Rip Van Winkle and the Construction of the Present as a Narrative Theme





Rip Van Winkle and the Construction of the Present as a Narrative Theme


The short story written by Washington Irving can be argued as an ‘escapist fantasy’ since its ‘twist’ latches upon the idea that it is possible for a person to sleep for 20 years. This mystery can be regarded as the thing which breaks the ice in what appears to be a very mediocre life that is lived by the story’s protagonist. Rip Van Winkle, if analyzed from an industrial- era- biased position can be regarded as a totally ineffectual, slacking and thus unproductive member of society who, as has been told in the short story, is not even capable of providing significant material support to his family (Washington). In this regard, one can argue Rip Van Winkle as the opposite of a typical protagonist, who is usually portrayed as a valiant, dynamic and death- daring hero who upholds his or her honor through his or her big gestures. It is perhaps this same mediocrity which allows the story of Rip Van Winkle to effectively get across the message that the story has when it comes to time and the relevance of life circumstances from a personal point of view. As such the following discussions will be looking at how the narrative of the story was used to demonstrate the importance of a ‘time perspective’ and how a person’s being situated in time affects his or her perception of the present.

The nature of time travel in Rip Van Winkle

It is important to first point out that time travel is until today a hypothetical concept, and this is because no technology has yet been created to really travel through time. Nevertheless, time travel is a figuratively plausible action when it comes to discussing narratives. The world that exists in the story of Rip Van Winkle can be regarded as having its own concept of time, but according to how the author has told that story, their world follows the same rules that ours does in as far as time is concerned. The thing which makes Rip Van Winkle a valid topic for discussing time travel is not that it was possible in the story, but that Rip Van Winkle slept for at least 20 years, propelling his consciousness 20 years in the future. This has more to do with the idea of rest and unconsciousness, which then preserves present consciousness and thus produces the effect of time travel at least from the story’s protagonist’s point of view. In our analysis, a commonality can be seen from this short story with any other time travel story as they both show the dynamics of how a person from a time interacts with another. A time- travelling machine, a magical time portal or the slumber moonshine/ potion of bearded Dutch ghosts can all serve as the mechanisms that validate and establish the act of situating a character in any story into a new dimension of time. With this in mind, the short story of Rip Van Winkle can indeed be considered as a literature that can be classified into the genre of time travel stories even if the technical understanding of the hypothetical time travel is not utilized in the story.

Regardless of how Rip Van Winkle’s character has travelled time, he has indeed successfully done so, and this twist in the plot allowed the author of the story to ‘contrast’ Rip Van Winkle’s experience with the changes that have occurred in the same space and location- New York’s Catskill Mountains. How much can 20 years change the same place? How much can war, particularly the American Revolutionary War, change the same place? Rip Van Winkle didn’t travel to a different place, but he definitely did a kind of travelling when he woke up.

The construction of the present time

The text of the Rip Van Winkle makes the reader fully aware of what has happened past the 20 years that Rip Van Winkle’s character has fallen asleep. Rip Van Winkle’s musket had been long weathered, making it rusted and rotten, generations have turned over, making him unable to recognize anyone from the village he lives in. Rip Van Winkle hears of the death of his wife as well as his friends who have either fought in a war or have left the town. Readers are told of the change in the portrait in the village inn, implying that the war has been won by the Americans, and that George Washington is the new country’s new leader. Indeed, the reader is not left to wonder as to what changes have occurred. The main point of the story that can thus be deduced is not on what changes have occurred, but how Rip Van Winkle will respond to these changes given the fact that he did not have, like everyone else, the opportunity to slowly transition into the new ‘present’ that he woke up to. In this light, one can argue that there are two constructions of present that are apparent: 1) Rip Van Winkle ‘time travel present’ and 2) the townsfolk’s normally transitioned present. Both types of ‘presents’ are depicted as equally real in the story but both have different underlying implications, especially when they, for the lack of a better term, ‘intertwine’ at one point. Perhaps the best example from the text that illustrates the contrast between these two perceptions of present is when Rip Van Winkle got into trouble when he declared himself as a loyal subject to King George III.

Rip Van Winkle’s Present

At the end of the day, Rip Van Winkle cared less if there was a defining moment in American History when he discovers the mystery that has happened to him. Rip Van Winkle 20 years ago has lived a care- free life: being content with few and being happy with just chatting with people and making friends. This is the same character he brings 20 years into the future. Would he have fought in the war? Probably, what happened to him is a perfect excuse for not being the hero that people expect patriots to be. This leaves the readers with a lot of room to wonder what typically matters to a person: Is it being part of the events of historical importance, or personal daily endeavors? For a person like Rip Van Winkle, his story is a happy ending, but this very fact challenges the readers on their perception of how people must act in response to their principles and how those principles apply to what occurs in their environment.

It can thus be argued that the construction of the present from a personal point of view as a theme has been successfully conveyed to the reader ultimately by the fact that Rip Van Winkle, in his own rite, has prevailed.



Works Cited

Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle. Elegant Books, 1863. Web. 24 Jan 2014.

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