Sleeping Through Life

American Literature

Julia Joyce

Washington Irving wrote a short story called “Rip Van Winkle” about a man who gets lost in the woods.  Before getting into the story I need to take a sentence to appreciate the fact that the fictitious author mentioned is named Deidrick Knickerbocker, and that is just wonderful.  In the story Rip Van Winkle does not just get lost in the woods, he is escaping his wife and goes off to get out of the house.  See, he is this well-loved pillar of the community, but his own wife and kids cannot stand him.  He will do anything for anybody, but he has a list of reasons for why he is lazy at home and will not do anything for his own family.  His wife is described as always yelling at him (and “henpecking” him), and one day he just goes off into the woods with his beloved companion Wolf the dog and his rifle.  While in a rarely visited part of the woods, he sees a stranger struggling to carry a “stout keg”, and Rip offers to help.  They get to the destination and there are a bunch of odd people bowling.  Rip decides to drink some of what he was just carrying, and then he wakes up next to a rusted gun and Wolf is missing.  After a slow process of figuring out what actually happened, Rip learns that he had been asleep for twenty years.  He has a long beard, a dilapidated house, grandkids, and no wife because she has died.  There is no sympathy for the wife he lost or the war he did not have to be a part of.  He soon discovers his daughter will basically take care of him, he has no farm he has to tend to, and he can sit around at the inn he used to frequent and tell stories to anyone who will listen.

I retell that tale maybe a little biasedly so you may want to read it for yourself, but I want to talk about the message this story sends.  Now I may be reading into this too much, but was Rip rewarded (not having to work or put up with his wife anymore) for suffering the tyranny of his wife?  How is that a fair picture?  Why is there nothing in the story that actually develops the wife’s character?  What if there were legitimate reasons for her reactions?  Yelling at her husband was probably not the best idea, but Rip did not do anything around the house, helped everyone else in the village, was not a great father, and left her to keep the house neat which we are told she did.  Then, Rip just walks away from them all and abandons them (admittedly that was not really his fault because no one can really prepare for alcohol that will knock you out for twenty years).  Still, he has no sympathy for her spending all those years he was asleep alone, and raising their kids alone, or the fact that the person he shared a vow with is dead.

You could retort that he was not rewarded for walking away from home that day, but for helping out a stranger.  You could say that he was a great guy because of how he not only put up with his wife, but how he served the entire village.  That is fair, but why does he have such a happy ending for someone who could not have cared less that his own wife was dead?  Not that I want him to suffer, but where is the justice in her having to survive on her own, and him getting to now sit around and tell stories?  No matter how she treated him, marriage should be honored, and cherished.  My problem with this story is really just that it gives the impression if you do not like your marriage or spouse, you should just hope to run into a stranger in the woods with really strong alcohol so you can just fast forward your life and not have to deal with him or her.  Admittedly, there are probably seasons that we would all like to just sleep through and not have to actually experience in our lives, but marriage should not be one of the things we want to escape.  Whatever their issues were, I wish the story had shown a desire to actually work through them instead of a sense of relief at having found he escaped them once and for all.


  • We have very similar feelings about this story! I completely agree with your thoughts on marriage and the seriousness of the matter. I also agree with you on the part about sometimes we would like to sleep through some parts of life, but sometimes we just have to suck it up and deal with it, and that is just the worst.

  • Honestly, I think that the wife so briefly but harshly mentioned in the story deserves more credit than she was given. I appreciate that you pointed out that yelling at Rip may not have been the right thing to do in order to get him to respond, but he deserved it! If Rip had been a better father and a better husband I think that he and his wife would not have had as many problems. List of reasons not to help your family or not, I think that Rip should have done more for the people he was responsible for. Well written! I think that you managed to put words to what a lot of us were thinking while reading this story.

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