Erik Richey

Change and the Length of Rip’s ‘20 Year’ Sleep

Those who have read Washington Irving’s short story Rip Van Winkle may recall that the main plot element is Rip ascending to the top of a mountain and falling asleep for 20 years, missing the American Revolution and the death of most of the people he knew. Upon returning to his village, we can see through Rip’s eyes some of the changes that occurred not only in the village itself, but the behavior of the people who live there. While this is a relatively simple plot, I decided to see if the information given would be enough to find out if Rip was in fact asleep for 20 years.
To do this, I combined regular textual analysis with two special tools. The first is Voyant, which allows a more visual form of analyzing data and picking apart key words. The second is Google N-Grams, which allows one to find out how much certain words were used in texts of a certain time period. I have provided links below that will take you to each tool’s website. The Voyant links are pre-loaded with the text from before Rip fell asleep and after Rip woke up separately, while the N-Grams link shows an example of some words I used in my analysis.
Link 1: Voyant_Tools_Pre_Sleep_Text
Link 2: Voyant_Tools_Post_Sleep_Text
Link 3: Google_N-Grams_Example

Status of the Village and People (Pre-Sleep)

The village itself is described by Irving as small, old, and located at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. He also describes the mountains and the villages status in the world. Voyant’s Link tool generated the image below and all that follow in this section and the next, from it, we see what words in orange are associated with chosen key words in blue. This first image shows us that the village residents are simple, good-natured people who are adherents to the rule of King George. A sign above a village inn with the King’s face on it further supports this claim.

As for the people, Irving spends much more time describing the interactions between the inhabitants of the village. From the text, we see how Rip happily plays with the children of the village, implying that they get along well. Irving also described how the women of the village take a liking to Rip, often defending him when he gets into fights with his wife, Dame Van Winkle. The second image and the text imply that Rip and Dame do not have a good relationship. Other women in the village often blame Dame whenever she and Rip get into an argument, and we can see that Rip and Dame ‘encounter’ each other, and there is some ‘terror’ in these encounters. Using the word ‘encounter’ over ‘seeing’ or ‘meeting’ implies that Rip and Dame do not enjoy each other’s company. The text further expands on this by telling us how Dame often scolds Rip for being lazy, likely prompting the other wives to rush to Rip’s defense.

All this information seems to imply is that the people of the village keep mostly to their own village. Nothing is said beyond the opening paragraphs about any events or people outside the village. The fact that the women of the village so often come to Rips aid when he fights with Dame, and the fact that Rip has time to play with the children and go relax in the woods shows that they are living a peaceful times. While Rip does have work he should be doing, it is clearly nothing so urgent that anyone other than Dame tries to make him do it.

Status of the Village and People (Post-Sleep)

Upon awakening and returning to the village, Rip immediately notices that people are wearing clothing unfamiliar to him, and that the village is larger and more populous than before, more akin to a small town. The general atmosphere of the village is also different. Below, we can see how Irving’s words evoke a sense of mystery and apprehension. ‘Occurrences’, ‘strange’, and ‘addled’ being used with ‘neighbors’ and ‘sleep’ to paint an eerier picture. Unlike the all-is-well peaceful tone before, the village now has seems to have an air of something-could-happen-anytime. The text then follows Rip to the inn, which shows signs of extensive damage and repair. Irving notes that the sign above the inn has also changed, before showing King George, now showing George Washington.

The encounter with the people of the village shows some of the greatest amount of change. Upon declaring himself a loyal subject of the King, the townsfolk immediately turn on Rip, appearing ready to run him out of town if not lock him in prison. This reaction builds on the dramatic scene set by the words previously discussed. We soon learn that the townsfolk are at the inn to vote, as well as events outside the town. Most of the children Rip once played with had gone off to the army, as well as most of his old neighbors and friends. None returned to the town, and due to Dame’s passing, only one old woman was able to recognize Rip.

Above, Voyant shows how the townsfolk appear more focused on events outside their town. In fact, at no point in the second half of the story do the townsfolk show any concern in matters of their own town or each other affairs. Perhaps this is only due to the election, but it could be that the townsfolk have gained a greater perspective of the world around them due to the war.

How long was Rip asleep?

The American Revolution took place between 1775 and 1783, those dates form our main limitations in determining when Rip fell asleep and woke up. After using Voyant to help analyze the text, key words and the most used words in the text were put into Google N-Grams to determine when Rip most likely fell asleep and woke up.

This first N-Gram shows words from in the first half of the text, before Rip fell asleep. From this, we see that the year mostly likely to be when Rip fell asleep is 1767, featuring peaks in the words ‘great’, ‘like’, ‘little’, ‘long’, and ‘head’.
The second chart shows the words from the second half of the text, after Rip woke up. Here, we can see two possible times for Rip awakining, the first is about 1989-1790, due to peaks in the words ‘man’, ‘mountian’, and ‘poor’. The second possibility is 1802, with peaks in ‘great’ and ‘old’. To figure out which one of these dates is more accurate, we once again reference the text, specifically when Rip was revisiting the inn. We know that the townsfolk were there to vote, meaning that Rip woke up on an election year. As it happens, there were elections in 1788 and in 1800, which at first seems to be of little help. However, note that the text states that people asked Rip if he was a Federal or Democrat. In the 1788 election, George Washington won the presidency unanimously, and political parties had not been established yet (“George Washington”). In 1800, Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat, was running for president against John Adams, a Federalist (Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). This makes 1800 the likely choice, specifically, around October or November, when the election would have been held, meaning that Rip was asleep for approximately 33 years, much longer than what Irving stated.

Works Cited
“George Washington.” The White House, The United States Government,
“Google Ngram Viewer.” Google Books,
Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle, a Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Bartleby,
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “United States Presidential Election of 1800.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 July 2017,
Voyant Tools,
Voyant Tools,


A Matter of Time

My decision to analyze Rip Van Winkle for this project was an easy one, I had previously read the story in high school and enjoyed it. This project gave me the opportunity to answer one question I had ever since I first read this story, ‘Was Rip really asleep for 20 years?’ Irving never gave any dates or other indicators of when Rip fell asleep or woke up, save that he missed the American Revolution entirely.

Clearly, a deeper textual analysis was required. Using two online tools, Voyant and Google N-Grams, I picked apart the story in two sections, the first from before Rip fell asleep, and the second after he woke up. My goal was to look at each section individually and see what I could find to help me pinpoint a date. Voyant was key to analyzing the text itself, finding any key words, relationships between words, or frequently used words. The relevant results are in the project itself, while the rest was discarded. Keep in mind that this analysis was mostly trial and error, I picked words that seemed relevant based on what Voyant showed me and took them to N-Grams for the next step. N-Grams allows someone to search for the usage of different words in books through a span of time. For this, I set a boundary of 1750-1810 because I felt Rip would be too young prior to that and too old after. I combined frequently used words from before Rip fell asleep with other words that seemed important and generated the first N-Gram shown in the project, and then did the same thing for the second N-Gram after he woke up. With that done, all I had to do was organize my information, draw conclusions, and type it up.

However, there were two key challenges I faced at this point. The first had to do with the fact that I had never done a digital humanities project before, in fact, I have never heard of the field until this project. This made it challenging to come up with a way to organize and present my data in a way that wasn’t an essay. I brainstormed ideas and actually had two other versions of this project before deciding on something that felt right. My issue with the first was that it was basically an essay, and the second had nothing but an introduction paragraph followed by pictures with captions. I think finding the middle ground seen in the final version was exactly what I needed so I wouldn’t feel like I was just writing an essay or captioning images.

The second challenge was determining Rip’s wake up date. The data from before Rip fell asleep seemed pretty conclusive, but there were two likely dates for him waking up. At first I thought I might have to put both dates in as possibilities, but then remembered the scene with Rip at the inn. Many people were asking him if he was a Democrat or a Federalist. This told me that Rip woke up during an election year, and looking into the history of presidential elections around that time, I decided on 1800 because if he had woken up for the 1788 election, then I feel that people would just be talking about George Washington, who wasn’t part of any political party and was elected unanimously. Even still, this was a tough call because I know there could be other elections in other years, but I feel that the dates I found line up very well.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the project turned out, given it’s my first time doing anything like this. If I had more time, there are two things that I would have liked to look more into. The first is trying to find out where Rip’s village was. We are told the village is at the bottom of the Catskill Mountains, and the settlers are Dutch. Perhaps looking into the history of towns in that area could tell us where Rip lived. The second thing I would have liked to look more into is Rip’s relationship with Dame. While it is implied they didn’t get along, some of the connected words found with Voyant may imply that their relationship was quite bad. Of course, the story is only told from Rip’s perspective, so we only get his view, but looking into it could be an interesting psychological examination of Rip’s mind.