“Wanted Women” in Jane Austen and Washington Irving

Pixabay engagement ring

–Photo from public access in http://www.pixabay.com


July 31, 2019

Jane Austen’s Emma and Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” use gender roles to show the devastating truth of the idea of a perfect woman in the eyes of society and how it has influenced the way women see themselves.

At Baylor the words coined “ring by spring” is something students value a lot. Over the years, women have been known as the underdogs. Women have been influenced in ways that make them feel their only duty in life is to get married and become a wife.

Emma, a rather intelligent woman, has no use for her intelligence, so she spends her time helping others find someone to marry. The amount of importance on this encourages Emma’s actions, which leads to a lot of Emma’s mistakes throughout the novel. This “role” we have created for women also comes with its standards or rules for women to live up to.

In Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Rip finds his wife, Dame, outrageously annoying as she does not fit her role as a wife. Dame is said to constantly nag at Rip in order to get him to do his duties as a man around the house. This analogy depicts how we think women should act as a wife: to not say a thing, let men do as they please, and complete all of our house chores.

These two depictions show what everyone has expected women to do for years. The stereotypical role of a woman still influences women today because it becomes associated with what a man loves most about a woman: one who stays quiet and finishes her chores. Because marriage is so highly valued we feel a need to look up to these unwritten rules as women, so we can become a wife. By doing so, we completely neglect who we are and change ourselves.

As a woman, it is sad for me to see how women are portrayed in both these works. It also explains why so many women change the way they are for men and aspire to be the perfect wife today. When Rip finds out that Dame is dead he is not bothered by it but, in fact, relieved by the news.

Over the years, gender stereotypes are either like Emma, completely investing themselves in the idea of marriage, or doing everything to become the perfect idea of a woman. No one wants to be a Dame. Dame is not liked by men. At least, that is how the book portrays her.

In my opinion, Dame is the hero in all of this gender role nonsense. She does not follow the rules and does what is best for her family by nagging Rip to keep up with his work around the house. This is why it is so important for people today to start writing and talking about women the same as we do men. In conclusion, because marriage is so heavily valued, so is trying to mold ourselves into being the “wanted women.”

Lizzie Darwin is a special guest blogger this week. In Spring 2019, Lizzie wrote this blog specifically for the Washington Irving Society page. She submitted the blog as an optional assignment for Dr. Tracy Hoffman’s 2304 American Literature class at Baylor University. This was not a formal paper assignment, but a casual blog response to the reading. Please feel free to leave comments about Lizzie’s response here on the website.


Published in: on July 31, 2019 at 2:43 pm  Comments (2)  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://washingtonirvingsociety.org/2019/07/31/wanted-women-in-jane-austen-and-washington-irving/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Finding a male writer in the 19th Century–especially the early 19th Century—was always a challenge. There were some one offs. Henry James managed it later in the century, and Dickens did a couple of grotesque stand-outs. But mostly few seemed to be able to accomplish it. Irving was probably worse at this than most. I adore Irving. I’ve been reading, studying and collecting him for decades. I am also a feminist. Reconciling the two has been difficult. As Lizzie points out, mostly he was able to turn out a two-dimensional prop of a person. In his historical writings, Isabella in the Columbus biography notably, he white-washes her and spreads all the darkness around Ferdinand and her group of “ghostly advisors.” She and all the women in his fiction tend to be idiots or saintly innocents. Irving relished the company and conversation of intelligent and accomplished women. He just could’nt write them.

    Lizzie is right about Dame Van Winkle. Certainly in many ways shecould be considered a hero because of her ability to keep that ridiculous brood of children and herself fed and clothed virtually single-handed while Rip wandered off hunting with Wolf and “philosophizing” with old Nicholas Vedder’s junto of “wise men” (read equally good-for-nothing drunks) down at the George the Third tavern. Dame Van Winkle is definitely a gender stereotype of the worst sort: the virago, ruthlessly hen-pecking her bland, inoffensive husband. (And by “inoffensive” I mean not physically abusive. Inoffensive hardly describes a man who takes no responsibility for the family he has had an equal part in rearing.)

    But as much as Dame Van Winkle is a stereotype, though this hardly excuses the author, she is but one among many. Rip Van Winkle is full of what modern readers would regard as truly inoffensive stereotypes: Colonial Dutch. Pretty much everyone in the story are there for comic effect, and Dame Van Winkle is not just a particularly egregious example of 19th Century sexism, she is also a “Dutch housewife”, whose sharp tongue and refusal to tolerate her husband’s laziness, chasing man and dog out of the house with the business end of a broomstick, was a recognizable trope in this sort of satire. One of the great lines from the story comes directly from this: “A tart temper never mellows with age and a sharp tongue is the only tool that grows sharper with constant use.”

    And I’m sorry to confess that Dame Van Winkle’s death as recounted at the end of the story still affords me, after years of re-reading, my biggest laugh of the tale. “Oh, she too had died but a short time since; she broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England pedler.” The fact that she dropped dead of a stroke berating a door-to-door salesman–a Yankee, no less, with whom all the Dutch were historically in constant conflict–I find really funny. Dark, but funny.

    I totally sympathize with your disappointment in Irving’s depiction of women in this story, and others. I have had to come to terms that there are things that I have to accept in order to continue a lifetime of enjoying the man who is my favorite author. It is a concession that the casual reader needn’t make of course.

    But thank you so much for your blogpost. I found it inspiring!


  2. And my first sentence makes no sense! I meant to say that finding a male writer in the 19th Century who could depict a believable female character was a challenge to find. Sorry about that!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: