Rip Van Winkle Questions and Answers
by Washington Irving

Rip Van Winkle book cover
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In Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," describe the personalities of both Rip and Dame Van Winkle. Do you think a reader in Washington Irving's lifetime would have had more sympathy for Rip or Dame Van Winkle? Which character do you have more sympathy for? Justify your answers.

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Rip Van Winkle is presented as gentle soul, one of those people who'll do anything for a quiet life. Not the most ambitious of men, he likes nothing more than to spend time in the local tavern, shooting the breeze with his friends and acquaintances. When the atmosphere at home gets unpleasant, which is often, he takes to the mountains for a spot of hunting. There, he can experience the peace and solitude that he simply cannot find at home.

By contrast, Dame Van Winkle is given to us as a bossy and nagging old busybody, forever criticizing her henpecked, downtrodden husband. The henpecked husband is a staple character in literature, and has been for centuries. At the time when Irving wrote the story, women were expected to be demure and submissive towards their menfolk. So it's clear that in the character of Dame Van Winkle, Irving is reminding his (predominantly male) readership of the dangers of what can happen if a man isn't lord and master in his own home. One must suppose that most readers of the story will have instinctively identified with the character of Rip as they undoubtedly shared the same misogynist worldview as the author.

It is, of course, a matter of opinion as to which of the two characters is the more sympathetic, but most people would probably fall towards feeling more empathy for Rip. At the same time, with the benefit of more progressive attitudes towards women, we can see that Dame Van Winkle has some justification for being as exasperated by her lazy, unambitious husband as she is. Our understanding of her frustrations doesn't necessarily commit us to approving the crude and abusive manner in which she expresses herself.

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