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Marriage Lessons From Rip Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle is the classic tale of a man who roams off into the mountains one day with his dog, never to be seen again until twenty years later, when he stumbles back to town with an overgrown beard and claims of amnesia. I read the tale as a child and recently saw the animated version while watching Mr. Magoo with my son. I was struck with how differently I see the tale now as an adult and married woman. It used to be a story of ghosts and sleeping potions, with the nuances and implications underlying the story lost on me. If you haven’t read Rip Van Winkle and have a short attention span, I’ll give a quick summary:

The story of Rip Van Winkle is set in the American Revolutionary War era in a village at the foot of the Catskills Mountains. Colonial villager Rip Van Winkle was a friendly but lazy man who was henpecked by a frustrated wife. He happily ran errands for the women of the town and entertained the village children for hours with stories and toys, but never did work for his own home and farm, so that it fell apart from neglect. His favorite past time was fishing or taking his dog into the wilderness to hunt all day. His wife nagged him endlessly about his laziness, and other folks in town pitied the popular Rip Van Winkle.

One day Rip is hiding from his wife’s scolding by wandering into the mountains with his dog. Rip hears someone calling him and finds a strange man dressed in old-fashioned clothes, needing his help carrying a keg of liquor. The two hike to a remote area, where Rip discovers a group of other odd fellows playing nine-pins and drinking. Rip drinks some of their liquor, and soon falls asleep.

He awakes to find his gun replaced by a rusty gun, and his beard has grown a foot long. His dog is no where to be found. Rip returns to his village where he recognizes no one. Asking around, he discovers that his wife has died from a burst blood vessel and that his close friends have died in the war or moved away. Rip is told that he has been away from the village for twenty years and missed the entire Revolutionary War. An elderly local recognizes Rip Van Winkle, and Rip’s now-adult daughter takes him in. Rip resumes his idle life, and his tale is believed by all, and envied by other henpecked husbands who wish they could have slept through the war.

It seems like the story of a man done wrong. He was drugged and missed a large portion of his life. This poor, passive, indolent, henpecked man- there was no way he dodged a war, deserted his wife and life of work and responsibilities for twenty years, to run around free, never even shaving, only to return in his old age in time for his grown daughter to take care of him while he continues to loaf around, telling fantastic tales to explain his absence, right?

Ahem.

Lessons from Rip Van Winkle

  • Women shouldn’t choose a husband based on his popularity, or how entertaining he is. She should pay attention to his work ethic, unless she is ok with being the primary breadwinner, gardener, housekeeper, cook, and child care provider while her husband chats with the neighbors.
  • Men who are lazy shouldn’t get married just to have someone take care of them. I hear men complain about how much their wives nag them, and many are justified, but lazy men or those with screwed up priorities are not. I have a feeling if Rip Van Winkle put the effort placed into pleasing the neighborhood ladies into pleasing his wife (ie bringing flowers home once in a while, running errrands for her) he wouldn’t have been married to such an unhappy woman.
  • Men who are henpecked don’t want to come home. If you decided he was good enough to marry, don’t badger him into running off. Dame Van Winkle was alone for 20 years because her husband couldn’t take her anymore and ran off wandered off after a tiff, was poisoned, and unable to return to her until after word got out that she passed away the drug wore off. Nagging doesn’t work. Unless you’d really just rather be alone, stop complaining. Rip Van Winkle entertained the children, got on well with the neighbors, took the dog out for his walks, and hunted…he had value.
  • Women who stress about things they can’t control have high blood pressure. Rip’s missus was disliked by the town because of her fussing, and she died of a burst blood vessel from worrying. If she had just done what she could, maybe turned to the men in town for some help to make up for her lazy husband, she may have lived longer and happier. The farm was neglected whether or not she fought with her husband or stressed about it, and she only ruined her health and relationships with others. Sometimes we have to accept that we can’t do it all and we can’t change others, so we should just focus on living the best life we can.


  • Jennifer The Quirky Momma

    I like that. I like it a lot. I an everything but the breadwinner in my house, I think I’m okay with this for now. At least things are done to my specifications because I’m doing them right the first time, right? ; )ReplyCancel

  • This is a great post Penelope. I’ve learned over the last 10 years with my husband that I need to be more patient with him. Just because he does something differently than I would, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.ReplyCancel

  • Thanks for such an interesting and thought- provokin post. I’ll def. be sharing it on FB with friends.ReplyCancel

  • Donna

    I’ve never been a nagging wife. Sometimes I think I should. lol. Because sometimes things don’t get done, or I do them myself. :) But my husband is the best father, a good provider, and very romantic, to name a few things. Love this analysis of Rip Van Winkle!ReplyCancel

  • I love all those. I have learned to make sure I tell my husband something I love about him every day. And to always give him a kiss and hug!ReplyCancel

  • Great lessons – I never would have gathered that knowledge if you hadn’t put it all together.ReplyCancel

  • true and to the point thankfully I relate to the good pointsReplyCancel

  • I found this analogy to be fascinating, and I’ll certainly never think of the story of “Rip Van Winkle” in the same way again. People go a long way in creating their own happiness and unhappiness. Mrs. Van Winkle should never have married him in the first place. He was lazy and liked to fraternize with the other ladies much too well. However, once they were married, she tried to nag him into changing. How much happier she would have been had she taken care to marry someone who had the qualities she desired instead of falling for the wrong man. Apparently she didn’t see that any of the problem was her fault, and then the guy walked away and left her because he couldn’t stand her behavior any longer. Put this way, it’s a really sad story. Yet too many people, not fictional ones, live their lives in much the same manner.ReplyCancel