91 Rip Van Winkle: A Feminist Battle Cry

Mason Masotta; Connor Smith; and Autumn Stearns

Great. Now that I’ve gotten your attention with an exciting title, we can begin. There is no trickery here though. It cannot be denied that the almost two-hundred-year-old text from Washington Irving is one of the most pro-women pieces in early American literature. Why make this insane claim, you ask? The answer is quite simple. The women in Rip Van Winkle are the obvious heroes, whereas old Rip is merely a lazy fool who has failed his family completely with his sense of misogynistic entitlement.

To start, there is a lot said about Rip Van Winkle as a character. He is described as: “a simple good-natured fellow…a kind neighbor and an obedient hen-pecked husband” (59). This sentence alone is trying to paint a particular picture of the Van Winkle husband. His “simple” nature is celebrated often in the novel as being a pure and innocent characteristic, but is this the true intention? For although he is praised for his simple nature, he is also described as being an incredibly lazy individual. He does not even consider the idea of working on his family’s farm because he figures it’ll never grow for him anyway (60). What kind of an excuse is this supposed to be anyway? Irving is characterizing Rip as a person who does not want to work to help his family or himself, but there are characters that are seen as hard-working and anything but “simple.”

Consider again the end of the quote from earlier: “an obedient hen-pecked husband.” When we are first introduced to the titular “hero,” we are made aware of his poor relationship with his wife. She is called a “shrew” and is allegedly so mean that she makes Rip’s dog unhappy when he enters the home (61). Is it insane to see her as a positive character? Only if you are someone like Rip Van Winkle. If one is lazy or absent-minded then the wife of Rip would seem to be a negative presence, but this is where the story’s obvious satire comes into play. The narrator of the story, who seemingly admires the innocence and laziness of Rip, declares: “Rip Van Winkle, . . . was one of those happy mortals, of foolish well-oiled dispositions . . . but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin h was bringing on his family” (61). Dame Van Winkle is the only one in this story who is trying to ensure the family’s survival. Even after the infamous “deep sleep” of Rip later on, he is greeted and accepted by the townspeople even with his lazy demeanor. His wife, however, continues on without him. She is able to fulfill the role that Rip himself always seemed to run away from. Moreover, the accomplishments of Dame Van Winkle alone are not the only female highlights of the story. After Rip awakens from his twenty year sleep, he runs into his now fully grown daughter Judith.

Judith herself is strong figure in the story who serves as Rip’s safety net on his return home. Upon seeing her father again for the first time, who she believed to have run away or been killed, she does not react angrily, but immediately brings him into her home without much explanation (68-69). Like her mother before her ,Judith has managed to make something of her life through hard work, and when her lazy father returns with nothing, she welcomes him back with no harsh words.

The female characters of the story are the true heroes of the story. The narrator and Rip both share a male perspective on the story, reducing women’s criticisms to “nagging,” and rendering them invalid. Rip Van Winkle’s son of the same name also shares his father’s same personality and is equally as ostracized by his family. He is first seen by Rip Sr. leaning against a tree doing absolutely nothing at all (67). There is a clear cycle on display here. Twenty full years have passed and another Rip Van Winkle is a lazy fool leaning against a tree sleeping his life away. Once again, a female Van Winkle is caring for a family. And yet again Rip Sr. has not learned his lesson and remained as lazy as the day he started his sleep, letting the women of his family do all the work.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Mason Masotta; Connor Smith; and Autumn Stearns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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