Rip Van Winkle Essay Topics

  • 1

    Choose one story and explain how its epigraph contributes to it.

    The “Christmas” section of the book opens with a line from a hue and cry given after Christmas ends every year: “But is old, old, good old Christmas gone? Nothing but the hair of his good, gray old head and beard left? Well, I will have that, seeing I cannot have more of him.” Although in their usual context, these lines are just about the yearly passing of Christmas, by placing it here, Crayon is emphasizing his concerns about change and his disappointment with the old Christmas rites no longer being celebrated. The idea of taking, at least, what one can get is depicted in the Christmas celebrations with the Squire, who keeps as much of tradition going as he can, despite making some sacrifices.

  • 2

    How does “Rip Van Winkle” deal with what became named "the American Dream"?

    The protagonist of “Rip Van Winkle” seems completely antithetical to the American work ethic that is said to make Americans work toward the American Dream of prosperity, the possibility of raising oneself above where one was born through hard work. Rip instead loses much of what his family worked for, through pure indolence, and he shows absolutely no ambition, except an ambition to do nothing as long as he can. This life ends up working out for Rip, but the morality of the tale does not condone it, for Rip only ends up in better straits with the help of magic, which makes him sleep through his working years long enough to enjoy his undeserved retirement. In this way he is an American anti-hero who enjoys the American fantasy of a life of leisure, not the American Dream.

  • 3

    Compare Dame Van Winkle with Mary, Leslie’s wife, with respect to what it means to be a wife.

    Dame Van Winkle is presented as the worst a wife can be, one who complains and offers nothing in return, not even showing pleasantness to the family dog. It is true that her criticism of her husband's indolence is justified, but she goes too far, and any wife who henpecks her husband too much risks turning him off from the relationship altogether. Mary, on the other hand, also has a husband who is incapable of supporting her in the manner to which they were both accustomed, but she, unlike Dame Van Winkle, supports him fully. They remain happily in love, even through hardship. Although both of these women are strong, each one is strong in a different way as she supports her family. Mary is exalted for making the relationship work, although one might hope she has more to her life than making a rural paradise for her husband.

  • 4

    Explain what Crayon might be recommending for England based on “John Bull.”

    John Bull is presented as a character with a good heart who makes many mistakes and gets too much into others' business. Crayon seems to think that many of these mistakes come because John Bull is both generous and proud, which makes his actions very expensive. The possible metaphor here is that Crayon might be saying that England is overextending herself in worrying about her empire and colonies. Crayon’s advice to John Bull, and thus to England, is to focus on the domestic, or else Britain and its traditions will fall apart.

  • 5

    Explain what distinctions Crayon makes between Europe and the United States, and describe how well they hold up.

    Crayon presents America as a youthful, exciting country, but one without much history, tradition, literature, or culture, while Europe’s age means that it has history everywhere, including living history in its cultures and traditions. This distinction largely holds throughout the book, although the history is not always positive—it can mean a significant lack of freedom. The exception is that when Crayon deals with American Indians, it becomes clear that America and Europe are fairly similar after all in relation to this third set of cultures.

  • 6

    Explain how Rip Van Winkle can be seen as a parallel to Crayon.

    Rip Van Winkle is the extreme portrayal of an indolent man, a man who escapes from life in his imagination, and who has no responsibility. Because he is such an extreme figure, he is only able to maintain this lifestyle through supernatural means. Crayon is similar in that he has a highly dominant imaginative life which often gives him a means of escape and little responsibility, but not nearly to the same extreme. After all, Crayon has a great deal of leisure time as he travels. Since Crayon does something useful with his time, however, and can distinguish between fiction and reality, in Crayon we can see the positive side of the imaginative, leisured life.

  • 7

    What are Crayon's views about literature, writing, and authorship? Consider Crayon as a self-reflective author.

    Crayon argues that, thanks to the mutability of the English language, mediocre works, published at greater and greater rates, will fall into decay, allowing new genius to flourish. True genius, however, achieves a mythical immortality for the work, the author, and even for his language. A writer must find his own material in the common things of human nature and human life in order to have a chance of such success, not just take bits and pieces from others. This is what Crayon does as a writer, valuing what romantic, private, rural, stories and histories show about people rather than focusing on what general histories about great political figures have to offer. Crayon claims that as a storyteller, his task is to spread as much pleasure as possible, but he makes sure to leave plenty of instruction in his tales for those who are interested to look for it.

  • 8

    Crayon clearly loves history, but it is not always a good thing in The Sketchbook. How can history have a negative effect?

    While Crayon loves coming face to face with history, in certain of the stories he passes on, the weight of history can be restrictively heavy. In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” Baron Von Landshort lives beyond his means in order to live up to the traditions of his ancestors, but the draw of historical prominence will not allow him to give up his castle. His daughter also almost misses out on her true love because of an ancient feud with no modern relevance. Traditions reflect history, but if they are followed without any understanding of their meaning, they make history bind us instead of fulfilling us.

  • 9

    “Rip Van Winkle” is often read on its own, but it was originally published as part of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. How does the story fit into the rest of The Sketchbook? What themes from the book does it complicate, or what themes complicate it?

    A major theme in The Sketchbook is the strength of the imagination and whether it should be allowed to overpower reality. It is rarely dangerous in The Sketchbook, but in “Rip Van Winkle” Rip's imagination is part of his escapism, which keeps him asleep for a generation. Crayon's other tales show that it is not necessary to pick reality if one can imagine something better, provided that one can stay aware of the difference and return to reality when it matters. Also of note is the relationship between Rip and his wife, usually in severe contrast to the other relationships in the sketches.

  • 10

    In “Philip of Pokanoket,” Crayon makes clear that history can be strongly biased. How can he take a biased story and make it unbiased without any additional sources?

    Crayon might say that the facts are clear enough, even in the biased portrayal, that he can re-present them without the original writer’s bias. What Crayon does is change the perspective from anti-Indian antagonism to seeing the story through the experience of Philip and his defenders. Crayon’s desire to paint a fairer portrait of the American Indians, however, leads him to portray Philip as a kind of American-style hero who fights against the odds for the things he believes in. This version of history seems overly romanticized and biased in a different direction. Crayon is, after all, a storyteller and not the dry kind of historian.

  • Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in “Rip Van Winkle” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “Rip Van Winkle” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Question of Identity in Rip Van Winkle

    Rip Van Winkle was described as a happy fool, one whom doubted his own identity when he awoke from his long sleep. We already know that Rip was a passive man, but what else is important about his identity? He seems to be a very genuine and caring person, one who is always willing to help out those who are in need. That being said, does his personality play a role in his being chosen as the remnant to the pre-Revolutionary days? Perhaps, Rip began the story as a good man who was relaxed enough to see where life leads him. He is thrust into a new world, full of development and advancement, as one of the few people left who are willing to let things just happen. Is this a good or bad thing? This is a question to integrate into this guided character analysis of “Rip Van Winkle”

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Use of Description in Rip Van Winkle

    Throughout the story Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving relies heavily on the use of description in regards to both nature and characters. There are many different scenes in which nature is described in great detail, and most of the characters have their features described carefully. In which ways is this reliance on nature important? What does it say about Rip Van Winkle and his attributes regarding the earthly world? What about the description of characters? What is it that Irving is saying about Rip’s tendency to detail things? Is there a connection between how he views the world and how he interacts with it?

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Passivity of Rip Van Winkle

    The story of Rip Van Winkle is best known for Rip’s extraordinarily long nap. Even before he falls asleep, his actions portray a man who is unconcerned with his life. He helps his neighbors and minds his own business until the day that he goes up into the mountains. What does this say about Rip’s passivity as a character? Are there any actions that he takes that actively influence his life, or is he the kind of person who just lets things happen to him? What is Irving saying here about the ramifications of allowing oneself to let life simply pass by?

    Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Revolution and Tradition in Rip Van Winkle

    The backdrop of “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving is very political. The American Revolution occurs while Rip is asleep, and when he awakes and comes back down the mountain, the world in which he lived has forever changed. The buildings have changed, the architecture is different and his home is abandoned. His wife is gone, as are most of the people he knew during his life. However, there are still some elements throughout the story that remain the same, such as the elderly couple Rip meets. What does this say about tradition and revolution? Does it devalue revolution?


    This list of important quotations from “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Rip Van Winkle” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “Rip VanWinkle” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Washington Irving they are referring to.

    “When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but some times, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapours about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory." (449)

    “On nearer approach, he was still more surprised at the singularity of the stranger’s appearance. He was a short square built old fellow, with thick bushy hair, and a grizzled beard. His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion—a cloth jerkin strapped round the waist—several pairs of breeches, the outer one of ample volume, decorated with rows of buttons down the sides and bunches at the knees." (453)

    “Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm and the clamour of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods." (452)

    “Certain it is, that he was a great favourite among all the good wives of the village, who, as usual with the amiable sex, took his part in all family squabbles, and never failed, whenever they talked those matters over in their evening gossippings, to lay all the blame on Dame Van Winkle." (450)

    “Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, which ever can be got with the least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound." (451)

    “If left to himself, he would have whistled life away, in perfect contentment, but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family." (451)

    “He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the little village inn—but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some fo them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle." (456)

    “Rip looked and beheld a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain; apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man." (457)

    “Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can do nothing with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench at the inn door and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times ‘before the war’." (459)

    Source: Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 6 ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2003

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