“Historical Events and Personalities as a Background for Rip Van Winkle
Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” written in 1819, is largely concerned with the formation of the United States of America leading up to, and in the years immediately following, the Revolutionary War. Irving’s story follows Rip Van Winkle, a lazy and shiftless man who hikes to the Catskill mountains, where he helps an oddly-dressed man carry a keg to a gathering of similarly outfitted men. After serving the strangers from the keg, Van Winkle takes a drink and falls into a deep slumber, waking twenty years later to find his town unrecognizable.
Irving draws from the momentous events that occur during Van Winkle’s twenty-year slumber: the character falls asleep prior to the American Revolutionary War and awakens in a new nation. This is perhaps most relevant when Van Winkle visits the inn, which after the war has become the Union Hotel and now bears the image of George Washington:
He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George […] 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. (Irving, 26)
Inside, Van Winkle’s confusion over the postwar status quo intensifies: he finds that many of his friends died in the war, while according to Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, “the rage Rip incites when he declares himself a subject of the king definitively confirms his status as a strange outsider.”
By exploring the newly-established nation through an outside perspective, Irving illustrates the progress and upheaval of the late 18th century in the United States and the effects of the war on the populace. Van Winkle’s return to his indolent ways after waking up indicates that he is out of sync with postwar ideals of productivity and industry, allowing Irving’way of contrasting 19th century American attitudes with pre-war sentiments.
List of References
Irving, W. (1963). Rip Van Winkle, and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York: Macmillan.
Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, LitCharts Editors (2016). LitChart on Rip Van Winkle. Retrieved February 11, 2016 from http://www.litcharts.com/lit/rip-van-winkle”
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