What is a character description of Dame Van Winkle in "Rip Van Winkle"?

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Very early in the story, the narrator describes Dame Van Winkle as a "termagant wife." She is constantly nagging Rip about his laziness and his "aversion to all types of profitable labor." She is downright abusive to Rip's beloved dog, and she seeks Rip out when he is lounging with...

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Very early in the story, the narrator describes Dame Van Winkle as a "termagant wife." She is constantly nagging Rip about his laziness and his "aversion to all types of profitable labor." She is downright abusive to Rip's beloved dog, and she seeks Rip out when he is lounging with his friends in the village, hectoring the whole group of men for their lack of industry.

It is his desire to get away from his wife that drives Rip to flee to the woods, where he drinks the potion that puts him into a deep sleep. When he awakes, Rip is relieved that his wife is dead. Interestingly, Dame Van Winkle does not speak in the story. She is, in a sense, an oppressive force on Rip: one that makes his life miserable because he is not as industrious as she thinks he should be. Everyone else in the story, at least before his long sleep, likes Rip. He is popular with the village children and has many friends. But Dame Van Winkle, who is most directly affected by his lack of industry and ambition, clearly has no patience with him. Rip is in every way the archetypal "hen-pecked" husband, and she is an overbearing wife, a comic device in a nineteenth-century story inasmuch as she, and not Rip, is in charge of their household.

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The narrator, writing tongue-in-cheek, shows Dame Van Winkle largely as Rip sees her, which is as a shrew and a scold whom Rip tries to avoid. Dame Van Winkle is based on the medieval "type" of the fishwife, a shrilly, bossy, and domineering woman with a sharp tongue who was often the butt of jokes. Because she is a type, Mrs. Van Winkle is a one-dimensional character, characterized solely by relentless bullying of her hapless and kindly husband.

Although we are never privy to her inner thoughts, we can, however, understand how she became a shrew and a scold. Rip truly is a lackadaisical and apathetic man who lets his farm go to rack and ruin and lets his children run around in rags. He would rather be out hunting or fishing, helping neighboring housewives with small chores, or lingering and talking on the bench in front of the local inn than taking responsibility for his farm or family. He leaves it to his wife to manage as she can.

The story is a parable about America's transition from an apathetic colony to a bustling, vibrant, and can-do independent republic. Rip represents the colonial mindset, content to wander aimlessly and ineffectually. It is no accident that while he sleeps, he misses the entire American revolution and founding of a vibrant new democracy. When he awakes, he is a hopeless relic of the past. It is also significant that Mrs. Van Winkle, a symbol of a world where women had to take charge, is now dead. A new order is in place, where the men are taking energetic responsibility for guiding a robust new nation.

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It's fair to say that Dame Van Winkle is presented in a decidedly unflattering light. The classic stereotype of a bossy, domineering wife, she gives poor Rip an absolute dog's life, constantly nagging and criticizing him. Indeed, her domineering nature is such that Rip regularly feels the need to escape from his unhappy home and take off to the woods for a spot of hunting. And it's on another one of his impromptu hunting trips that Rip falls asleep, so one could say that Dame Van Winkle inadvertently acts as a catalyst for Rip's epic slumbers.

In terms of character, Dame Van Winkle is completely one-dimensional. She's nothing more than a "termagant" or "shrew", a bad-tempered harridan forever hounding poor old Rip for his laziness and carelessness and how he's bringing the family to ruin. Though there's more than an element of truth in Dame Van Winkle's criticisms, she's so over-the-top in how she expresses them that she fails to elicit much in the way of sympathy.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Mrs. Van Winkle pops her clogs after breaking a blood vessel in a fit of rage. This would appear to be a fitting end for a woman whose foul temper always threatened to be the death of her.

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Authors employ five methods of characterization, four of which are indirect:

  1. through a physical description of the character
  2. through the character's actions
  3. through the character's thoughts, feelings, and speeches
  4. through the comments and reactions of other characters.

Washington Irving utilizes these methods of characterization in depicting Dame Van Winkle, the "termagant" who is Rip's wife. Moreover, it is comically stereotyped portrait that is presented of her as with other such descriptors as "shrew." Truly, she typlifies the "scold" who will not allow Rip to relax and visit with people and go off hunting with his dog as he desires.

In addition, Dame Van Winkle prefigures the new country that Rip will meet after this twenty-year sleep:  bustling, and loud, and disputatious in tone in confrontation with the imaginative and indolent Rip who represents Colonial America. For, Dame van Winkle views Rip and his dog in this way:

[She] regarded them as companions in idleness, and even looked upon Wolf with an evil eye as the cause of his mater's going so often astray. True,...he was as courageous an animal as ever scoured the woods--but what courage can withstand the ever-during and all-besetting terrors of a woman's tongue?

Dame van Winkle is further described as having a "tart temper," and "a sharp tongue"; she is a clamorous woman from whom Rip always attempts escape, thus reducing Rip to a despair that leads Rip to a "long ramble" to the high parts of the Kaatskill Mountains.

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