Rip Van Winkle’s Life Choices: Terrible or Genius?

American Literature

Lyssa Henry

Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” is about a man who is not entirely satisfied with his life and decides to go hunting to avoid his wife, but strangely wakes up 20 years later from a seemingly short nap in the woods.

The question about the story is whether or not Rip Van Winkle was a decent guy. He could go around town helping everyone with their minor chores or playing with the children and dogs around. When he was at his own house, however, he was the least attentive man there could be. His children were wild. His wife was cruel. His land was so poorly kept, he barely grew enough food to feed himself, much less his children and his dog.

The dog, Wolf, was a very good part of his life. People often say that dogs reflect the looks and personalities of their owners, and this relationship is no exception. His rugged appearance matched that of his master, and he shared the same fear of Rip’s wife, who very clearly had a severe distaste for them both. Because the lack of self/family preservation Rip and Wolf presented, she would constantly get onto the two about being annoying or lazy or generally unmotivated.

Once Rip returned from his 20-year nap he told the town the story of how it happened: He went into the woods with his dog to hunt squirrels when he ran into a man carrying a keg through the trees. Being his normal helpful self, he helped the man with the keg until he found a gathering of people playing nine pins and drinking a mysterious alcohol. Rip helped himself to so much of this mystery drink, he passed out, waking up decades later in the same place he had first seen the man. It took him a good while to realize why everything was so different when he got back to town because, of course, he would not just assume he had been asleep for that long. The thing that made him realize he was so much older was finding his children, fully grown and living their own lives. They told him that their father had disappeared twenty years earlier, when he figured out that it was him.

Not many people in town, understandably, believed Rip’s story. They all assumed he left to get away from his bad marriage and came back wearing old clothes so he could get away with telling such a ridiculous story. In the context of the story of Rip Van Winkle, I believe that this preposterous thing had happened to him simply because his relationship with his dog was too good. There is no way he would have left Wolf alone with his wife for so long because Wolf was just as hated by Rip’s wife as Rip was.

Back to the question, though, do the people of the town think Rip had been living well before he disappeared? Was it right of Rip to live well for other people but neglect his own home and family? I personally think that Rip was irresponsible, and that he would have had a much better relationship with his wife if he had paid more attention to her and his family. He was great to other people, but if he could not take care of the people he needed to take care of, how much could it really count for him that he was good to other people?

I believe that Rip did not deserve a very warm welcome home because the people of the town would very easily believe that this man had just walked out on his family with a ridiculous story about why he had been gone for so long. If he had lived better, his story would have been easier for me to appreciate, even though I knew it was true.

3 comments

  • I thought that the people of the town did believe his story, because they told the children that thunder was the people playing nine pins in the mountains. But, with every story, everyone understands things differently. Just because I understood it as one way does not mean that either of us is wrong. Overall, your post is great though. Appreciated the attention to the most important character, Wolf.

  • I agree that Rip would not have left Wolf on his own, but I don’t know that he had much of a choice if he was unconscious. Also, I think the people did believe Rip’s story after some questioning, but I agree that they probably should not have. I like how you bring your point of view into the post and give the reader your understanding of Rip.

  • Rip may have been a great help to the people of the town, but if you know anything about the Old Testament it’s that family is the core of life. So, in a way, his core was rotten and, no matter how good he looked in the public eye, he didn’t deserve any special treatment. Wolf is the real hero, but Irving lets him starve. says a lot…

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