. The only oppressor Rip Van Winkle cares about having overcome is his wife.
Dame Van Winkle is certainly the antagonist in this story. She is constantly berating Rip Van Winkle, whom everyone else in the neighborhood adores. She is a completely flat character—we only ever see her worst side, except for the one comment made after she has died that she always kept the house in good order. Her criticism of her husband, if far too strong, is nevertheless deserved. He has completely failed in his role as husband, father, and breadwinner, leaving his family in near ruin. The husband is an extreme form of deadbeat and the wife an extreme form of nagging and henpecking, a state of affairs which appears to be a lesson and warning for Irving’s male and female readers alike. The husbands should learn to be more industrious and attentive, and the wives should learn to be less antagonistic and more understanding lest they drive their husbands further away.
Rip’s night in the woods symbolizes the fantasy of escape through one’s imagination, which is in itself a form of storytelling. Once he is freed of his duties to his family, he becomes the town storyteller, and it is this story which has freed him from his domestic duties—he literally and figuratively dreamed them away. In this way the imagination, or one’s creative life, is presented as a way to deal with the less pleasing duties of everyday life. At the same time, it is not without its dangers. Although Van Winkle finds a happy ending, he is very close to being labeled insane or dangerous and being thrust out of the town.