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Character Analysis in Rip Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle: Rip is the protagonist of the story. A helpful, well-meaning man, his unwillingness to work on his farm leaves him beset with marital problems. He is frequently interpreted as being lazy; however he is described as being an adept and effective hunter and fisherman, and willing to engage “even in the roughest toil” for the sake of a neighbor. He frequently takes his dog with him out into the mountains to escape the nagging of his wife.

Dame Van Winkle: Rip’s wife is described only in the most unflattering terms: she is a “shrew,” a “virago,” and a “termagant” who is constantly lecturing Rip about his failure to work on his farm and properly provide for their family. She interrupts his meetings with his friends at the inn, and she is regarded with dislike by the other wives of the village, for whom Rip is generally willing to perform chores. Being completely one-dimensional and never given a voice, Dame Van Winkle is less a character and more a symbol of the different types of oppression a person could experience.

The strange men: On one of his mountain excursions, Rip encounters a strange man in outmoded clothing who calls him by name and solicits his help carrying a keg. The man leads Rip into a hollow, where a number of similarly dressed men are playing ninepins. They are silent and serious, and Rip is initially afraid of them. However, he eventually relaxes in their company, enough to drink their liquor and fall asleep. A villager later describes them as the crew of Henry Hudson’s 1609 exploratory expedition on the Halve Maen, which sailed up the Hudson River and claimed the surrounding land for the Netherlands.

The villagers: Before Rip’s 20-year sleep in the mountains, he and his fellow villagers are of like mind. He is popular with them, due to his good nature and helpfulness, and he has a group of similarly “idle personages” with whom he sits and gossips and discusses outdated news. When Rip returns to the village, he finds it in a relative uproar, with a bustling crowd in place of his calm friends, all eagerly involved in the politics of the day. At first the villagers deride and mock Rip for his appearance and lack of understanding, but they grow to accept him as a village elder and turn to him for stories of the time before the Revolutionary War.

Character Analysis Examples in Rip Van Winkle:

Rip Van Winkle

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"Rip’s daughter took him home to live with her; she had a snug, well-furnished house, and a stout cheery farmer for a husband, whom Rip recollected for one of the urchins that used to climb upon his back. As to Rip’s son and heir, who was the ditto of himself, seen leaning against the tree, he was employed to work on the farm; but evinced an hereditary disposition to attend to any thing else but his business...."   (Rip Van Winkle)

These familial dynamics should feel familiar to Rip, as they duplicate the gender roles displayed in his own marriage. Rip’s daughter keeps a neat home, and his son is uninterested in profitable work. Unlike her mother, though, Judith appears to have settled down with a husband well-suited to structured commercial work. Perhaps the village is no longer as widely supportive of Rip’s preferred lifestyle, or perhaps Dame Van Winkle’s demands were not as unreasonable as they seemed.

"what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

It is notable that Rip’s first thought upon awakening is an expression of fear of his wife. This can be understood to be a fear of leaving the freedom of the forest for the demands of village commercialism. Rip has essentially woken up after a great party and is dreading his return to work.

"There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence...."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The villagers are celebrating the freedom to elect their leaders, and Rip is discovering a freedom of a different sort. He is able to become a full member of the community again after sharing this experience with them, but the cynical implications of its cause—his wife’s death—show Irving to be somewhat dubious about the degree to which liberty reflects well on its beneficiaries.

"what courage can withstand the evil-doing and all-besetting terrors of a woman’s tongue?..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

It is hard to resolve Irving’s feelings about women in “Rip Van Winkle.” Diedrich Knickerbocker respected them as a rich source of historical information, but he is an unreliable source. The wives of the village are positively disposed toward Rip, except for his own, and she is either a shrewish caricature or has been misrepresented in her silence. This inconsistency of opinion lends weight to the interpretation of Dame Van Winkle as a symbol of a larger tyranny, perhaps that of England or of civilized society, more than as a well-rounded character in her own right.

"This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife, so that he was fain to draw off his forces..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Building on his earlier statement that Rip has “inherited little of the martial character of his ancestors,” Irving defines Rip’s marital relationship as a martial one. While his predecessors “figured gallantly” in battle, though, Rip is unable to muster more than a shrug of his shoulders and a shake of his head when confronted by his wife.

"The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor...."   (Rip Van Winkle)

This is the source of the conflict between Rip and his wife, and by extension the obstacle standing between Rip and a peaceful life in his village. It is not strictly true that Rip is unable to provide for himself and his family; he fishes and hunts, and his children are messy but not starving. Moreover, Rip is a conscientious and helpful member of his community, behaving appropriately for the earlier days of American settlement. However, he does not perform the sort of farm work considered productive in the more commercially established American colonies. As the colonies stabilized and began to move toward unification, programs for the encouragement of a market-based economy spread outward from major commercial hubs. Mountain communities like Rip’s would have been slowly converted from subsistence farming, relying on barter and self-reliance to survive, into commercial farming, using money to attempt a betterment of station.

"lay all the blame on Dame Van Winkle..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The contrasting characters of Rip Van Winkle and his wife speak in a subtle way to the nature of how stories can be defined by their tellers. The villagers see a kind and helpful man being constantly berated, and draw the conclusion that Dame Van Winkle is a dreadful wife. The untold story is that of Dame Van Winkle’s attempts to make a life for herself and her children without the support of her husband, who at that time would have been the primary breadwinner in the household.

"Rip complied with his usual alacrity..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

While his wife considers him to be lazy and useless, Rip is repeatedly described to be industrious and helpful in his own way. Despite finding his new companion unusual, he nevertheless wants to help. This is a common trope of fairy tales, where good-hearted protagonists are rewarded in some way for helping a mysterious figure complete a task.

"He obeyed with fear and trembling..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

In this respect, it is possible to trace Rip’s dilemma to his home life. Made pliable by the scolding of his wife, he doesn’t hesitate to obey the unspoken commands of these strange men.

"virago..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

By modern definition, the noun “virago” refers to a domineering or ill-tempered woman. However, its latin root refers to a heroic woman or female warrior. This could imply that Rip not only views his wife as a domineering woman, but that he views his marriage in general as a battleground between his listlessness and her attempts to get him to work.

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