Favorite Fictional Characters, #296: Rip Van Winkle
I love Rip Van Winkle. Here's a dude who didn't really have any interest in working for a living, interested mainly in loafing around his colonial upstate New York village, telling stories, and playing with the neighborhood kids. He's a popular guy, although his wife's a real treat, busting his chops all the time about chores around the house and being a shiftless, no-good layabout. To get away from the henpecking, he wanders up into the Catskills and winds up hitting the liquor barrel with some fellows (ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew if the legends can be believed). Well-stewed, he falls asleep. For a long time. You all know the story - it's many years later, his wife is dead, his friends are dead, there's been a revolution and King George has been replaced by the original George W. The changes throw him for a loop, but eventually he hooks up with his grown children and actually becomes what he always wanted - an idle soul spinning yarns for his friends.
Washington Irving's tale (written while he still lived in England in 1819 and before he ever saw New York or the Catskills) has plenty of folk antecedents, from German fairy tales to Hebrew Talmudic lore to Chinese literary tradition. Part of the universal resonance of Rip's narrative is that we're all astonished by the changes we've seen in our own lives, and at times we all wake up feeling as though twenty became forty in a heartbeat. There's also an insistent, quiet voice inside us that wouldn't mind napping through these rugged mid-life years, when the work never stops and the children are demanding and our marriages are more business arrangements than romantic love affairs. It might be nice to wake up having skipped all that, with the permission to be who we wanted to be before life's own inexorable inertia seized us all.