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Generosity in Rip Van Winkle

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

When most people think of "Rip Van Winkle," the famous short story by Washington Irving they think of a drunk who sleeps for 20 years. Surprisingly, among supernatural and humorous moments the main idea of the short story appears to be that one ought to contribute to the greater good.

At the beginning of the story Rip Van Winkle avoids his poisonous wife and barren farm in favor of participating in community life. Instead of focusing on his own family and property Rip works on his neighbors’ farms, socializes with and runs errands for the village’s wives, assists neighborhood children with their sports and play, and ruffles the heads of local dogs. As if he were part of Action Heroic Rip also attends "a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle personages of the village” that meets in front of the village inn.

The theme of contributing greater good and neighborliness continues when Rip escapes from his wife to the woods of the Kaatskill mountains nearby. Out of generosity Rip jumps to help carry a heavy keg of liquor up a mountain (no small feat!) then constantly serves liquor to a magical party of men who are bowling 9 pin (quite the reward for hauling a keg up a mountain!).

The party turns out to be made up of ghosts of the legendary Henry Hudson and his loyal crew who are the epitome contributing to the greater good. While there may be glory and other self-serving reasons to be an explorer in Hudson's case he and his loyal crew members risked and lost their lives in their search for trading routes and for land to settle, both for the greater benefit of Europe. Without their exploration we might not have discovered Hudson Bay in Canada or the Hudson River in New York. No ghosts would be more fitting for Rip to encounter than Hudson and his crews’ since their world view agrees with Rip’s. Hudson and his crew, of course, are far more accomplished!

Rip’s devotion to the greater good falters during his 20 year sleep, which was magically induced after he drinks the ghosts’ liquor. Rip accidentally sleeps through the American Revolution, which would have been an urgent opportunity to act for the greater good. Two of his other friends from the inn fought in the Revolution: Brom Dutcher died in battle and Van Bummel went from commanding as a general to leading as a congressman. The message from the village is clear: where Dutcher and Van Bummel had succeeded in protecting and building American society, Rip should be ashamed that he skipped the greater part of his life and missed such an important opportunity to give back.

But Rip’s failure isn’t to be taken too seriously because his sleep turns out to be mainly the stuff of a joke: he found a way to escape his wife! While enlisting in the Revolution and helping to establish a new, democratic society certainly would have gotten him out of the house, Rip’s magical sleep turns out to have been a sure-fire way to topple “petticoat government,” his wife. With his wife gone (a touch morbid though she died in a silly way when “she broke a blood-vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler”) Rip can live out his remaining days doing what he loves most without worry: engaging with the community by lounging in front of the village inn and recounting his tall tale.

Make like Rip Van Winkle and try a virtue program in Generosity today!


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