Rip Van Winkle was written at a time when rapid industrialization was devastating natural world and men were becoming more occupied with work, they hardly had any leisure time for idle chat and appreciation of nature. American Revolution and Industrialization had rapidly changed the scenario of the city as well as simple village life. The author Washington Irving felt deep nostalgia for the past, he did not approve of how things were changing under European influence. His short story Rip Van Winkle depicts these feelings of the author. The theme of nostalgia and change run side by side throughout the story. The story of Rip Van Winkle is a craving for the past that is simple and with fewer troubles than the contemporary time. The resemblance of the plot of the story with the legend of people of the cave in the bible and Quran is uncanny, it can be said that Irving derived the theme of his story from biblical stories. The story revolves around a man who symbolizes the life of earlier times, which was slow-paced and easy. The man escapes his duties and flees to the mountains, only to be put into a deep slumber, when he wakes up, he finds out, he has slept for twenty years and everything has changed.
The image of the village presented in the story alludes to the simpler pre-industrial and pre-revolution times when vast green fields reigned, words like “magical hues, Fairy Mountains and fresh green” used in the story evoke an image of a bewitching landscape. The author feels nostalgia for the past glory of nature. The story is set in the time of American Revolution, things were changing around the protagonist but the protagonist was impervious to change, he relished in the simple pleasures of life like helping others, going for long walks and idle chat. As other people in the village busied themselves with profitable labor, Rip fled from all kinds of “profitable labor”. There is a strong sense of nostalgia and detestation for change in the way the author has depicted the composition and habits of Rip Van Winkle. The author says “he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod, and fish all day without a murmur. He would carry a fowling-piece on his shoulder for hours together, trudging through woods and swamps, and uphill and down dale, to shoot a few squirrels or wild pigeons.” This mirrors the simpler times when people had leisure time to focus on themselves and explore their true identities, now as people have busied themselves with work and materialism, they lost touch with nature, the people around Rip like his wife and other villagers who are always concerned about work symbolize changes that modernity and industrialization brought about whereas the laziness of Rip symbolizes nostalgia for the past life.
The author conveys that past is what gives a nation, history, and identification so it is necessary for people to hold on to their past, this attachment to past is depicted in the way Rip’s son Rip II “promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes, of his father”. The author through the character of Rip details his own nostalgia for days gone by. The real clash between change and nostalgia comes into play when Rip wakes up twenty years later only to meet “a number of people, but none whom he knew, which somewhat surprised him, for he had thought himself acquainted with everyone in the country round. Their dress, too, was of a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed”. Rip Van Winkle finds that everything has changed his village was “disputatious”, “busy” and “bustling” instead of being doused in “drowsy tranquility”, his simplistic village life was no more there, changes in the aftermath of American Revolution and Industrialization have overtaken the simple life of the village. As the story progresses we see that how Rip finds it hard to fit into this new environment, he feels nostalgic for his past, carefree life, there is a sense of alienation that Rip feels and he years to return to his old life, as the author says “Rip’s heart died away, at the hearing of these sad changes in his home and friends, and finding himself thus alone in the world”. The fairytale ending of the story can be perceived as the epitome of nostalgia, although change is inevitable and every civilization must change to fit the contemporary times, humans have a tendency to attach themselves to the past because it provides them a sense of identity and keeps them grounded. Rip van Winkle becomes the connection between pre-revolution times and post-revolution time for the people of the village, who would gather to listen to stories from Rip to reconnect with past which is unknown to them, the stories of Rip attract the people of the village for two reasons, one, his stories serve as a connection to nostalgic past and the other, that Rip was a comforting example that life goes on amidst the changes. Another point that should be noticed is that how Rip’s son and grandson look exactly like him and have adopted the traits of his composition, as the author says “Rip’s son and heir, who was the ditto of himself, was employed to work on the farm; but showed a hereditary disposition to attend to anything else but his business” author through this contends that Past in the form of Rip will always live on in the future, this line also reflects that the author wants his readers to believe that a version of Rip Van Winkle will always be present in Catskills despite the rapidly changing landscape of America, this is an important element of Romanticism where the past is viewed with nostalgia and the changes due to rapid industrialization and advancement of technology is viewed with apprehension and suspicion. “The theme of nostalgia, loss, and change in Rip Van Winkle can be connected and correlated to the theme of nostalgia prevalent in James Fennimore Cooper’s novel “The last of the Mohicans”, in this novel as the European colonist encroach on America, they destroy and massacre the native Americans, this novel evokes a sense of nostalgia over the loss of an entire race to European invasion.
Irving has portrayed his own nostalgia and yearning for simpler times when people would bask in the glory of nature without worrying about time through the character of Rip Van Winkle. The author clearly detests the idea that a nation should forget its history and roots in order to fit into a new world, he asserts through Rip that although change is inevitable, clinging to history is imperative to substantiate the identity of a nation, without bringing past into present nations would forget about their identities