The story of Rip Van Winkle first appeared in Washington Irving’s collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819. One of Irving’s most famous characters, he was a lazy but loveable resident of a small town in the Catskills of New York who disappears for 20 years after falling asleep underneath a tree. The circumstances of his sleep are initiated after he meets a group of men in strange dress who are supposedly ghosts.
Rip Van Winkle’s wife, Dame Van Winkle, is possibly the only resident of the small Dutch settlement in the Catskills that does not like Rip. A gregarious wanderer, he spends most of his time taking care of everyone’s business and dealings but his own, and as a result, his own property has fallen into disrepair. Dame Van Winkle is often very caustic toward her husband, and consequently he seeks refuge in long walks through the woods with his dog, Wolf, and his gun slung on his shoulder.
On one such excursion, Rip Van Winkle encounters a man struggling up the hillside with a keg on his back. Though nervous to do so, Rip goes to help the man with his load and eventually finds himself in the company of more strange men dressed in antiquated Dutch dress. These men, unbeknownst to Rip, are the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s men. As they play a game of ninepins and proceed to drink from the keg, Rip Van Winkle sneaks a taste of their drink and proceeds to get drunk off it. He then wanders to a tree where he falls asleep.
Upon waking, Rip Van Winkle makes his way back to town expecting a thrashing from Dame Van Winkle. He carries his rifle — now rusted from age — down the hill and realizes his dog has run off. But hunger compels him to continue on home; when he reaches the village, he begins to realize the town has undergone several immense changes and the people of the village are dressed strangely. Many of the villagers pass him scratching their chins, which prompts Rip to do the same. This is when he discovers his beard has grown to 1 foot (0.3 m) long and something about him has changed.
Eventually someone asks Rip Van Winkle who he is, and he replies that he is a loyal subject of King George III, which is met with outrage since the country has, during his 20-year sleep, undergone a revolution. Eventually someone vouches for his identity and he is taken in by his now-grown daughter, and despite the plethora of changes — including, to Rip’s pleasure, the death of his vitriolic wife — he grows comfortable with his new routine and becomes one of the village elders. He is befriended by the younger generation in the village; in addition, he becomes the envy of henpecked husbands who wish they could escape their wives the way he did.