23. szám --[ címlap | keresés | mutató | tartalom ]

Veress Katalin:
Changes in Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle

Changes have a significant meaning not only in our personal life but also in literary works. No matter whether changes have a beneficial effect or they cause serious problems in our life, they do have an influence on us and we have to learn how to accommodate to the new situation which ensues from them. Therefore, we can say that changes lead our lives as well as the story of a tale. In the case of a literary work, changes have their own function no matter whether they are realistic or miraculous ones, as we can see it in Rip Van Winkle.

Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book was published first in 1819, however the writer’s name was substituted by the penname Geoffrey Crayon. Nevertheless, it was not difficult to realize the author due to the popular earliest work of Irving, entitled Knickerbocker History of New York.[1] Rip Van Winkle has a subtitle which informs us that the whole story is from ‘A posthumous writing of David Knickerbocker’. The function of creating an imaginary author is on the one hand that this way the real one can shift the responsibility and can openly criticize the weak and questionable point of the work. [2] On the other hand, declaring that somebody else found the tale makes it more believable. In this work of Irving, the introduction and the postscript about the Rip Van Winkle- like Knickerbocker producing a kind of balance by being the frame of the story. Although, the idea of the man who falls asleep for many years is borrowed from German folklore- therefore it is open to the charge of plagiarism- it gives the opportunity to America to have its own legend.[3]

Some changes in the story of Rip Van Winkle are part of a mysterious world. In this work, the scene of the forest represents this world. As in Shakespeare’s works, the forest offers a place where everything can happen. This is the home of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the headless horseman in the other sketch of Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Although, Irving- as well as Shakespeare- does not emphasize that mysterious creatures have their power in the forest not outside of it, we can easily realize it. The story itself remains more believable if the wondrous acts take part in the fairy world and the ‘real world’ contains only the realistic problems. Therefore, the change of the scene was necessary in Rip Van Winkle to make the protagonist sleep for twenty years. The ‘magical hues and shapes’ of the Kaatskill Mountains not only has a significant effect on Rip’s life but according to the memorandum book of David Knickerbocker ‘The Indians considered them the abode of spirits who influenced the weather, spreading sunshine or clouds over the landscape, and sending good or bad hunting seasons.’ In the case of Rip’s tale, these spirits can be embodied by the strange Dutch- clothed dwarfs. Not only Rip Van Winkle but also did Irving realize the mysterious changes of this land in many times when he visited it[4] :

… But of all scenery of Hudson, the Kaatskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination. Never shall I forget the effect upon me of the first view of them predominating over a wide extent of country, part wild, woody, and rugged; part softened away into all the graces of cultivation. As we slowly floated along, I lay on the deck and watched them through a long summer’s day, undergoing a thousand mutations under the magical effects of atmosphere; sometimes seeming to approach, at other times to recede; now almost melting into hazy distance, now burnished by the setting sun, until, in the evening, they printed themselves against the glowing sky on the deep purple of an Italian landscape.[5]

Another place where wondrous changes can frequently appear is the dream itself. The idea of sleeping and awaking can be the symbol of death and resurrection and it is a common element of the folklore of different. In some aspects, the wakening up for Rip Van Winkle is a rebirth into the paradise. He is the archetype of good- for- nothing people however, in his life the dream of the henpecked husbands becomes true. As a result of his twenty- year- long sleeping, he does not have to suffer from the ‘sharp tongue’ of Dame Van Winkle, which is ‘the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use’.

However, the losing of Rip Van Winkle’s identity is ensued from the longish rest. After twenty years, his well known village absolutely changed; all of his friend and acquaintances have already died; his ‘sole domestic adherent, who was as henpecked as Rip’ also passed away; his home was ‘empty, forlorn, and apparently abandoned; and he did not know anyone in his own village any more, furthermore, ‘The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.’ Because of these changes, Rip lost every piece of his life and became skeptical about his own identity.

Rip looked, and beheld a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain: apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man. In the midst of his bewilderment, the man in the cocked hat demanded who he was, and what was his name?

“God knows,” exclaimed he, at his wit’s end; “I’m not myself—I’m somebody else—that’s me yonder—no—that’s somebody else, got into my shoes—I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”

Moreover, the missed years result in Rip’s becoming separated from his past. It means that he does not have the continuity of his life, which is necessary for his identification. One day, he is a young man but on the other, he becomes old; he has a wife but now he is a widow. The way of clothing, the fashionable appearance also changed. Additionally, the history itself also continued without Rip being able to follow it:

He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the little village inn—but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken, and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle.” Instead of the great tree which used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red nightcap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes—all this was strange and incomprehensible. He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe, but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was stuck in the hand instead of a scepter, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON.

Although, ‘Rip, in fact, was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him’, he was sleeping when one of the most important changes in the history of America, the American War of Independence happened. However, ‘In changing only the red coat of King George to the blue coat of George Washington on the sign that used to stand over the village inn, Irving suggests that the “singularly metamorphosed” country may have undergone radical change, but retains a similar form.’[6]

The only opportunity for Rip to find his own history and his identity is to find a connection between his past and his present. Rip Van Winkle himself represents America, which also has to find his own history at this time.[7] The New World also needs a self definition through which it can understand itself. As in the ancient Greek time, people and nations are not able to determine themselves only through their own stories. In the case of America, it was a difficult task. Although, they share the same language and cultural tradition with England, there are two absolutely independent nations.[8]

Rip Van Winkle can find his new useful position in society by becoming a story teller. Due to this, he can change his lazy, good- for- nothing behavior with the appreciated position of the story- teller. In other words, the villager’s belief in the myth of Hendrick Hudson saved Rip and gave him a new social status.

It was determined, however, to take the opinion of old Peter Vanderdonk, who was seen slowly advancing up the road. He was a descendant of the historian of that name, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the province. Peter was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood. He recollected Rip at once, and corroborated his story in the most satisfactory manner. He assured the company that it was a fact, handed down from his ancestor the historian, that the Catskill Mountains had always been haunted by strange beings. That it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years, with his crew of the Half-Moon, being permitted in this way to revisit the scenes of his enterprise, and keep a guardian eye upon the river, and the great city called by his name. That his father had once seen them in their old Dutch dresses playing at ninepins in a hollow of the mountain; and that he himself had heard, one summer afternoon, the sound of their balls, like long peals of thunder.

This legend totally changes Rip’s life: he could be a part of the legend and a reliable witness of it and it gives him an identity in which Rip can achieve his duty. He became the connection between the past and the present, provided continuity. Therefore, the villagers could identify themselves based on the same basic story.

Washington Irving’s essay on Rip Van Winkle has the same function as Rip himself has in his village. The story changes into the legend for those who lived in America under the laws of the British but whose villages were established by the Dutch. Due to the story of Rip Van Winkle, which could start strengthening not only their own literature but also their own identity. Moreover, they could understand more easily the great changes which followed the American War of Independence.

The personal tale of Rip Van Winkle and the national history of America are also built up by different kinds of changes. These changes offered them different kinds of opportunities or difficulties. However, they had to learn how to accommodate to these changes and how to utilize them because only through the chain of the changes could they create their own story and establish their identity.


[1] “Introduction.” The Sketch Book. Ed. George Philip Krapp, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1906, 1920., 7-37.
[2] Irving can criticize his own creature with humor: ‘The old gentleman died shortly after the publication of his work, and now that he is dead and gone, it cannot do much harm to his memory to say that his time might have been much better employed in weightier labors…But however his memory may be appreciated by critics, it is still held dear by many folks whose good opinion is well worth having; particularly by certain biscuit- bakers, who have gone so far as to imprint his likeness on their New- Year cakes; and have thus given him a chance for immortality almost equal to the being stamped on a Waterloo Medal, or a Queen Anne’s farthing.’ (Irving, Washington “The Sketched Book”)
[3] Cunliffe, Marcus. “A Trio of Gentlemen.” The Literature Of The United States. Fourth Edition. , Printed in the United States of America by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Harrisonburg, Virginia. 83-88.
[4] Brooks, Van Wyck. The World of Washington Irving. E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1944. 129-130.
[5] “Introduction” 11.
[6] “Washington Irving.” Teaching with The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company,New York, London. 1994. 119-120.
[7] “Washington Irving.” Teaching with The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
[8] “ Cultural Independence.” American Literature. Volume 9 of the New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Ed. Boris Ford. Published by the Penguin Group., 1995. 65.

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