Misogyny in Rip Van Winkle

 

            Female characters appear in all genres of literature, but the role they were traditionally assigned  rarely presented them in a favorable light. Woman seldom appeared as protagonists. Instead their function was to support the hero in a variety of ways. Some readers might be familiar with stereotypes such as the school mistress, the saloon girls, the nurse or even the murder victim. However, women, especially wives, sometimes used to be seen as oppressive, nagging, villain women. The story Rip Van Winkle is a strong example of how women were sometimes portrayed in American literature through mysoginy.

           

            During its first period, American literature has developed a reputation for itself. This reputation was born by the fact that it was associated with men; American literature is male. Judith Fetterley wrote a book about the way women are generally depicted within the American literature. She argues that the implied reader in that writing is often male and that the reader is expected to adopt a position which is hostile towards women. According to Fetterley, to be American is to be male, which is to be universal, but it is also to be ''not-female''. In that way, women are encouraged to identify against themselves. This is why American literature breaks the rules of the European tradition. For instance, women are associated with nature and fertility because their biological, reproductive function is their primary role, whereas men are associated with culture and civilization, the products of reason and the spirit. This

creates a certain gender hierarchy, because the association with nature is negative, placing women lower in the hierarchy than men. In Rip Van Winkle, the association of men with nature, is seen as a positive. Leslie Fiedler, one of the most famous critics of American fiction, had an interesting point of view:

 

The figure of Rip Van Winkle presides over the birth of the American imagination; and it is fitting that our first successful homegrown legend should memorialize[…]the flight of the dreamer from the shrew-into the mountains and out of time, away from the drab duties of home and town toward the good companions and the magic keg of beer. Ever since, the typical male             protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat – anywhere to avoid ‘civilization’, which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which lead to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.

 

Fiedler identifies this story as the embodiment of the male desire to escape from the responsibilities of adulthood and a nagging wife, but he also sees it as ''marking the birth of the American imagination but not of a specifically male American imagination''.

 

            However, if this story expresses the male’s desire to escape, what position can the female reader adopt to avoid seeing her own sex as the enemy that one must escape? This is the problem that Judith Fetterley identifies:

 

            Rip Van Winkle is paradigmatic of this phenomenon. While the desire to avoid work, escape authority, and sleep through the major decisions of one’s life is obviously applicable to both men and women, in Irving’s story this “universal” desire is made specifically male. Work, authority and decision-making are symbolized by Dame Van Winkle, and the longing for flight is defined against her. She is what one must escape.

 

So misogyny is particularly distinctive in Rip Van Winkle. Dame Van Winkle is the main reason why her husband is always absent. She is consistently nagging him and Rip feels oppressed by her. By avoiding her, he avoids being compelled to work. Rip's wish is to live a life of his own without responsibilities.

 

            Rip's wife thus embodies the unwanted pressure and the disliked authority, this is why the reader would be tempted to look at her from an evil eye, and take Rip' side because of his protagonist status. In his story, Washington Irving depicted Dame Van Winkle as the antagonist who wants to put a  stop to Rip's actions (or rather ''inactions'').

 

Works Cited

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction: Indiana University Press, November 1981.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel, Dalkey Archive Press: New Ed edition. January 1998).

Irving, Washington. ''Rip Van Winkle'' The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819): Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition. September 11, 1998.

Patteson, Richard. ''Manhood and Misogyny in the Imperialist Romance''. Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1981): Page no. (125-134)

Wikipedia, Rip Van Winkle <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rip_Van_Winkle>