According to The Literary Criticism, written by Charles E. Bressler the definition of
feminist criticism is “an umbrella term for a variety of approaches to culture and literature that
are of particular interested in women” (Bressler 167). Male and female characters will be
analyzed from the feminist critics perspective. In the American short story “Rip Van Winkle” the
female characters are primarily overlooked and stereotyped. This is important in todays society,
because women are still often overlooked and ignored in American society.
“Rip Van Winkle” is a short story that was written by the American author Washington
Irving. In this research paper, the focus of the analysis will be on the feminist perspective in the
text. This paper will be looked at in the way that a feminist critic would look at a text. Other
feminists critics and texts will be used to display what feminism is like in the text, and what it
was during the time in which the text was written. The emphasis of this analysis will portray how women are received and looked at in the text.
Rip Van Winkle is the main character of the story. The women of the story have very little or no impact at all in the story. For example, Dame Van Winkle, who is the wife of Rip Van
Winkle is constantly trying to get Rip Van Winkle to do his work around the house, but he
continually refuses and instead writes her off as overbearing, annoying, and nagging. “but his
wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was
bringing on his family.” (1). The word dinning in this quote is crucial to understand. According
to MerriamWebster.com dinning means “making loud, confused, and usually unharmonious
sounds.” This is meant to be insulting to Dame Van Winkle. In the quote, it means that Rip Van
Winkle ignores what his wife is saying. All he hears is her vague nagging, and he decides to
ignore it.This negatively impacts women because Dame Van Winkle simply wants Rip to do
some work around the house, but he writes her off as a nagging woman. This is still very
common in our society today, women are often blamed for the things that men do.
According to Carolyn L. Karcher, there are four forms of feminism. The form that is most relevant to “Rip Van Winkle” is “The critique of patriarchal ideology and of the pernicious
sexual stereotypes it has disseminated throughout our western literary classics.” (Karcher, 31.)
This form in layman’s terms basically means that it critiques male dominated texts and female
stereotypes in western classics.
“Rip Van Winkle” is considered a western classic. An example of this form of feminism
in the context of “Rip Van Winkle”, is the entire character of Dame Van Winkle. She is portrayed as a shrewd and is cast off as a nagging wife. It’s almost as though she is just another annoying female character who gets in the way of what Rip Van Winkle wants. This critique is important, especially to modern day society because texts should not just be male dominated, but should be equal to all genders.
Rip Van Winkle is a Dutch-American. He is very well known in the village, and the story
is set before and after The American Civil War. It is set in a pleasant village at the foot of New
York’s Catskill mountains. The setting and time period of this text is important to the feminist
perspective. For example, the story is set in a small American town, and is set before and after
the Revolutionary War.
Historically, women did not have many rights, such as not being able to vote. They were
primarily expected to be dutiful wives and mothers.Women were primarily overlooked in this
text and the timeline which the text is set in. They are expected to do their duties and not
complain, and it was a heavily male dominated society. “For those men are most apt to be
obsequious and conciliating abroad who are under the discipline of shrews at home.”(2). This
quote puts a negative connotation on women, as they are called shrews. Men are annoyed with
their wives, because they are supposed to be dedicated to them.
Rip Van Winkle is a simple man. “Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy
mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown,
whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound.” (1). This represents his simplicity and laziness. He accepted the easiest route of life and would prefer to get the best out of life while doing the least amount of work.
Rip Van Winkle also enjoys solitary activities, such as spending time with his dog. He also enjoys spending time at the local inn with his friends. He is loved by many in the village. He tells the children of the family stories and repairs their toys for them. “The children of the village, too, would shout with joy whenever he approached. He assisted at their sports, made their playthings, taught them to fly kites and shoot marbles, and told them long stories of ghosts, witches, and Indians. Whenever he went dodging about the village, he was surrounded by a troop of them, hanging on his skirts, clambering on his back, and playing a thousand tricks on him with impunity; and not a dog would bark at him throughout the neighborhood.” (2).
Rip Van Winkle tends to shirk hard work, which his wife finds annoying. “Poor Rip was
at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm
and the clamour of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods.” (3). She
also nags Rip Van Winkle to help out around the farm, but he ignores her. This has caused his
home and farm to be in a state of disarray. “His fences were continually falling to pieces; his cow would either go astray or get among the cabbages; weeds were sure to grow quicker in his fields than anywhere else; the rain always made a point of setting in just as he had some outdoor work to do; so that though his patrimonial estate had dwindled away under his management, acre by acre, until there was little more left than a mere patch of Indian corn and potatoes, yet it was the worst-conditioned farm in the neighborhood.” (2).
Rip Van Winkle was written in 1819. Historically women in the United States. did not
have the right to vote. Women in this time period were expected to be wives and mothers.
Women had a very specific role during this time period, and they were expected to fulfill the role well. For example, in the text the wives were mentioned as good. “Certain it is that he was a
great favorite among all the good wives of the village…” (2). This proves that if a women is
good she fulfills her role in society well.
According to nps.gov, “Evidence from a variety of printed sources published during this period–advice manuals, poetry and literature, sermons, medical texts–reveals that Americans, in general, held highly stereotypical notions about women’s and men’s roles in society. Historians would later term this phenomenon “‘The Cult of Domesticity'” This website clears up feminism in the texts. As the quote stated above says, women and men at this time held very stereotypical roles. Many times in the texts women are shown to be domestic, such as any time when Dame Van Winkle wants Rip to do chores. Men are shown to disdain and ignore women, like when Rip goes off in the woods and falls asleep for 20 years. “One taste provoked another; and he reiterated his visits to the flagon so often that at length his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head, his head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep.” (Irving, 5.) This quote is when Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 20 years. The texts takes things too far, and portrays that the only way Rip Van Winkle can escape his nagging wife is by falling asleep and outliving her.
Women in this text were barely addressed by their names. For Example, Rip Van
Winkle’s wife is referred to as Dame Van Winkle. She is never known by name and one of her
few characteristics is that she is the wife of Rip Van Winkle. All the other wives in the stories are not given names either, they are simply known as wives. “A termagant wife may, therefore, in some respects, be considered a tolerable blessing; and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice
blessed.” (2). This sentence is very sarcastic. In the society that the text is set in, women are
meant to be married, Dame Van Winkle, fulfilling this role, is still taunted and belittled by Rip
Van Winkle, and the villagers. This has led to the interest of wanting to analyze this text from a
feminist perspective. This is important because, even today women are still often overlooked,
even if they fulfill the “appropriate” role of a women in society.
Rip Van Winkle is also admired by many wives in the village. This is a positive
statement, which shows that men being admired by women makes them seem more “manly.” It
also shows that women are meant to admire men, which sexualizes them. ” The appearance of
Rip, with his long grizzled beard, his rusty fowling piece, his uncouth dress, and the army of
women and children that had gathered at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern
politicians.” (6). This quote proves that since women are attracted to Rip Van Winkle, it gives
him positive attention.
Judith Fetterley wrote a book titled The Resisting Reader: a feminist approach to American fiction. In this book she discusses Rip Van Winkle and how he resists certain tasks. For example, Fetterley states “Rip resists Dame Van Winkle because she represents what he ought to do (Fetterley,4.) Rip resisting Dame Van Winkles orders comes off as sexist at many different times in the texts. However Fetterley is stating that he resists doing chores. This may come off or be interpreted as sexist, but maybe Rip simply didn’t want to do chores around the house, no matter who told him. In this case it could be the society that is sexist, not just Rip Van Winkle himself.
The author of Rip Van Winkle is Washington Irving. According to Lewis Leary “He was an alert, ingenious man who liked to be liked, and who tried to write what others expected of him.” (Leary, 5.) This is important to note because Washington Irving himself wanted to write was expected of him. This could be why Irving wrote so much about men and women and what was expected of them in the text. During the time the text was written this analysis contributes to the overall meaning of the text in many ways, Rip VanWinkle is to be seen as a strong male character. However, since he mistreats his wife, this view is skewed. Another item that was analyzed was when Rip Van Winkle woke up from his twenty year nap. When he awakes, Rip Van Winkle finds that there are some changes that he does like.
For example, he no longer has to answer to his Dame Van Winkle, because she has died. He is
happy to not have to hear her nagging. He does not have the same responsibilities and burdens
that he used to. This causes much relief for him. ” Having nothing to do at home, and being
arrived at that happy age when a man can do nothing with impunity…” (8). Since Rip Van
Winkle has aged, he doesn’t have to do any work or attend to his wife (since she has died) this
causes him to be quite content.
In “Rip Van Winkle” the female characters are primarily overlooked and stereotyped.
Analyzing this text from a feminist perspective has proved that. The female characters were not
addressed by name, and had negative connotations throughout the text. Overall women were not
viewed well in the text, and even in todays society, some women are not viewed well. If a
women does not fit the mold of society, she is overlooked. This is unjust and deserves to be
According to The Literary Criticism, written by Charles E. Bressler the definition of