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Misogyny and Worldbuilding in Rip Van Winkle

June 30, 2021Uncategorized Edit

As a whole, I really enjoyed the story, much more than I expected to. Even so, it has the prejudices of the nineteenth century, which must be accounted for.  

Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle toes the line of misogyny: Rip Van Winkle’s wife is continually criticized by the narrator, who is initially deemed a “shrew”. Still, it is difficult to determine whether her “shrewish” character can be spun in a positive light. 

I will first attempt to view Rip’s wife, Dame Van Winkle as a feminist icon. In a work published in 1819, there was a woman eliciting obedience from her tame husband, rather than the opposite. In other works, the woman would be expected to be quiet and docile, listening to every demand of her husband’s. In this case, Rip himself is somewhat insulted, called “simple”. While she is being castigated by the narrator for her behavior, it’s at least clear that she is competent and capable. This is a sort of double edged sword: she is powerful, more powerful than Rip, but at the same time, Irving is making it crystal clear that she is not acting as a wife should.  

Still, the overwhelming disdain that other characters and narrator harbor towards Rip’s wife, it seems far more likely that her character is representative of misogyny than feminism. Because Rip is meant to be seen by readers in a positive, if comedic, manner, his wife’s ramblings “about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family” seem to be inaccurate and unfair to the main character (4). This, combined with the fact that Dame Van Winkle drives Rip into the woods with all of her nagging leads me to believe that her character is a product of misogyny, stereotypes of overbearing wives embedded within her (5). Honestly, her husband views her as a source of terror and is relieved when he returns twenty years later and finds that she has passed away, stating that “there was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence” (12).  

Moving on to a different tangent, I found it refreshing that Irving explained what happened and why when Rip fell asleep for two decades. Many novels of that time of similar genres–American gothic and other–did not explain much about how horrific things came to be. In Dracula, vampires exist, there is not a true background provided for them. In Frankenstein, Victor refuses to detail his exact process so that his creation can never be born again. Needless to say, I was very surprised by the ending of Rip Van Winkle. From my vague memory of the tale, all I knew was that Rip slept for twenty years. As such, the immersive yet perfectly vague explanation was very appealing to me, of how “the vicinity of our old Dutch settlements to have been very subject to marvellous [sic] events and appearances” (14). It is reminiscent of other stories, typically classed as magical realism, for the events are somewhat justified by folklore, but not fully explained. Here, Irving plays upon the woods as a gothic device, and uses techniques of modern magical realism to leave the world open, yet fully fleshed out.  

  1. Would Rip Van Winkle be considered “gothic” or “horror” by today’s standards? How have things changed? 
  2. Should women like Dame Van Winkle be looked up to for their relative strength in a patriarchal society? 
  3. Is the world built up enough to justify the magical events? Is this just classic magical realism where unlikely things happen, but are not so much fully explained so much as broadly addressed?  

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