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Washington Irving seems to delight in presenting models of marital disharmony. Note how he does this in "The Devil and Tom Walker" as well as in this classic short story. However, it is important to recognise the note of irony that the narrator employs when describing the marital situation of the Van Winkles. It is possible to read between the lines and see their marriage as something rather different to the way it is presented.
Initially, it appears that the narrator is trying to present Rip Van Winkle in a good light and his wife as a terrible "shrew," "termagant" and a wife who makes her husband more malleable through "the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation." He is described as a "simple, good-natured fellow" and an "obedient, hen-pecked husband." He is clearly very popular in the village, especially with women and children, who are keen to support him and blame Dame Van Winkle for being a "shrew."
However, as we read on, we can see that the picture is not as simple as it has been presented. Rip Van Winkle helps anyone except his own family. His own farmland has been neglected and has had to be sold off bit by bit leaving only the most unprofitable part left. His own children were "ragged and wild." So, we can see that Rip Van Winkle was hardly obedient to his wife's demands, and we can understand her intense frustration and his inability to do anything to help his family. Interestingly, when he revisits his house after his twenty year doze, he admits that she was very good at managing household affairs, which perhaps would have made her frustration all the more acute.
The irony concerning this theme is even stronger when we consider Rip Van Winkle's joy at discovering that his wife has died. Rip experiences a "drop of comfort" in the midst of his bewilderment at what has happened to him when he realises that he will be free from the "yoke of matrimony." We are left to wonder how overjoyed Dame Van Winkle was when she realised she was left in a similar state.
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