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Rip Van Winkle

Critique • Quotes

Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, 1895 editionCollection, 1895 illustrated Van Tassel edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First published
1819 in serially published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Literary form

Literary, fantasy

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 7,500 words

The future is an old story

Unlike Washington Irving's other famous story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", this one might perplex as to why it's considered a classic.

The plot of "Rip Van Winkle" is hardly original. Apparently Irving stole it from previous German fairy tales, including a very similar one by the Brothers Grimm. Not much of a plot either. Guy meets strange folk bowling in the woods, drinks too much, falls asleep, awakes in the future, meets his own descendants. End of story.

No explanation apart from magic. No exploration of how he and the society he discovers in the future are affected by this miraculous event.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much from a folk tale here, raised as I am on more involved science fiction and fantasy stories. But the satirical writing is not so subtle here either, depending on a few stereotypes of henpecking wives and lay-about husbands. Irving's built-in excuse for the defects of the tale is that he's just repeating a story found among the works of someone else. (See the "First line".)

'If they could see us now'

So what is the great appeal of "Rip Van Winkle"?

I'm guessing it's the placing of the man-out-of-time story before and after the American Revolution. It's a celebration of that epochal change wrought by the ordinary citizens of the United States—without going into the history and all those messy events that brought it about.

Look how far we've come, it says. If someone from colonial days could see us now....

This may still reverberates in the American mind.

Of course there's also the fantastical elements to spice it up and the funny scenes of old Rip not realizing time has passed and trying to find his old mates, while proclaiming his loyalty to King George, leaving the people of his town to wonder if the old guy is a traitor or just nuts.

Not bad as far as it goes, but that's as far as it goes.

— Eric


Critique • Quotes