Extra text: Rip van Winkle
Washington Irving (1783-1859) was born in New York at the time of the birth of the new nation. He became the first famous man of letters in the United States. In his writing, Irving used local settings, customs and people, thus creating a distinctly new American national literature.
In the story of Rip Van Winkle, Irving starts off with his standard characters – the lazy husband and the nagging wife – thereby making the hero of his most famous story the complete opposite of the ideal of the hard-working, thrifty American colonists. Escaping into the woods one day, Rip Van Winkle encounters gnomes, and drinks a magic drink which makes him sleep for twenty years. While he is asleep his fellow compatriots fight a war and establish a new nation. Rip Van Winkle misses out on his youth and the making of history but even this he manages to turn into an advantage. In the first place, he misses out on twenty years of nagging! In the second place, as an old man he is allowed to loaf, gossip and dream, and he becomes a village celebrity who is only too willing to tell his strange story to whoever will listen to it.
In the excerpt below, we meet Rip before his encounter with the gnomes.
Rip van Winkle
By Washington Irving
Certain it is, that he was a great favourite among all the good wives of the village, who, as usual with the amiable sex, took his part in all family squabbles, and never failed, whenever they talked those matters over in their evening gossipings, to lay all the blame on Dame Van Winkle. The children of the village, too, would shout with joy whenever he approached. He assisted at their sports, made their playthings, taught themto fly kites and shoot marbles, and told them long stories about ghosts, witches, and Indians. Whenever he went dodging about the village, he was surrounded by a troop of them hanging on his skirts, clambering on his back, and playing a thousand tricks on him with impunity; and not a dog would bark at him throughout the neighbourhood.
The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance; for he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod as long and heavy as a Tartar’s lance, and fish all day without a murmur, even though he should not be encouraged by a single nibble. He would carry a fowling-piece on his shoulder for hours together, trudging through woods and swamps, and up hill and down dale, to shoot a few squirrels or wild pigeons. He would never refuse to assist a neighbour, even in the roughest toil, and was foremost a man at all country frolics for husking Indian corn or building stone fences. The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them – in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, he found it impossible.
In fact, he declared it was of no use to work on his farm; it was the most pestilent little piece of ground in the whole country; everything about it went wrong, and would go wrong in spite of him. His fences were continually falling to pieces; his cow would either go astray, or get among the cabbages; weeds were sure to grow quicker in his fields than anywhere else; the rain always made a point of setting in just as he had some out-of-door work to do; so that though his patrimonial estate had dwindled away under his management, acre by acre, until there was little more left than a mere patch of Indian corn and potatoes, yet it was the worst-conditioned farm in the neighbourhood.
His children, too, were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody. His son Rip, an urchin begotten in his own likeness, promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes of his father. He was generally seen trooping like a colt at his mother’s heels, equipped in a pair of his father’s cast-off galligaskins, which he had much ado to hold up with one hand, as a fine lady does her train in bad weather.
Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with east thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound. If left to himself, he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment; but his wife kept ontinually dinning in his ears about his idleness; his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family.
Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence. Rip had but one way of replying to all lectures of the kind, and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing. This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife, so that he was fain to draw off his forces, and take to the outside of the house – the only side which, in truth, belongs to a henpecked husband.
Rip’s sole domestic adherent was his dog Wolf, who was as much henpecked as his master; for Dame Van Winkle regarded them as companions in idleness, and even looked upon Wolf with an evil eye as the cause of his master’s going so often astray. True it is, in all points of spirit befitting an honourable dog, he was as courageous an animal as ever scoured the woods – but what courage can withstand the ever-during and all-besetting terrors of a woman’s tongue? The moment Wolf entered the house, his crest fell, his tail drooped to the ground, or curled between his legs, he sneaked about with a gallows air, casting many a sidelong glance at Dame Van Winkle, and at the least flourish of a broomstick or ladle he would fly to the door with yelping precipitation.
Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle, as years of matrimony rolled on: a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use. For a long while he used to console himself, when driven from home, by frequenting a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle personages of the village, which held its sessions on a bench before a small inn, designated by a rubicund portrait of His Majesty George the Third. Here they used to sit in the shade, of a long lazy summer’s day, talking listlessly over village gossip, or telling endless sleepy stories about nothing. But it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions that sometimes took place, when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands, from some passing traveller. How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper, learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary; and how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.
After wandering into the woods with his trusty dog and rifle, Rip meets several Dutch gnomes, drinks their magic liquor and falls asleep for twenty years. When he awakens he does not realize that he has slept for so long and promptly sets off for his village. To his surprise the village has changed greatly. When he left, his home was part of an English colony. Now the country has become an independent republic. Rip is confused by talk of politics for which he has no understanding and asks about his friends, most of whom have died during his twenty year sleep.
“Where’s Brom Dutcher?”
“Oh, he went off to the army in the beginning of the war; some say he was killed at the storming of Stony Point – others say he was drowned in a squall, at the foot of Anthony’s Nose. I don’t know – he never came back again.”
“Where’s Van Bummel, the schoolmaster?”
“He went off to the wars, too; was a great militia general, and is now in Congress.”
Rip’s heart died away, at hearing of these sad changes in his home and friends, and finding himself thus alone in the world. Every answer puzzled him, too, by treating of such enormous lapses of time, and of matters which he could not understand: war – Congress – Stony Point – he had no courage to ask after any more friends, but cried out in despair, “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?”
“Oh, Rip Van Winkle!” exclaimed two or three. “Oh, to be sure! that’s Rip Van Winkle yonder, leaning against the tree.”
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 wits’ 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!”
The bystanders began now to look at each other, nod, wink significantly and tap their fingers against their foreheads. There was a whisper, also, about securing the gun, and keeping the old fellow from doing mischief; at the very suggestion of which the self-important man with the cocked hat retired with some precipitation. At this critical moment a fresh, comely woman pressed through the throng to get a peep at the grey-bearded man. She had a chubby child in her arms, which, frightened at his looks, began to cry.
“Hush, Rip,” cried she, “hush, you little fool; the old man won’t hurt you.” The name of the child, the air of the mother, the tone of her voice, all awakened a train of recollections in his mind.
“What is your name, my good woman?” asked he.
“And your father’s name?”
“Ah, poor man, Rip Van Winkle was his name; but it’s twenty years since he went away from home with his gun, and never has been heard of since – his dog came home without him; but whether he shot himself, or was carried away by the Indians, nobody can tell. I was then but a little girl.”
Rip had but one question more to ask; but he put it with a faltering voice:
“Where’s your mother?”
Oh, she too had died but a short time since: she broke a blood-vessel in a fit of passion at a New England pedlar.
There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence. The honest man could contain himself no longer. He caught his daughter and her child in his arms. “I am your father!” cried he – “young Rip Van Winkle once – old Rip Van Winkle now! Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle?”
All stood amazed, until an old woman, tottering out from among the crowd, put her hand to her brow, and peering under it in his face for a moment, exclaimed, “Sure enough! it is Rip Van Winkle – it is himself. Welcome home again, old neighbour. Why, where have you been these twenty long years?”
- Make a list of Rip Van Winkle’s positive qualities.
- What are the negative sides of his personality?
- Would you say he is a fully developed character – that is, a round character – or a caricature – that is, a flat character? Explain your views.
- How is Dame Van Winkle portrayed? What type of character is she? Support your answers by referring to or quoting from the text.
- When does this story take place? What is the political backdrop of the story?
- What has happened to Rip’s family during the twenty years that he has been gone? What other changes have taken place in society that Rip has missed out on?
- Suppose that you walked into the woods one day and met some strange-looking people. After having drunk their liquor you sleep for twenty years. What changes do you see in society after a twenty year sleep? Write an essay on this topic. Call your essay “A Twenty Year Leap in Time”.
- Imagine that Rip Van Winkle’s wife is still alive when he comes back to the village. Work with a fellow student to create a script for a radio play.(If time permits you might also record the dialogue so that it really sounds like a radio play or act it out for your classmates.)