The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Washington Irving (1783-1859),
"Rip Van Winkle" from The Sketch Book

Background: birth in New York City, region once owned by Dutch; enjoyed English authors Shakespeare, Addison, Goldsmith and Sterne; family circumstances and first publication in satirical magazine Salmagundi (1806-7); law training and engagement to Matilda Hoffman, who died before their marriage; composition of satirical A History of New York (1808 ff.), ascribed to an imaginary figure, Diedrich Knickerbocker; travels to Europe 1815-32, spending seventeen years in Liverpool, Spain and London, serving in the United States diplomatic service and writing essays and histories, including The Sketch Book (1820), Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Conquest of Grenada (1929), and The Alhambra (1832), the "Spanish Sketch Book"; back in Hudson Valley, construction of romantic Spanish-style house with vegetable farm in Tarrytown on the Hudson River, where he lived with his widowed sister's family; brief return to Spain as minister 1842-46; published a biography of Goldsmith and Life of George Washington (5 vols., 1855ff); noted for his encouragement of a native tradition, and his appreciation and patronage toward younger writers such as Herman Melville.

Irving's writings lie at the intersection of conventional history and literature, the boundaries of which were less clearly defined in the early nineteenth century. He was also a pioneer in the use of local lore and legends, "regionalism," and celebration of an earlier country life; and his concern for the imaginative outsider--the person who doesn't seek conventional success but enjoys following his/her own bent--and skepticism about the value of change are perenniel themes in nineteenth-century (and later) American literature.

Satiric/comic aspects of story: use of disingenuous frame; false authentication of veracity and accuracy of legend; misleading reference to source; name of title character; figure and legend of Hendrik Hudson and his men; Rip's character and domestic life; his wife's temper; swiftness with which departed are forgotten; condescending reaction of townspeople to apparent stranger; slow pace of pre-Revolutionary life; arbitrary nature of changing political opinions; plastic nature of national sentiments (e. g. picture of King George III remade as president George Washington); unmotivated happy ending; autobiographical elements of tale of traveller who returns after a long absence.

Some points to notice in opening paragraphs: story within story; appeal to a tradition of earlier Dutch history; belief that stories are better sources for the past than books ("Whenever . . . he happened upon a genuine Dutch family . . . he looked up it as a little clasped volume of black-letter, and studied it with the zeal of a bookworm," 428); informal digressive style; use of older diction; self-references in descriptions of Knickerbocker; satiric reference to the imaginative, unhistorical nature of his tale--"his time might have been much better employed in weightier labours," 429; K's popular audience, seen in his image on new year's cakes, 429; use of comically bad poem as epigraph, 429, with allusions to "truth" suggesting its opposite; lovely, unsatiric descriptions of mountains and weather of Hudson valley; nostalgic allusions to Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch buildings.

Elements of plot: How are Rip's character and habits described? What are his virtues and faults? What seems to be the narrator's attitude toward him? What are some effects of Rip's behavior on his farm and family? How is his son Rip portrayed? What is Rip's relationship with his wife? His dog Wolf? His fellows at the village inn? How do the latter get their news of the world? What is symbolic about the way Nicholas Vedder expressed his opinions? What is amusing about Dame Van Winkle's accusations (432)? What domestic events have preceded Rip's escape to the Kaatskill mountains? What circumstances precipitate his vision of the ancient people?

How are the strange men described? Do they seem alive? Are they spirits? What are some unusual traits of their demeanor, dress and environment? How do you interpret the peals of thunder? The keg of liquor? The game of bowls? What symbolism lies behind Rip's drink from the flagon? ("He was naturally a thirsty soul. . .," 434).

How is Rip's wakening described? When does the reader realize what has happened? What are some of the physical changes Rip notices in himself and his environs? In his gun? dog? the glen? his own body? the local animals and inhabitants? his home and family? the inmates of the inn, such as Nicholas Vedder? the inn itself? the village?

What are some political events that seem to have occurred in his absence? What do the villagers at first interpret as threatening about his responses? How is his self-defence ironically misperceived? (437) What causes him to feel a confusion of identity? (437) How is he recognized at last? Why do you think his children have turned out as they have? What is ironic about the circumstances of his wife's death? What point is made about the man in the cocked hat who influences the opinions of others? (437, 438)

What is added to the tale by the legend relayed by old Peter Vanderdonk, the most ancient inhabitant of the village? Had Rip known of the legend? Why do you think Rip was selected to be one of the few modern inhabitants to be granted a vision of Henrik and his men?

Is Rip's old age spent in accordance with his inclinations and abilities? What are the political changes to which he must adjust? What does the narrator seem to feel about their significance? ("the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him," 439).


Is Rip's story of his experience likely to be "true"? Why did he vary it at first? Which listeners tended most to believe it? What does the narrator himself think, or can you tell? What kind of people envy Rip his experience? How have later listeners tried to authenticate it?

What are some examples of the use of the story's use of metaphor? (439) Of aphorisms? (431, "would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound") What are some features of the narrator's use of language? Allusions to art (434)? References to the permanence of memory? Within the story which things seem to last longest, and to have the most importance?

Do you think Irving did a good job of portraying the changes in a twenty-year absence? What reactions does the narrative seem to express about the advantages and pace of change? Of the importance of "progress"? Which things seem to change most, and which least? Is this legend an appropriate vehicle for conveying this theme?

Does the narrative make any point about the relation of legends to the natural world? of folk stories to history? What kinds of impulses does Rip represent?

some web addresses: Irving: and

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