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Feminist Literary Criticism of Rip Van Winkle

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The fictional memoir of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle narrates the life of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a man residing in a small village in the Catskill mountains, who finds particular interest in recounting the histories and rich anecdotes from Dutch descendants of New York. Although Knickerbocker is an ancestor of many successful, hard-working men, he does not seem to share the same interest in being an active member of society. Despite the admiration Rip receives from the community, he is constantly admonished by his partner, Dame Van Winkle, for his inadequacy and ignorance of the time’s cultural emphasis on productivity. Dame Van Winkle’s incessant censure of Rip’s lacking ambition ultimately led to his escape into the mountains and twenty-year slumber through the American Revolution. After Rip awakens from his sleep, his aged daughter, Judith, serves as a beacon for assurance, welcoming, and success upon his arrival back to the village. Despite the berating from Dame Van Winkle, and the acceptance from his daughter, Judith, these characters are written off as insignificant and even vexatious. The scholarly article, “Irving’s Depiction of Gender in Rip Van Winkle: A Feminist Perspective” by Kiki Mu highlights the characteristics and actions of Dame Van Winkle and Judith to introduce an empowering account that defies the author’s misogynistic intentions. Through a feminist critique of character development and textual support, a counter-narrative arises which celebrates female characters and commends their ambition and initiative for success rather than Washington Irving’s deliberate condemnation and prejudice toward women.

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Feminist theory, when applied as a literary critique, aims to undermine the systemic patriarchal structure that has oppressed women for centuries. Emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, Feminist Theory provided a platform for women to dismiss heteronormative discourse, as well as rewrite history that has been warped by patriarchal ideals (Rivkin and Ryan 893-894). Rip Van Winkle, while recognized for its promotion of national ethos, reinforces chauvinistic attitudes of the traditional American literary canon. On one hand, Irving depicts Rip Van Winkle as an “obedient, hen-pecked husband,” and unabating victim of harsh criticism from his wife. To many, Rip is admired for his “meekness of spirit” and passes off his laziness because of his innocence and good nature (Irving 8). Irving successfully created a negative image of Dame Van Winkle, a wife so brutal she was claimed to have made the family dog whimper and surrender upon her entry. These accusations almost subconsciously sway the reader to be more tolerant and understanding of Rip despite his physical ability and reasonable societal expectations to provide for his family. Establishing deep-rooted stereotypical gender norms within the first few pages of the story, the author clings to the typical misogynistic narrative often repeated in many literary classics. Irving inexplicitly reveals his institutionalized ideals by the absence of naming Dame Van Winkle, as she is always referred to as Rip’s counterpart (Mu 1). This suggests importance of noting his wife’s identity is worth keeping her anonymous. He gloats on his popularity among the women residing in the same village, disregarding the promises of marital commitment or respect for females in his community. Overall, the author builds character dialogue to skew favor of Rip Van Winkle’s indolent disposition and to mitigate Dame Van Winkle’s gender normative defiance by expressing her frustration with her husband. Despite this manipulated view of Dame Van Winkle, feminist critique redefines what Rip considers to be relentless nagging from his wife as an intense desire to be a productive member of society to develop and maintain the success and quality of life for the Van Winkle family. Dame Van Winkle simply acknowledges Rip’s opposition to America’s emphasis on active patriotism and work ethic, which he so tirelessly defends.

Following his passive character, Rip Van Winkle ultimately escapes into the lush landscape of the Catskill mountains to avoid societal and political pressures. Eventually falling into a deep sleep, the protagonist awakens nearly twenty years later. Upon his arrival back to the village, Rip is informed of the brutal truths associated with the American Revolutionary War effort that had occurred during his slumber. Along with this, Rip visits his home, describing it as decrepit, abandoned, and lonely. He learns of Dame Van Winkle’s unfortunate demise, as well as the lives and families nurtured by his fully-grown children. As disturbing as it seems, Rip Van Winkle was particularly relieved at the news of his late wife. Rip’s liberation from the constant reminders of his personal inefficiency allowed him to escape public criticism for his apathetic attitude toward Industrialism. Interestingly enough, the narrator claims that at the mention of his wife’s name, Rip Van Winkle would “… cast up his eyes; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate, or joy at his deliverance” (Irving 23-24). This observation proposes the idea that Rip may occasionally remember his wife for her desperate aspiration for her husband’s success. Without her around, his “fate” will never have the possibility of becoming something more without the active initiative from Dame Van Winkle.

When learning about the accomplishments and fatalities that many of his friends endured during the American Revolution, a familiar face made an appearance through the thrush of bystanders questioning Rip Van Winkle. His daughter, Judith, now a happy and successful mother and wife to a farm owner, embraces her father’s return with the absence of judgment. Even twenty years after their last interaction, Judith refrains from exposing her father’s ingrained indolence. Judith’s social role in her community shows her following in her late mother’s footsteps. In addition, upon reuniting with his son, Rip witnesses him “…leaning against [a] tree, employed to work on the farm but evinced a hereditary disposition to attend anything else but business”(Irving 23). It is seen here that once again, another generation of Van Winkles seems to conform to the vicious cycle once exercised by Rip Sr. and Dame Van Winkle. Judith seems to have made a life for herself through hard work and dedication while Rip Jr. has adopted many of the same habits exhibited by his father.

Rip Van Winkle by renowned Romanticist author, Washington Irving, is undeniably one of the most influential and entertaining pieces of American literature during a time that emphasized new aspects of social order. Despite its attempt to promote patriotic values of freedom, passive resistance, and the role of productivity during the era of Industrialization, it easily falls into the ideas perpetuated by patriarchal structure in literature traditionally written from the perspective of white European men. Rip Van Winkle meanders through his life, content with remaining a passive member of society, and renders his wife’s routine criticism as irritating and useless nagging. However, both Dame Van Winkle and his daughter, Judith, symbolize the pivotal parts in the well-oiled machine that is society. Dame Van Winkle’s death concluded Rip Sr.’s destiny to remain a withdrawn, loafing citizen. Judith’s tolerance for her father’s unwavering ideals also suggests acceptance of the inevitable with her father. As for Rip Jrhe mimics his father’s life path very closely and demonstrates the same lack of ambition despite the opportunities at his fingertips. A feminist critique of character development and textual aspects in Rip Van Winkle reveals an altered view of women in the story, despite the rigid properties of anti-female rhetoric strewn throughout. Inconclusive to his efforts, the women Rip Van Winkle are made out to be dynamic, pro-American heroes.  

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