Understanding Story, Plot and Narrative

Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” is the quintessential American short story.  It is compact, has an impact, and a beginning, middle and end that you can read in one setting.  More importantly it has humor.  The story is full of meaningful descriptions and imagery.  “Rip Van Winkle” is simply enjoyable and fun to read.  Like other short stories, it is influenced by historical features of the time when it was written.  And, the story has a message.  It is no coincidence that “Rip Van Winkle” is the archetypal American short story.  It was published in 1819 by Washington Irving who created and helped define the characteristics of the American short story.  This short story, because it is such a classic model, is a wonderful vehicle for literary analysis.  In this post I will use “Rip Van Winkle” to illustrate a few literary terms.  These terms are story, narrative, plot and fable.

Story, plot and narrative are related topics that should be discussed together to fully understand the differences.  According to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, story is the series of events that make up any work.  Plot refers to how a work is structured.  A narrative is the details and descriptions of events, places and characters. The three make up the substance of a literary work.

If story is simply the events and characters in the story, the plot is how those events are arranged to create the effect that the writer is going for and narrative is the details that engage the reader and support the build up to a climactic event.  A good analogy for these three terms is planning a trip, plotting on a map all the things you want to visit, and communicating the lovely vacation to your friends back home.  Once you have that visual representation of the things you want to do and people you want to visit (story), you can plan the best route for visiting those things (plot).  When you visit your great-grandmother who has lived in Tuscany all her life she will relate the significance of each thing you saw and any events you experienced in that beautiful region (narrative). 

In relation to Irving’s tale, the story is about a man who avoids household chores, avoids his wife, helps all the other people in the village, spends long afternoons chatting at the inn, falls asleep for twenty years and spends the last years of his life without a wife, without chores and doing all that he loves best.  The events are well plotted out to give the reader a clear and sometimes humorous picture of life in early America.  Life at that time, in this country, was raw and full of potential.  Being able to redefine oneself and one’s country was a heady experience.  Irving, while defining the American short story, was giving a sense of the American experience at the beginnings of this nation for the reader.  It is through the richly detailed imagery in the narrative that the story comes to life for us.  One scene gives us a vivid picture of the characters and life way back then.  Dame Van Winkle “would suddenly break in upon the tranquility of the assemblage and call the members all to naught; nor was the august personage, Nicholas Vedder himself, sacred from the daring tongue of this terrible virago, who charged him outright with encouraging her husband in habits of idleness”. 

In even fewer words as in the “fairy mountains”, where Rip Van Winkle meets the magical beings and their powerful liquor that send him into a very long slumber, we are told many things.  All manner of fey creatures must live in the fairy mountains.  Such beings are never depicted as sharing the morals that humans live by.  They do not even experience the passing of time in the same way.  The reader knows something out of the ordinary is going to happen.  The short story takes on the qualities of fairy tale or fable right in the opening paragraphs.

The fable is a short story that provides a message about how we should live our lives.  Unlike a parable which is shorter and quite often contains religious doctrine, a fable teaches us about morality.  Parents have used fables for time out of mind to teach their children how to behave properly.  Fables ensure a shared sense of morality that facilitates groups of people living together in society.  The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” is such a story, but a somewhat complicated one.  In “Rip Van Winkle”, Irving explores the Puritan work ethic and its desire to become more divine-like through good works.  Then, he compares this to the American desire to be free, to just be, to live fully or as people say today, live large.  This short story was influenced by ideals upon which this country was founded as stated in the Declaration of Independence – the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The main character represents the American while his wife represents the puritan.  Rather than state outright which is the better way to be or live as fables often do at the end, Irving instead conveys his moral through the telling of what happens to Rip Van Winkle after he awakens from his twenty year sleep.  In the end, Rip Van Winkle has not changed at all.  However, he is happier than ever just being himself and only having to do what he has always loved best.  He doesn’t seem to regret the twenty years he spent sleeping high up in the fey mountains.

As far as fables go, it’s a great one with a good message that has come to signify the individuality and independence typical of Americans.  Be yourself.  It seems that Washington Irving had his finger on the pulse of America.  He really understood the foundations and founding of this nation.  Irving understood the spirit of the country and its people while seeing the lack of this character in our literature.  With his writing, and “Rip Van Winkle” in particular, he helped to characterize and define American Literature and especially the American short story. 

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