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Balance of Nature in Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle

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Nature has been a prominent theme of American literature since the founding of America. When Washington Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle,” one of the oldest classics of American literature, he focused notably on nature throughout the telling of the story. Through figurative language and symbolism, Irving uses the differences in Rip Van Winkle, the village, and nature to emphasize the importance of balance. Nature is used to represent balance of change and tradition, Rip represents the extreme side of tradition, and the village represents change. Irving emphasizes these differences to highlight significant issues of the time and show that while progress is good and beneficial to society, it is important to have a balance of change and tradition while not holding stubbornly onto tradition without reason.

Personification is used to bring life to the Kaatskill mountains and emphasize how nature is balanced between change and tradition. Irving describes them as being of a “noble height” and “lording it over the surrounding country” (Irving 427). The mountains are also described as being “clothed in blue and purple” (Irving 427). This adds imagery to the mountains and makes them seem almost alive. It helps relate the mountains to Rip and people in general. Irving not only uses personification to describe the mountains, but also other aspects of nature. There is mention of “a lagging bark here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom” (Irving 431), as well as mention of a “muttering of one of those transient thunder showers…” (Irving 432). Again, these make the mountains seem to have a life of their own. It sets the mood for the rest of the story and shows to the reader how important the mountains, and nature, are in general. It also shows how Rip and the mountains are connected, as they both have human characteristics. By comparing the two at the beginning through personification, readers can make comparisons of the mountains and Rip later in the story.

Nature is used to teach Rip the balance of change and tradition through two views of nature used in the Romantic Period. Irving uses both views in “Rip Van Winkle.” The first view is that nature is “a frightening landscape of the unpredictable and uncontrollable” (Rosen 1). The second view is that nature “is redemptive and didactic…” (Rosen 1). Irving portrays the landscape as uncontrollable; no one can change the wilderness unless it decides to change on its own. It maintains balance on its own without help from people. The uncontrollable aspect of nature shows how balance must come from within; it cannot be forced. Irving also uses the second view of nature, using it to teach readers the importance of both change and keeping tradition. Rip can see how nature changes when he awakens, as gun becomes “an old firelock…the barrel incrusted with rust…” (Irving 434). Rip’s own tools are changed by nature, but nature doesn’t always change. When he goes home, Rip sees how the mountains and rivers are almost exactly the same (Irving 435). Nature is used to teach Rip the balance of change and tradition while still remaining independent of men as a whole.

[bookmark: _Hlk4520574]Nature has the ability to change and progress, but still remains largely the same, creating a balance of change and stasis. There are minor changes in the mountains, and Howard Fraser says that “a new stream…fills the once peaceful glen where Rip awakes from sleep” (Fraser 153). This is a part of nature that had changed over taken twenty years and was significantly different when Rip woke up. However, although there are small changes, the big picture proves that there has not been much change over twenty years, as seen when Rip remarks that “…every hill and hale [was] precisely as it had always been…” (Irving 435). When looking at the valley below and seeing the same mountains, the same river, and the same hills, the wilderness that Rip had known before he fell asleep was essentially the same wilderness that he was seeing now. This balancing of change and tradition in nature shows the difference of how Rip is completely unchanging throughout the story. He, like the mountains and river, was almost exactly the same as he was before he fell asleep, although there were some minor physical changes. Nature is able to adapt to progress, while Rip cannot. This lack of ability to change warns readers to allow progress to take place, or they will never be able to move on from the past and grow as individuals and a society.

The personification of the wilderness emphasizes the differences in Rip Van Winkle. Howard M. Fraser argues that, “Rip mirrors the attitudes and pace of …his seventeenth-century world” (152-153). (does this quote/idea work?) I would disagree with this statement because before Rip fell asleep for twenty years, he lived in a very slow-paced world. After Rip falls asleep, he continues to live in a slow-paced world even though the town now lives in a much faster-paced society. Rip remains the same, not participating in any fast-paced activities. Although nature largely does not change, as the mountains, the river, and nature as a whole were “precisely as [they] had always been…” (Irving 435), there are small changes of the wilderness after Rip’s years of sleeping, such as a new mountain stream (Irving 434). Rip, however, did not change during those twenty years that he was asleep. Nature, especially when viewed as a big picture, does not change, or, if it does change, those changes take hundreds of years to be noticeable. Rip emphasizes the differences in himself and nature, as he does not make any changes to himself while nature does. Being twenty years older made no difference to his personality and what he wanted to do in life. Rip stubbornly holds onto the past and what he used to do, which highlights how many people do that in their own lives. It is meant to be a message to not be afraid of change and have the ability to move on and progress.

Nature has an active, positive influence, which sharply contrasts with Rip Van Winkle. The article entitled “Gnostic Vision of History” states that “…the setting does suggest that Nature may, if properly attended to by man, exert a benevolent influence over human affairs” (Daigrepont 51). Nature benefited Rip in that he could seek solace from his wife and from the community in general in the mountains. Nature changed so slowly it seemed as though it never changed, which made Rip feel comfortable. He did not have to change his ways, while those in the village, especially his wife, nagged him to. However, Daigrepont also points out that “…the author repeatedly describes Nature as a discipline which improves the character and existence of those who accept it as such, encouraging their generosity and democratic sentiments…” (51). This is a clear difference to Rip. The time he spends in nature does not improve his character in any way, both the short times when he would go with his dog and the twenty years he spent sleeping in the woods. Rip remains the carefree, easy-going guy who just wanted to skate by on life with as little work as possible. This comparison again emphasizes the difference between nature’s ability to balance both change and stasis with Rip’s inability to adapt to change.

The unchanging aspects of the wilderness reflect how Rip himself is unchanging, and yet the ability of nature to change and grow highlights their differences. In an article entitled “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle,” Philip Young states, “It is clear now that Rip escaped no change of life, but his very manhood-went from childhood to second childhood with next to nothing in between” (570). This states that although Rip had the physical body of an old man, he was essentially still the child from before his sleep. Rip didn’t just not change during the twenty years of sleep, but had remained unchanging throughout his teenage, young adult, and adult life. He never grew beyond a childish personality and manners. This unwillingness to change is very similar to nature; it takes a lot of time to change, and it will only change when that is the easiest route with the least resistance. However, there is a difference, as nature will eventually make allowances over time, as seen by the new stream twenty years after Rip falls asleep (Irving 434). Young continues on to say that Rip has evaded “all the obligations of maturity: occupation, domestic and financial responsibility, a political position, duty to society in a time of war” (Young 570). Rip’s refusal to grow up not only affects him, but the people around him. By refusing domestic and financial responsibility, Rip forces his wife to take on all of the work and the concerns that come with it. His lack of change results in more work and stress for his wife. This also forces the people of his community to take on more obligation to governmental politics. In such a time of change, older people can provide wisdom and experience that younger people do not have. Because Rip did not change, however, he is unable to contribute even if he did have the desire to do so. Without the ability to change, Rip can provide no service to those around him, and is a burden on them as a result. He has no purpose in his life, and this lack of purpose will result in stunted and stagnated individuals and community.

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Through metaphors and personification, the Kaatskill mountains are described with a sense of magic and mystery to create fear in order to drive people away from nature. Irving initially describes the mountains and “fairy mountains” (427), and then continues to describe with phrases such as: “deep mountain glen,” “wild, lonely and shagged,” “fragments from the impending cliffs,” and “throw their long blue shadows over the valleys” (431). These phrases are used in order to explain why people don’t typically go near the mountains literally and why people are not as balanced as nature is figuratively. Magic is something that people don’t understand, and what they don’t understand scares them. Since people are afraid of nature, they stay away from it, literally and figuratively. Because nature is a balanced force—not changing very often, but enough to adapt to time and the natural changes that occur—people have gone to the extreme end and change rapidly without giving any thought to what they are leaving behind. It causes people to not be as balanced as they should be. Helen Lee states that “…Irving’s adroit manipulation of language… evoke[s] the atmosphere of magic” (193). By using every sentence, word, and punctuation to convey magic, Irving shows how magic creates fear of nature in the village people, resulting in a rapid progression of their town and a complete ignorance of keeping tradition alive. Magic, and nature as a result, becomes too difficult to understand, so they completely ignore it in favor of rapid change.

There is a clear distinction between the unchanging Rip and the change of civilization. Eventually “…Rip returned home, only to discover that the world he had left no longer existed; his family, his town, and even his state had been profoundly changed …” (Wells 6). It can be shocking and take an adjustment period from such a drastic difference from twenty years before. However, although this was a drastic change for Rip, change isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, change typically symbolizes progress. Daniel L. Plung argues that “Irving also used the idea of a balance of industry and nature to signify the positive aspects of progress” (75) Change progresses civilization towards the future. Without that change, society cannot become better than it once was. This is also true for Rip. He cannot become better than he was before. He stays stagnant and unmoving, forever making the same mistakes instead of learning from them and moving on. (Relate to thesis) Berroukeche argues that “…fundamental changes are sometimes needed to move society forward; yet, such changes must not eliminate old ways and traditions” (33). There seems to be no balance between the two in Rip’s old village. When he comes back from the mountains, almost everything was different, such as a new sign of George Washington instead of King George (Irving 436) and “important concerns of the election” (Irving 440). The town is forging forward with new ways and changes to their community, while Rip wants things to remain completely as they were. The two have extremes of change versus tradition, when it should instead be a compromise. This is a balance between progressing, which civilization demands, but remaining aware of the past that Rip prefers. However, the villagers in “Rip Van Winkle” typically choose to rapidly progress and forget their past while Rip remains as he was and doesn’t progress towards the future. The citizens of Rip’s town choose to progress and move forward without remembering the past, shown when they forget who Rip was (Irving 438-439), while Rip chooses to stay in the past and never change from who he was. The two extremes show how a balance is necessary and nature is the only force in the short story that is able to do both. By imitating nature, humans and society can progress towards a bright future while still remembering past traditions.

Rip can be compared not only to the wilderness, but to the other people in the story. Mengeling argues that Washington Irving characterizes Rip Van Winkle by “showing Rip in his various relationships to the landscape and to the other people in the story” (643). A comparison between Rip and the landscape shows how Rip refuses to change even when his surroundings demand it. There are small minor changes that nature adapts to over time, such as “a mountain stream now foaming down [the gully] …” (Irving 434). Rip, on the other hand, doesn’t ever change his ways. He still wastes time and doesn’t work or contribute to society in any way. However, when compared with the people of his village, Rip can be viewed as honoring tradition instead of abandoning the past in favor of new changes. The people in Rip’s village look forward to progression and abandon anything that doesn’t adapt to those changes, represented with Rip’s old house that had “gone to decay—the roof fallen in, the windows shattered and the doors off the hinges” (Irving 435). Rip and his village show the two extremes of either refusing to adapt to change or embracing change and abandoning the past. Nature shows how to maintain both. Comparing Rip to his village emphasizes the extreme ends of the spectrum, and nature demonstrates how balance of change and tradition can be maintained and why it should be. It allows for a more well-meaning life.

There are some positive sides to Rip’s refusal to change, as he shows that life continues to go on as it had before. When Rip comes back from the mountains, he “resumed his old walks and habits; he soon found many of his former cronies” (Irving 440). People need reassurance that the old ways are not completely gone. Stability reassures them that they will not be completely forgotten when they pass on into the next life. To many of the villagers, Rip represents how life continues to go on no matter what big, important events occur. Although the Revolutionary War had occurred, Rip was not influenced or affected by this. It shows to people that it is still possible to go on with life as normal, even if there are some big events; there will always be normalcy. Rip’s ability to show that life continues on is evident in his posterity. His son is almost exactly like him, both in looks (Irving 438) and personality (Irving 440). Even though Rip Van Winkle was not there with the village for twenty years, his son was. The family name was carried on by his grandson as well. This child’s name is also Rip (Irving 438), showing that even if Rip had never returned from the mountains, his legacy would have lived on. He would have been remembered, if only by name rather than deeds. Holding on to the past has some positive aspects to it when not done in the extreme, which is why it is important to be balanced when honoring tradition and still progressing towards change. (10)Although the town prefers a rapid change of pace, readers can see that the village wants to include things from their past, but the villagers don’t know how. Once Rip returns from the mountains, the people listen to his stories and view him as “a chronicle of the old times ‘before the war’” (440). The townspeople had forgotten the way that they used to live. Even though it was only twenty years ago, the town had undergone immense change because of the Revolutionary War. The town changed in size and the people changed politically. Their extreme interest in politics is very different from what it had been years ago, so they appreciate Rip’s ability to help them remember and learn of the past. Remembering the past is important because it is the only way people can learn from their mistakes and honor those who came before him. Rip remains exactly the same, as he would often sit at the inn and tell “endless sleepy stories about nothing” (430) twenty years ago as well as after he wakes up. By remaining exactly the same, Rip is able to keep the past alive through his actions and the stories that he tells. Without Rip, the townspeople would move on from the old ways and only look to the future. If the past was forgotten, people would not be able to progress to their fullest capabilities. Remembering the past and honoring tradition helps people progress towards future. However, it is possible to honor tradition too much and never change at all, as Rip shows, and this stresses the importance of balance of both change and stasis, as demonstrated through nature.

Rip Van Winkle did have the option to change his ways, but he made a decision to exercise his free will and remain exactly as he had been years ago. Eric Russell says that “…nature’s materiality—its very physical forces, conditions, and contingency—is something that…authors acknowledge as a source of human agency.” (11). Rip Van Winkle could have chosen to change and be different from what he once was, but he saw no need to change the course he was on. It was the path of least resistance, and it had served him well thus far. He exercised his free will to be exactly as he was. This was a deliberate decision, but it was done almost without thinking, Rip goes back to doing the same things that he had done twenty years prior (440), making the choice to remain exactly as he was. Without changing, he continues to be the same immature man that he was before he fell asleep on the Kaatskill mountains. His unwillingness to grow as a person stunted any change of personal progression, and is a representation and reminder to others to not let inflexibility slow our chance to become better. It may be important to remember tradition, but it is also important to progress in order to become better person.

Rip so fully represents stasis that he passes his unwillingness to change on to his own child. Rip’s son, also named Rip, takes on the tradition of being lazy and idle just like his father. Just as Rip would “attend to anybody’s business but his own…” (Irving 429), so too would Rip’s son “attend to anything else but his business” (Irving 440). This is a learned trait. Rip had acted lazy his entire life, and his son learned that from a young age. Even at a young age, the younger Rip was described as “an urchin begotten in [Rip’s] own likeness…” (Irving 429), and it was predicted that he would “inherit the habits with the old clothes of his father” (Irving 429). Rip’s son learned how to be lazy from his father. If his father had learned how to work hard and take on responsibility, his son would have done the same. However, Rip found it easier to do the easy thing and continue to do exactly what he had been doing for years—nothing. Young Rip carries on the traditions of his father, and it shows just how unwilling to change both of them are. Irving, however, claims that this laziness and unwilling to work is a “hereditary disposition” (Irving 440). If Rip’s laziness and stubbornness to change is hereditary, then he cannot be blamed for his actions. This falls in line with Rip’s personality, as he would prefer not to take any blame or responsibility, even the responsibility of passing his laziness and inability to change on to his son. However, this is a learned action. Rip may have been more predisposed to laziness and an unwillingness to work and change his ways, but he could have changed his ways if he desired to. Although his son may have acted the same way as his father, it was learned behavior. Rip had another child, a daughter named Judith, who worked hard. She had married a nice famer, had a nice home, and contributed to her family and the community (Irving 440). This shows that it was a conscious choice that Rip and his son made. If it was hereditary, Judith would have been lazy like her father. However, since she learned from her hard-working mother, she was able to work hard as an adult. Rip’s inability to change was so strong that his son grew up to be the same way, which shows just how strong and dangerous this can be. An inability to change can affect not only oneself, but those around that individual. People should be able to progress and grow while still honoring tradition, but Rip represents the extreme aspect of refusing to change to the point that those around him are unable to do so as well.

Conclusion: A stubbornness and refusal to change can be detrimental to the individual as well as the community. However, nature shows us how there can be a balance between not changing too much too quickly but still adapting to the change of time. Wilderness is used to contrast Rip’s inability to change at all, as well as showing that it is possible to change too quickly and abandon tradition along the way. Washington Irving’s use of figurative language emphasizes how wilderness doesn’t change quickly, and the changes it does make are minor. What is the so what of my paper?

Works Cited

  1. Berroukeche, Fatima Zahra. “Symbolism in Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving.” PDF, 2016,
  2. Daigrepont, Lloyd M. (1985). ““Rip Van Winkle” and the Gnostic Vision of History.” Clio, 15(1), 47. Retrieved from
  3. Fraser, Howard M. “Change Is the Unchanging: Washington Irving and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera.” Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, vol. 1, no. 3, 1973, pp. 151–159. JSTOR,
  4. Lee, Helen. “Clue Patterns in ‘Rip Van Winkle.’” The English Journal, vol. 55, no. 2, 1966, pp. 192–200. JSTOR,
  5. Mengeling, Marvin E. “Characterization in ‘Rip Van Winkle.’” The English Journal, vol. 53, no. 9, 1964, pp. 643–646. JSTOR,
  6. Plung, Daniel L. “‘Rip Van Winkle’: Metempsychosis and the Quest for Self-Reliance.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 31, no. 2, 1977, pp. 65–80. JSTOR,
  7. Rosen, Elizabeth. (2000). Natural Causes: American Gothic Literature and the Doctrine of Natural Law (Order No. 9959219). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304589553). Retrieved from
  8. Russell, Eric. “Nature, Materiality, and Human Agency in the Literature of the Great Lakes, 1790-1853.” Dec. 2016, doi:10.32469/10355/59779.
  9. Wells, Robert V. (1990). While Rip Napped: Social Change in Late Eighteenth-Century New York. New York History, 71(1), 5. Retrieved from
  10. Young, Philip. “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 22, no. 4, 1960, pp. 547–573. JSTOR,

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