Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Literary Synopsis - Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle

Published in 1819 by Washington Irving, the story of Rip Van Winkle centers around the character of a Dutch-American living in the mountains of New York prior to the War for Independence. An American short story based on Dutch myth and legends experienced in the Hudson River Valley, novelist Irving created the tale of a villager living in the Catskill Mountains who awoke to an altered reality akin to how colonial New England transformed following the establishment of the early American republic.

Initiating the tale with a description of a quaint Dutch village nestled in the fair Hudson River valley, Irving introduces the character of Rip Van Winkle - a descendant of the Van Winkles famed during the days of Peter Stuyvesant. However, Rip lacked the chivalrous nobility of his ancestors. Instead, he was rather simplistic and good-natured, though henpecked by his wife. Her shrewish temper and tirades were warranted as her husband blamed Dame Van Winkle for his mishaps and would instead play games with village children, preoccupying focus from his patriarchal role due to an "aversion to all kinds of profitable labor." He would rather while hours away flying kites, husking corn, telling tales of ghosts and Indians, assisting neighbors with their chores, and by running errands for the village ladies. He most cherished hunting in the woods with his dog, Wolf, and ignore his troubles by fishing all day. Notably, he found little use in cultivating his deteriorated farm covered in weeds. Suffering from their father's negligence, his children wore rags and seemed to be as wild as the mountains their father so loved. His son took after him and declared that he would replicate his father in speech, dress, and deed - much to his mother's chagrin.

Escaping the tirades of his wife's lashing tongue, Rip would often flee to the village inn to drown his sorrows in gossip and to hear the fanciful stories of the refined schoolmaster, Derrick Van Bummel. Meek and carefree, the lighthearted Winkle submerged himself in lengthy discussions at the inn. However Dame Winkle would often disrupt and reprimand his laziness to the point where Nicholas Vedder, the inn's landlord, refused Rip continued service. Refusing to occupy himself in a meaningful way, Van Winkle would resort to trekking in the mountains with faithful dog and gun in hand.

Upon one of his travels through the Catskills, he reached a high peak in the mountains which enabled him to survey the entire valley. The hunter lay down to admire the beauty of the Hudson river and before long, nighttime fell. Right as he roused himself upwards to return home while regretfully imagining forthcoming beratement, he happened to hear the call of his name in the twilight. Spying a figure traveling up the mountain carrying a heavy keg on his back, Winkle shimmied down to aid the burly individual dressed in antique clothing. Though apprehensive, Rip helped hoist the package up the ravine. They came to a small natural amphitheater surrounded by trees where the duo finally rested the carton of liquor the man had brought to the secluded hollow.

Gazing at the unfamiliar clearing, Rip realized he was surrounded by curious looking people dressed similarly to the strange man carrying the barrel up the mountainside. They resembled figures from old Flemish paintings though not as composed, for in spite of their wordlessness, they played a game of ninepins. Silence reigned save the clack of balls resounding like thunder. Trembling in fear as their eyes fell upon him, the man carrying the keg up the mountain, none other than the ghost of Henry Hudson - the explorer of the Hudson River after which the valley received its named – motioned for Rip to wait as he filled flagons with liquor for the crew of the Half Moon. After downing their portions, the crewmembers returned to their game while Rip, so taken with the drink, sipped more and more until his head swam and he slipped into a dream-like state.

Unable to recall when he nodded off to sleep, Rip awakened the next morning only to find that his gun has disintegrated with rot and rust. Rip assumed that the strange men he had encountered the night before played a trick by dousing him with liquor only to steal his gun. Rising with creaking joints, Rip whistled for his dog but Wolf had departed. Thinking Wolf had chased after a nearby fowl, Rip decided to return to the amphitheater. However, the pass was impaired by a trickling stream that he did not recall. No amount of effort afforded him entry to the clearing now covered by vines and thick vegetation. Exhausted, hungry, and dreading to return to his wife empty-handed, Rip grieved the loss of his dog and gun, and stumbled homeward.

Managing to find his way into town, Van Winkle soon became perplexed by all the unfamiliar faces he spotted along the country road, as he thought we was well-acquainted with most residents. Their strange method of fashion and gaping stares caused him to mimic their expressions and the scratching of their chins. Upon scratching his own, he realized his beard had grown over a foot long.

When he reached the outskirts of the village he found, to his dismay, not the small yellow brick houses that were once constructed after the architectural traditions of Holland, but that the town had grown more populous as there were rows of new houses and storefronts. Many of his favorite locations had disappeared or were replaced by foreign signs and family names. Children laughed at him and dogs bristled. Soon Rip began to wonder if he were in a dream or cast under a spell that had disoriented the native life of the village he knew to be quite different only the day before. Seeing that the landscape remained the same, Rip knew that this village was his own. Acknowledging that his hallucinations were real, Van Winkle, now an old man, realized that these effects must be due to the peculiar flagon from which he had sipped.

Coming upon his home, he found it decayed with the windows shattered and abandoned save the emaciated dog that resembled his faithful Wolf. When Rip called out to the starved animal it growled and moved along, causing Rip to mourn that his own dog had forgotten him. Entering the house, he loudly called for his family yet was met by silence. He raced out towards the inn, expecting to find a semblance of normalcy yet once he arrived, it too no longer existed in its original form.

The village inn had been renovated into a hotel. The sign no longer bared the image of King George but a new portrait of a man in blue bedecked by a cocked hat. This man, identified as “George Washington” by the fresh engraving within the wooden emblem, held a "sword instead of a scepter." Amazement and concern plagued the disoriented man in the bustling center fraught with talk of liberty, elections, war heroes, and the rights of citizens. The bewildered man soon gained the attention of the politically-minded who crowded around him as though he were a curious spectacle. He was asked which partisan affiliation he adhered to, Federal or Democrat, and was jostled about as an old gentleman demanded to know whether he intended to bring a riot into the tavern by wielding his gun. 

In dismay, he attempted to clarify that he was a peaceful subject of the king to which the crowd accused him of being a tory until the elderly man restored order. After inquiring the location of his friends, he was informed that Nicholas Vedder and Brom Dutcher had been long deceased after fighting in the American Revolution while Van Bummel, the school master, was now a member of Congress. Perplexed by news of warfare and these new political terms, Van Winkle cried out if anyone knew a person by his name. Someone indicated to the young, lazy fellow leaning against a tree. Seeing the vision of his aged son, he began to doubt his identity and desperately explained how he fell asleep in the mountains and that everything has changed upon his return. The crowd began to chuckle, thinking that the old man was simply senile, however, an old woman with a child in her arms approached.

He recognized her as his daughter though he saw how considerably aged she had become. He learned through Judith Gardenier, his daughter, how she was now married and accompanied by a child, his grandson, Rip Van Winkle III. She told of how Van Winkle was thought to have gone off into the mountains only to never be heard from again. Most of the villagers assumed he had either shot himself or had been accosted by Indians. Van Winkle confessed that he was her father. Believing him, she related news of her mother’s death and, though Rip was relieved to hear of his nagging wife’s demise, Rip began to comprehend that he had truly been asleep for twenty years though he thought he had only spent one night in the Catskills.

Another old neighbor welcomed him home while Peter Vanderdonk, a historian of Dutch lore and the oldest remaining villager alive, confirmed the identity of Rip Van Winkle and asserted that his tale was credible. The pairs’ aligning details regarding the myth of the ghost of Henry Hudson and his crew pacified the crowd and they soon dispersed. Judith invited Rip to live at her family home and while there, he quickly resumed his old habits. As before, he ignored labor and enjoyed the company of children of whom he gained favor. Irresponsible tendencies continued to plague the elderly man as he had slept through vital years that may have prompted maturity. Despite his lethargic tendencies, his natural charm and inherent kindness had not dissipated, for yet again, the eccentric orator came to be beloved by the villagers whom he entertained with stories of old Dutch colonial life and of his wanderings in the wild.

Image (c) Geoffrey Crayon, 1921.

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