Broken Continuity in Rip Van Winkle

From the very beginning, the story flows lazily. It makes the reader feel how Rip Van Winkle’s life is dragging, slowly and monotonously. Rip lives in a protracted, lingering routine. For him, days go by in a continuous sequence, and every day seems exactly the same as the previous one. This is how the author depicts continuity. The routine flow of life is shown through words which, per se, embody and express continuity, for example, “continually dinning”, “gradually advancing”, “for hours together”, “continually falling to pieces”, “a habit”, “ever-during and all-besetting”, “a long while”, “perpetual club”, “long lazy summer’s day”, “endless sleepy stories about nothing”, and “years rolled on”  (Irving, 1998). The image of nature, where nothing seems to alter in rocks and rivers, and seasons change gradually and predictably, contributes to the overall effect of life solidified in an atmosphere of no change. As long as the reader proceeds with the text, it looks like this routine will never end and nothing new will happen. At least, nothing suggests a change. It is an ordinary and boring setting into which an ordinary character has been put. The reader might search for the moral or gist of the story just like Rip might wonder about his purposeless, apathetic life. The reading, as well as life from the perspective of Van Winkle, seems to lack sense. This flow of days, as shown in the story, literally lulls the reader’s vigilance. When a change happens, it is so unexpected in contrast to the previously shown monotonous continuity that it strikes the reader with the exact force as it affects poor Van Winkle. A break of continuity occurs. This exact moment and the reality that follows this moment are of great interest to the reader, as well as to this explication analysis.

The broken continuity that is shown is a form of the paradoxical disappearance of twenty years from the protagonist’s life. It looks like his memory was switched off for all these decades, whereas his body kept the count of years. The natural and gradual changes, which otherwise go unnoticed, seem an instantaneous mutation to Rip. However, all the magnitude and details of this event are not shown explicitly or all at once. The reader muses about the available facts, which seem to make little sense and sound incredible. The reader knows and notices as much as Rip does, as if looking at the metamorphosed reality with this character’s eyes. Proof of the broken continuity comes gradually, through minor details. In contrast to usual and seemingly unchanging surroundings, to which Rip, as well as the reader, got used, even minor changes appear to be significant and foreshadow even more unsettling discoveries and revelations. Rip seems to wake up on the same green knoll where he fell asleep the day before, but, in fact, he gets up on a “different” green knoll. As it will be clear later, the knoll, although seeming just the same to an unobservant human eye, is covered with the grass that changed two dozen times during the twenty years which were flowing by. Although the knoll looks the same to Rip, other things seem strangely different. When Rip tries to locate his rifle, “in place of the clean, well-oiled fowling piece”, he finds “an old firelock… the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten” (Irving, 1998, p. 942). All these details suggest that a considerable amount of time has passed so that the weather and nature have worked their destructive magic..


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The rifle becomes the first marker of the broken continuity. The second marker is the absence of Rip’s dog. Its disappearance seems odd because the dog is a loyal friend that would never leave his master. Although Rip blames strange people for these two inconsistencies, the reader already suspects something more profound has happened. The rheumatism Rip has got through one night also seems a sign that a considerable amount of time has passed. This is the third marker of the broken continuity. Afterwards, the reader finds the fourth marker in the change of scenery. The next marker is the village. The village has transformed from a small one into a large settlement, which cannot normally occur overnight. Rip does not recognize people, their fashion and language. The flag and utterances in English, which mean little to Rip, mean much to the reader. These elements make the reader conclude the time shift has indeed happened. Interestingly, it is the reader’s knowledge of history – in particular, the concise vision of continuity of events which this knowledge gives – that allows the person to guess what has happened, to link the phenomena and close the gap. At this point, the reader begins to pity Rip for whom this mystery still remains unsolved, and the history of twenty years is compressed to an overnight change. The next marker is Rip’s beard, which has grown a foot long. Now, the enlightened reader continues to observe the protagonist who tries desperately to find at least anything routine, unchanged, and familiar. Suddenly, routine stops being something bad and starts being an anchor that holds the man and attaches him to the past. One by one, other proofs of broken timeline follow. Rip enters a decayed, empty house which looks a hundred years old and beaten, just like Rip himself. The final marker within the framework of this analysis is Wolfe, Rip’s dog, which is now a half-starved, half-wild creature that does not recognize or remember its master. ‘“This was an unkind cut indeed—‘My very dog,’ sighed poor Rip, ‘has forgotten me!”’ (Irving, 1998, p. 944). This final loss becomes a paramount of Rip’s tragedy.

Rip Van Winkle and the reader share this traumatic and confusing experience and try to make sense of something that a human brain does not have a record or at least a logical explanation. Rip nearly loses himself in this paradox of the broken continuity and so does the reader. Before the break of continuity, the protagonist is a dull object of observation for the nonchalant reader. In contrast, after something extraordinary happens to the surroundings, the reader becomes Rip’s ally in a mental quest for answers and explanations. The broken continuity is a force which makes the reader abruptly change his or her attitude towards the character and the story. From then on, the story starts to be amazing, intriguing, meaningful, and even terrifying.

After having discussed what the author does and how he does it, it is a time to marvel at the reason. Perhaps, it is done to make the reader change one’s perspective on and attitude towards what may seem a routine, but, in fact, is the continuous and gradual advancement of an individual through life. It looks like routine because the change is gradual. People do not see the change – of years, landscape, people, and history – and erroneously believe nothing happens in their lives. People tend not to see the change around them and in themselves because they are integral parts of this change. When ripped out of the flow, an individual may develop a more holistic and objective perspective, although he or she becomes detached of life. One could see the power of change and the treasure of continuity and realize it only if being in Rip’s skin. Although, the latter is a torture one might not wish even for his/her enemy. The story makes the reader reassess the attitude towards life and learn to appreciate the moment. Moments follow one another to constitute the continuity of life, and, when something deprives someone of a significant part of this continuity, the lost moment become priceless, and a person becomes broken. The broken continuity breaks one’s personality and one’s life. At least, this seems to be a lesson learnt from Rip Van Winkle’s sad experience. Time travels no longer seem so appealing. In this regard, one cannot but refer to one of Wells’ literary works. Definitely, Rip’s experience was by far worse than the time lapse the Time Traveler experienced in Wells’ Time Machine (Wells, 2008). There, time sped up, but life flow was still gradual so that the character observed the continuity of time and events. In contrast, Rip fell off this continuity with no chance of either coming back or at least seeing the evolution of change. Twenty years just escaped his life and understanding and created a breach. Rip nearly lost his sanity to this breach.

In conclusion, one may say that the break of continuity plays the role of a force which “folds” the timeline and allows Van Winkle to step from the present days to his future in one day. This makes a contrast between routine and change more stark and striking. Having being struck by the story, the reader develops a new idea of the continuity of life. It is impossible to state anything about the author’s intentions or his message to the reader, but a complex of external and internal means of literary expression leave no other option for a reader except to realize that “routine” is nothing but continuity which makes life gradual, holistic, and unbroken. The broken continuity, on the other hand, means broken personality and broken life.

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