Read our detailed study guide on the short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Our study guide covers The Legend of Sleepy Hollow summary, themes, characters, and literary analysis.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Summary
The story begins with a note that is found among the documents of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the deceased narrator of the story. The narrator explains the setting is Tarrytown. Tarry Town gets its name from the activities of the people of the town. For instance, the husbands of the wives of the suburbs “tarry” or linger at the taverns for longer.
Further in the tale, Knickerbocker discusses a valley that is sandwiched between two hills. He calls it the most silent and serene place. The narrator has some good memories of the place. For instance, he would visit the valley to hunt squirrels. Also, when he would feel the need for some quiet and lone time, he would go there.
The name of the place is “Sleepy Hollow”. This name also embodies the nature of the place. For example, the valley is calm and dream-like as if the whole valley is in a slumber. The people of the town supposedly descended from ancient Dutch predecessors. They are also superstitious and strange. They often hear voices and have horrible visions. Furthermore, it is assumed that a German doctor or an Indian chief has cast a spell over the valley. Therefore, it tends to be supernatural.
From the above assumption, it is clear that the people of the valley are interested in ghost stories themselves. They love to narrate to others the captivating ghost stories of “Sleepy Hollow”. The most overspread story is that of the Headless Horseman. The people believe it to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in the Revolutionary War by a cannonball. The term “Hessian” means the German soldiers hired by Britain for war.
Now, he roams on his horseback in the valley at night. According to the narrator, the “authentic historians” state that he rides towards the church in search of his lost head to attach it to his body. However, he returns to his resting place in the graveyard before dawn. This story is approved by the “authentic historians” who also weave fictive tales.
Whoever comes to the valley to spend some time is prone to seeing the Headless Horseman. As they breathe in the enchanting atmosphere, they indulge in a dream-like state and begin to have visions. Although time changes every place and advances life, Sleepy hollow remains the same. The people have the same old conventions and customs that time cannot change. For instance, the narrator has not returned to the valley for long. However, he is aware of the fact that the same people would be living in the same places in a similar state of life.
The narrator further describes a man in the “remote period” of history that is just thirty years back, ironically. The man from Connecticut lived for some time in Sleepy Hollow as a schoolteacher. His name is Ichabod Crane. He is a tall man with long hands and feet but has a small head that signifies him as an absentminded character in a dreamy town. He also has a big nose and protruding eyes.
Ichabod is a teacher in a one-roomed school on the hillside. He keeps the students in line by using his rod because he minds the idiom “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. Therefore, Ichabod uses his whip on the stronger and healthy children but is sympathetic towards the weaker ones. Ichabod is friendly with selective older boys. He is also good at the younger ones and takes them home. It is because the parents of Sleepy Hollow do not approve of book learning. They also hold negative feelings towards school teachers. Therefore, for his best interest, he has to be good at them.
Ichabod’s appetite is also a burden on his pocket and he cannot afford to satisfy it. Therefore, he stays with each farmer for one week and they feed him in return for some errands or minor help. As a result, he does not seem to be a burden for the people of the valley. Also, he teaches their children abstract ideas and plays with them that please their mothers. He uses a strategic way to approach these people and tries to win them with good appearances.
Ichabod considers himself a talented teacher and takes pride in his voice. He leads Sunday prayers in the chapel and gives singing training to students also. However, the narrator says that his voice still resounds in silent mornings in the chapel. Ichabod is popular among the ladies of the valley. They admire his intellect and knowledge. As he lives with different people each week, he spreads gossip with them also. The people also admire his reading skills and wonder how he knows too much about “History of New England Witchcraft” by Cotton Mather.
Although he is dodgy and selfish, he believes in magic and witchery. Ichabod loves to read stories of ghosts and spells. He reads the stories of Cotton Mather’s book in the evening. He tries to quench his “appetite” with them until it is dark to read further. However, when he returns to his room, he is so affected by them that even a click or a firefly sparkle frightens him. To deal with his fear, he sings psalms, which further impresses the people.
Ichabod is also friends with the elderly women of the Sleepy Hollow. He listens to their horror stories about the valley. They use the whole Sleepy Hollow as their setting for the ghost tales. For example, the most captivating tale that they narrate is that of the Headless Horseman. Likewise, Ichabod also enchants them with his knowledge of ghost stories from the book or his hometown.
After the time he spends with the women, he incorporates the fear of those ghost stories. When he returns home, he feels that the blowing wind is the Headless Horseman treading behind him. Similarly, the bushes appear ghosts to him and his footsteps seem those of a spirit. To clarify, he is unlike the elderly women who forget the stories and live as if nothing has happened. On the other, those tales take a permanent part in his reality. When the day breaks, it washes away his fears as well.
However, in the morning, Ichabod confronts a more alarming individual than ghosts or witches. That being is Katrina Van Tassel, the single daughter of a rich farmer of the valley. She comes to attend his chorus classes. To specify, she is a fleshy woman who puts on a lot of gold jewelry to show off her class. She is also a kind of flirt character.
For Ichabod, Katrina is “so tempting a morsel” to grab his thoughts. He again associates her with his appetite. Once, Ichabod visits the farm of Baltus Van Tassel, Katrina’s father. It is located near a brook and is protected by an elm tree. The barn is full of farming goods and different animals like pigeons, fowls, master cock, ducks, geese, and pigs.
Ichabod thinks of all those animals as a part of his dinner in winter with other dishes. He also cannot hold his greed after seeing the meadows filled with wheat, corn, rye, and fruits. The long description of Van Tassel’s farm depicts Ichabod’s materialism and greed. He does not only want to own them but also intends to consume them as his lavish servings.
Ichabod imagines becoming rich from the wealth of Katrina and it attracts him to her even more than before. He thinks of getting all the wealth that he will bundle up in a carriage and head towards the West along with Katrina and his children. He, in a way, imagines himself married and settled even before his courtship with her. This is all because of his huge appetite.
Now Ichabod’s urge to achieve her becomes more. However, he has to encounter many hardships. These are more laborious than the toils of knights against demons, dragons, giants, enemies, and other forces. Katrina is so impulsive and proud to win. Secondly, she has many other suitors also. The most intimidating rival for Ichabod is Abraham Van Brunt. He is a strong and powerful young man nicknamed as Brom Bones. He’s a skillful horseman and is a good fighter, racer, and a more wickedly mischievous man.
Whenever a duel or a misdeed occurs in the area, people think of Brom Bones involved in that occurrence. It is because he is always in search of a battle. Despite that, he is liked by the people and they are amused by his doings. His representation makes it nearly impossible for Ichabod to fight him for Katrina.
The other suitors silently withdraw from attempting at Katrina because of Brom Bones. On the contrary, Ichabod resolves to continue his courtship subtly. He believes in a strategic way of fighting if one cannot win openly. Also, Katrina’s parents do not object to any of the suitors. Her father also loves her and her mother thinks that he has spoiled her.
Nonetheless, the efforts continue. The narrator wonders about the hearts of women that they are sometimes conquered easily while other times, one has to fight for quite long. For example, Brom Bones does not appear to win her whimsical nature. He does not visit her more; however, he wants an open duel with Ichabod. Brom Bones mocks Ichabod in every way and goes up to the extent of blocking his school chimney to fill the whole room with smoke. However, his plans constantly fail in winning Katrina’s heart.
On a winter evening, Ichabod sits in front of his classroom flipping around his whip. The students are busy with their works. A black man arrives on a horse and invites him for an event in the Van Tassel farm that evening. However, Ichabod’s confidence goes higher on the invitation. For instance, he becomes one of the formal suitors of Katrina for the family.
Therefore, he hurries classroom activities and lets his students finish their lessons quickly. He also lets them leave their books wherever they want and go home an hour early. In this extra time, he can make additional preparation for his visit and he can put on his only good garment. After dressing as a knight, he mounts on a horse he has borrowed from an elderly man, Hans Van Ripper.
Ichabod rides the old, shaggy, and one-eyed horse in a truly romantic spirit with his arms and elbows flapping outside. The horse is named Gunpowder that seems a bit ironic for such a wretched one.
It is a pleasant winter day and beautiful birds are chirping around the fresh colorful trees in the forest. Ichabod looks at them greedily that all these beauties will become his feast one day. He will own nature if he succeeds in marrying Katrina. The different kinds of edibles prompt his mind in thinking all the awaiting pleasures to be devoured.
Ichabod reaches Van Tassel’s farm in the evening. He witnesses that the place is already full of the well-to-do farmers and their families dressed traditionally. However, some of the daughters of the farmers have given a slightly modern touch to their outfits. The gentleman, Brom Bones is also there with his horse Daredevil. For instance, the horse name also signifies its mischievous nature like him.
Upon entering the house, Ichabod encounters several beautiful ladies; however, his eyes rest on the tea table. It is lavishly filled with Dutch delicacies. These include ginger cakes, pies, sweet cakes, and doughnuts. He thinks all of these delicious foods as his property after becoming Katrina’s husband. He would also end his relationship with lower-class teachers and other people like Hans Van Ripper.
When the dinner is over, dancing begins. Ichabod is excited because he is proud of his dancing just like his singing. There are many black people, perhaps slaves, looking inside the hall through windows and are enjoying the party. On the other side, Ichabod gets the chance to dance with Katrina, which infuriates Brom Bones. Thus Ichabod finally earns the upper hand over Bones.
After the dance party, the aged guests gather around Ichabod, and the story session begins. They tell each other war stories because this area played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. Some of them quite fictionalize the war due to its ancientness, ironically. Some of them go to the extent of saying that they have exploded the British tank single-handedly. As time passes, the line between reality and fiction blurs easily.
Then the group of guests begins horror stories that last longer. It is because the place is also notorious for supernatural elements. The area is in the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow and the ghosts seem to be familiar with the people. The people of the Sleepy Hollow discuss various ghost stories. Some of them are the abduction of Major Andre, the woman in a white dress who hovers about Raven Rock, and the Headless Horseman who has recently been seen heading towards the church graveyard.
The church is located in an isolated forest with the Hudson River flowing nearby. It is also surrounded by thick bushes. Therefore, it makes a favorite place for the Headless Horseman. The above-mentioned ghosts are somehow related to the Revolutionary War or are real figures in history.
As the stories are over, the party ends and the guests leave for their homes. However, Ichabod stays for a while to have some chat with Katrina confident of his personality. However, he leaves the place in a disheartened mood. The narrator is unaware of what happens between the two.
On the way back to Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod feels that he is encountering every story they had gossiped about at the party. All the ghost stories seem to come through his mind and he experiences them. He even tries to close his eyes and sing Psalms but he feels a giant object towering before him. This is the most discussed figure of the Headless Horseman.
His horse paces fast and the Horseman also speeds up. In fright, Ichabod misses the path towards Sleepy Hollow and heads downhill towards the church. When he sees the church, Ichabod thinks that the Horseman may disappear if Ichabod reaches the church. However, he still stands tall before him upon reaching there. The Headless Horseman throws his head on Ichabod and knocks him off the Gunpowder (horse).
The next day, Ichabod does not appear at breakfast or school. When people search for him, they only find horse steps, a smashed pumpkin, and Ichabod’s hat. They think that the Headless Horseman has abducted Ichabod also. No one cares about him or the incident anymore. However, after some time, a farmer informs about Ichabod that he ran away from the town and is a successful judge now.
Thus, another ghost story of a school teacher begins who was haunted and who loved singing. Brom Bones marries Katrina shortly afterward. When people talk about Ichabod’s incidence, he smiles in a familiar gesture.
In the postscript, Knickerbocker tells that he has heard the story from some in Manhattan. When an old man asks him about the moral of the story, he says that one has to read it to understand it. However, the elderly man says that he does not believe it to be all true. To this, Knickerbocker says that he does not trust in its complete authenticity also.
Background of the Story
The short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of the two most appreciated stories of Washington Irving. The other one is “Rip Van Winkle”. These stories make the genre of earliest American fiction, making Irving the forefather of early fiction writing. Irving published the story as gothic fiction in 1820. It is included in Irving’s collection of short stories and essays entitled “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”. Through the whimsical mode of the story, Irving tries to teach how fear can get the best of us.
In contemporary times, American literature was still budding. The Europeans would make fun of the lack of American culture. However, with “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” Irving struck a blow in the face of the European counterparts. His collection of stories got famous instantly. Hence, he became the first author to be followed in America and Europe widely.
The given work is the story of a sleepy little town. It has realistic elements in the narration of the tale of Headless Horse or the war effects; however, that is not completely original. Irving takes inspiration for his story from old folklore. The story has a blend of horror, gothic, comedy, romanticism, action, and adventure that makes it unique and appealing.
On one hand, Irving shapes the story as a lighthearted comic tale that provides entertainment and amusement for the people. On the other hand, it has some instructions for the people of contemporary life. For instance, the people were so much embedded in fears of religion and punishment for their sins. For example, the story depicts the life of a man who is superstitious about supernatural beings. However, he gets trapped in his sins and greed and disappears mysteriously.
Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” occurs at some time in the 1790s. This era was very close to American independence. The Declaration of Independence happened just fourteen years back. Similarly, seven years before, the Treaty of Paris winded up the Revolutionary War.
The dangers of war and severe bloodshed were still fresh in the minds of people, especially those of Tarry Town depicted in the story. The citizens would recall the horrible war that created restlessness in their lives. Many writers used this fear in their works to signify the emotional situation of contemporary society. To elaborate, Irving also portrayed such horror in his story making it a speculative horror. Although the story is fiction, it appeals to certain real instances. For example, the Headless Horseman is considered to be a Hessian soldier who was beheaded in the war by a cannonball.
Likewise, in the story, Irving creates a rich local history. However, it enforces national unity also. At that time, due to war and recent independence, people were more devoted to their local identity than national solidarity. For example, the citizens were more TarryTown people or New Yorkers rather than “Americans”. Therefore, the writers struggled to create national patriotism in people.
The tales “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” are significantly influenced by German and Dutch folktales. To highlight, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” acts as a revolutionary story for the conditions of that era. For instance, it foregrounds that America has a history of its own. It has its culture and literature, no matter its roots can be embedded anywhere.
The story creates an American perspective of life. It makes Irving the first professional writer of America. It also highlights the literary period of “American Romanticism” with its gothic and romantic features.
Themes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Imagination and Reality
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the narrator presents TarryTown as a place where people love to gossip about horror tales and supernatural elements. Therefore, the entire town seems to be in a dreamy enchantment of those tales. Anyone coming from other areas also gets affected by the spells of the town because they also show interest in such folktales.
According to the narrator, it is a place “abound with chronicles and great men”. Unfortunately, Ichabod Crane also falls in this trap of ghost tales and then goes deep down it. For instance, he fails to separate the real from the imaginary. The Tarry Town has a “witching influence” upon the residents and those who live there for a while. It is because of their eagerness to discuss these tales and they think of them as real historical events.
Ichabod Crane also loves to hear about these folklores. For instance, he reads witchcraft and converses with the elderly Dutch wives about the town tales. Therefore, he gets swayed in its imagination and is not able to pull himself out of the fictive parts of the stories. When the women narrate terror stories, they forget them at the instance. However, Ichabod cannot let them slip from the mind. In other words, those tales invade his reality and enter his consciousness. Thus, they become an inseparable part of his reality.
Ichabod’s flaw to make the difference between fiction and reality becomes a hurdle in his goal to gain Katrina. Supposedly, Brom Bones uses his weakness to frighten him and tricks him for his wild thoughts. In the end, he wins Katrina and her estate.
Although Ichabod loses Katrina, he presumably runs away from the horrible town where the supernatural has a firm place in people’s lives. He makes a man of himself by becoming a successful judge. Indeed, the ghost tales have their place in history and they represent the fictive data of a place. However, Irving warns against the molding of those imaginary tales in one’s reality.
Historicity in the Story
Although Diedrich Knickerbocker is the fictional narrator of the story, he is presented as a historian of true events. Here Irving creates an ironic description of American history with its reference to near events as “remote history”. It presents that the historians of the early period did not have enough of their past to create references to.
Another effort that Irving puts to provide a proof for American history is the various Dutch references throughout the story. He uses Dutch names and places to confirm their early history as an authentic one. For instance, North America was inhabited earlier by the Dutch people, however, these references create an artificial heritage in their history.
Irving also gives his story a sense of historical authenticity by using the device called “framing”. Through framing, the writer refers to someone else as the actual narrator or the observer of the situation. As the author refers to the story as one found among the papers of Knickerbocker, it is historically veracious.
Also, Knickerbocker is called a “historian”. To add to its historical reality, the narrator does not have information about certain instances also. For example, he does not know what happens at the party that makes Ichabod quite depressed. Also, he has no idea what becomes of Ichabod at the end. Similarly, we come to know from the postscript that Knickerbocker is not the witness of the story himself, he has taken it from another storyteller and he frames it too.
The story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” mixes history with storytelling. The supernatural events that the town people believe to happen are also taken from historical events. For example, the Headless Horseman and Major Andre were war people. Thus, history happened somewhere else. However, the people of Sleepy Hollow weave them as they exist in the town even now. Through this, Irving creates a historical context for the emerging American nation.
The title “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” itself refers to the story as a horror tale. However, from the narration, it does not seem to be under a bewitching influence. For example, the people of Sleepy Hollow take interest and pride in telling ghost stories. They love to talk about the supernatural. To elaborate, they repeat the tales of the Headless Horseman, Major Andre, and the woman in white.
By excessive involvement in those tales, they incorporate the effects of the supernatural. For example, Ichabod is quite interested in learning about novel horror tales. However, he feels that they happen to him later on. Even when Brom Bones fabricates a fake story about his race with the Headless Horseman, Ichabod experiences it the next moment.
The horrible history of the place does not tend to be real, it is entirely made up. In any case, it is real when it overpowers the psyche of people.
The Theme of War
The story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is based on the history of the American Revolution. Also, it is set as a battle for the hand of a wealthy farmer’s daughter, Katrina Van Tassel. First, the ghost stories that catalyze the plot of the story are related to the Revolutionary War that happened just thirty years before the happening of the story. For example, the headless horseman and Major Andre are two warriors who died in the war.
Second, the war for Katrina involves certain conflicts between Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane. Bro Bones signifies a strong, mischievous, and manly character. On the contrary, Ichabod is a weak, greedy, and absentminded school teacher. Brom Bones gets involved in practical jokes and physical violence against Ichabod while Ichabod woos Katrina strategically. The situation becomes quite knight-like when Irving describes Ichabod’s preparation and his arrival at Van Tassel for the party. He is described as a warrior going to win his princess.
In the early times in the US, this mobility between the classes was common. The characters were also given the freedom to fluctuate between the upper and lower classes for economic gains rather than territory or power.
Greed for More
The story defines how greed and gluttony gets a horrible end. As in the beginning, it is discussed that Ichabod’s job as a teacher cannot fill his belly, so he has to rotate in different lodgings to get more food. He is a “huge feeder” with a great engulfing capacity like “an anaconda”. In his desire to marry Katrina, Ichabod’s ultimate wish to become ultra-rich would be fulfilled because she is a “tempting morsel” for him. Therefore, despite his strong opponent, he decides to continue his lust for Katrina’s wealth and farming goods.
Whenever he visits her father’s farm, Ichabod imagines all of the beautiful animals and birds as his feast. He thinks that he will be a rich guy with all the goods as his sole ownership. In this over-imagination, he loses everything, even his job as a schoolteacher. He is also overpowered by the supernatural forces that he creates in his mind.
Irving’s careful selection of vocabulary also describes Ichabod’s greed. For example, he considers Katrina as a “tempting morsel” to be consumed. He also likes horror stories and “swallows” them passionately. It is because, in early American society, huge greed for consumption was common. The people were eager to gain more material goods and raise their status above others. However, as Irving depicts, this greed can have negative impacts on life.
Description and Appearances
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the characters are defined in terms of their names and appearances. Their exterior defines their personality. For example, Ichabod Crane has a lean stature and bulging eyes. His eyes represent greed and gluttony. Similarly, his long limbs and weak body describe his hunger to get wealth in abundance for consumption.
On the other hand, Brom Bones has a strong body with heavy muscles. His name “Bones” also represents his strong nature. He symbolizes physical force and mischief. He throws practical jokes at Ichabod but Ichabod cannot fight him physically. Therefore, he goes with subtle strategies. In the end, Brom Bones’ power wins and he marries Katrina.
Nature is in many ways related to wealth in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. For instance, Baltus Van Tassel is wealthy because he has a huge farming land, many birds and animals, and lots of fruits and vegetables growing on his land. The people of Sleepy Hollow develop a harmonious relationship with nature. They live quietly in a tranquil life with no harm to nature.
On the contrary, Ichabod has a very poor relationship with nature. He does not want its beauty to thrive. However, he always thinks of getting the natural environment on his table to devour. In a way, he is forgetful of the relationship of man to nature. His only desire is to get something to eat from the natural environment. In the end, the same natural surroundings become dreadful for him because of his overthinking.
Ichabod Crane is a young man from Connecticut. He lived in Sleepy Hollow for some time as a school teacher. He is a tall but a lean man that signifies his greed. Although he is not quite well looking, he is well-liked by the people of TarryTown. His name “Ichabod” means “no glory” thus signifying his character. Ichabod has a huge appetite. His salary is not enough to feed his belly; therefore, he rotates among the farmers of the town. They feed him and in turn, he runs small errands for them.
He also runs a single-roomed school where he teaches farmers’ children. He is quite strict at school but knows how to convince their parents with his favorable and cunning behavior. Ichabod also arranges singing and dancing classes. He assumes that he has a huge talent for these skills. However, according to the narrator, after his Sunday sermon, his voice echoes in the chapel for the rest of the mornings. This is the status of his terrible voice.
Ichabod has a violent mode of imagination just like his wild appetite. He loves to read and listen to ghost tales. However, after reading, he is afraid at night. This is because he is unable to make a distinction between imagination and reality. For instance, he thinks that the fictive stories are real and have come to haunt him. The “witchy” air of Sleepy Hollow influences his mind also. These stories affect him more than the town people.
Also, Ichabod’s greed is such that leads to a tragic end. For example, when he comes to perceive that Katrina is good towards him, he gets wild about his future status with her. His only concern is material wealth and consumption. Also, he remembers his present colleagues and his miserable state and resolves to kick them off his life.
Moreover, Ichabod is more of an anti-hero with a blend of the deadly sins in his character. For instance, his school behavior symbolizes his wrath where he whips the gossiping students. However, he is good at their families for food and treats. Similarly, greed is the ultimate flaw that causes him to fail badly in his quest for Katrina. After realizing his failure, he instantly disappears from the story. Thirdly, he is lustful to know more and more about spooky tales. This craving makes life difficult for Ichabod.
Likewise, gluttony is Ichabod’s weakness. Even his desire to marry Katrina is to consume her wealth. He is just a “huge feeder”. Ichabod’s greed for more money and food also predicts his sloth. His ultimate desire is to put his hands on someone else’s riches and take them away with him. Then he will settle in some faraway region and live peacefully.
Ichabod’s envy is also evident from his desire to marry Katrina. In this way, he can own all the wealth of Baltus Van Tassel. Also, he will get an upper hand over Brom Bones’ strength. Similarly, he has an overwhelming pride in his voice and dance. He even teaches the children how to sing and dance. He is also proud of his position as an intelligent schoolmaster.
In the end, Ichabod presumably realizes the consequences of his wild thoughts. Therefore, he returns to his real world to become a successful man. On the contrary, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” he is a misfit and will always remain an anti-hero with worse life features compared to the other inhabitants.
Knickerbocker is the historian of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. He is also Irving’s persona for other stories and is an aged historian of American history who approves of his tales as accurate and authentic. For instance, Irving first used this persona as the author of his “History of New York” in 1809. Also, Irving associates some of his other tales to emerge from Knickerbocker’s documents.
This literary device is called framing. This device makes the story appear as true and historical. This helps Irving develop the story as a shred of historical evidence for American heritage and culture.
In the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Knickerbocker is also the framing narrator. He hears the story from someone else in a business meeting in New York. Now, he writes it to convey the story to other people also.
Abraham Van Brunt or Brom Bones
Brom Bones is a young, strong, and manly man. He serves as a foil for Ichabod. He is also playful and tricky. He is a strong rival for Ichabod because he intends to marry the wealthy and beautiful Katrina Van Tassel. Bones is a good horse rider also. This characteristic slightly hints towards the end when Ichabod is chased by the headless horseman.
Brom Bones symbolizes harmless power and lighthearted practical mischiefs. He does not seem to hurt anyone and is quite liked by the town people for his strength. He is also cleverer than he appears to be. For example, he plays strategically with Ichabod. Bones finds his flaw of overthinking and extreme fear and dupes him there.
As a foil, he has the upper hand over him in every respect. For example, Ichabod is weak and lanky, while Brom Bones symbolizes strength. Likewise, Ichabod is a lonely man with overthinking and fears. However, Bones is a careless, free, and company loving man. Ichabod does not have skill in horse riding, while Bones is a great rider.
He is certainly not the villain of the story. Brom Bones is a kind of anti-villain. For example, he is not seriously evil but is just a little mischievous. He is also harmless, has a sense of humor, and pranks around in the town. He also succeeds in marrying the coveted girl of the town. To explain, this is Irving’s style to represent the protagonist as a negative and greedy character. On the other hand, the foil is depicted as a wildly good or at least a neutral character.
Baltus Van Tassel
Baltus Van Tassel is a rich farmer of TarryTown. He is also a character as “jolly as the harvest moon”. He arranges huge parties for the town people and has a good heart. He is also a perfect father for Katrina Van Tassel. For example, he surrenders to her choices and does not come in her way of choosing a man for herself.
He is also opposite to the character of Ichabod and his greed. Van Tassel is filthy wealthy and is happy with his belongings. There are long descriptions in the story adorning the overflowing farmhouse of Van Tassel. His name “Baltus” as a short form for “Balthazar” also symbolizes fulfillment, riches, and greenery. To elaborate, Balthazar was the ruling king of Babylon, a state with lots of wealth, a beautiful hanging garden, and diversity.
Katrina Van Tassel
Nevertheless, Katrina is the main object of the clash between Ichabod and Brom Bones, she is hardly a character. She is described in a few lines and has an invisible presence in the story. For instance, she is beautiful, rich, and hard to get. No one in the town can impress her so easily. She is defined with the terms “blooming”, “rosy”, “fresh” etc.
She is a kind of flirt character and is not so delicate or fragile. It is because she is described to rule over her father and others. In a way, she gets whatever she desires. That is why her mother is not worried about her. She only uses Ichabod to make Brom Bones envious. However, she ends up marrying Bones and rejects Ichabod.
Katrina presents a certain degree of independence in her decisions. For example, the women of the 18th-century were not free to choose their life partners or live independently. However, Katrina is free from the restraints of family life that asserts her power over others. She has this dominance due to her rich family and her beauty.
Hans Van Ripper
Hans Van Ripper is a freaky fellow. He is quite ill-tempered and “has the lurking devil in him”. He is also the present host of Ichabod which justifies Ichabod’s lonely status. He lends Ichabod his shaggy, blind horse, Gunpowder for the quilting frolic.
Ichabod’s disappearance also suggests that he might have run away because of Van Ripper’s wrath. For instance, Ichabod loses Van Ripper’s horse saddle in his encounter with the Headless Horseman. In his fear, he supposedly disappears from the story.
As in the 19th-century, people considered book learning and intellectual knowledge as evil. Similar is the thinking of TarryTown people. For example, when Van Ripper finds Ichabod’s books, he burns them out. He also stops his children from going to school because it is a time-wasting activity. Ichabod is also depicted as an anti-intellectual and absentminded character because that was the time for American anti-intellectualism.
The headless horseman or the Galloping Hessian is the corpse of a Hessian soldier who died in the Revolutionary War. According to the Dutch women, he rides every night on his horse and goes to the churchyard graves to find his head. In the dawn, he returns to his resting place.
The short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” sets out with a fanciful description of a small American valley, Sleepy Hollow. The residents of the valley are in harmony with nature and live in a hearty and beautiful surrounding. This tranquil life is contrasted with the insatiable and crafty perspective of urban people in the representation of Ichabod Crane. The story contrasts the innocent and honest country people with a Machiavellian urban guy.
Furthermore, the story attracts a huge readership through a blend of gothic elements and historic events gathered in a captivating fictive piece. This mixture leaves the audience in confusion whether the supernatural forces are real or entirely imaginative.
Through the story, Irving creates a mocking parody of the classic chivalric tales. For example, Ichabod’s quest for Katrina is described as the most difficult task and he is called “Knight errant” several times. This includes a comic romanticism to the story, making the readers crackle at the miserable state of Ichabod. The tone is also humorous and suggestive of Ichabod’s frail personality.
Similarly, the story predicts the situation when a person is unable to separate reality from imagination. For example, Ichabod loves supernatural stories. However, he fails to make a distinction between reality and fiction. Therefore, he loses his goal and ends up wretchedly. We can assume a similar behavior of the town people also. They believe in the presence of spirits in their town. The supernatural is in itself a perplexing phenomenon.
The story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a tale comprising supernatural elements interwoven with the reality of the people. It comes under the genre of Gothic-Romanticism. For instance, Romanticism emerged as a movement against the reason and logic of the enlightenment era. It preferred emotions and sympathy over reason. In the story, the romantic features are embedded in a feeling of dread and horror of the supernatural world. Therefore, it is a gothic and romantic tale.
However, the story is a kind of ironic parody of the gothic and romantic features of classic stories. For example, Irving’s protagonist is quite opposite to the classic chivalric heroes of great romantic works. His description of going to Van Tassel’s party ironically parodies his fragile persona as a knight. He wants to marry for money, not for love. He also encounters a giant (Horseman) but fails badly. Both Brom Bones and Ichabod are numerously phrased as “knight errant”. This depicts their inability to have personalities that define true knighthood.
Similarly, gothic features are also mocked. The Headless Horseman is just a tale weaved by the town people. When the protagonist encounters such a figure, it is his weak heart and over-imagination that overpowers him.
The story is written in a humorous and ironic tone. Whenever there is irony on Ichabod or any other character, the tone becomes humorous. Ichabod’s dancing description is one of them. For example, the narrator praises Ichabod dance skills that he has his “loosely hung frame in full motion”. This depicts his flaw as a flimsy character dancing like a scarecrow.
Also, when it comes to the narrator, the tone becomes puzzled. It is because the narrator does not have much information about the situation. For example, in the beginning, he gives a good description of Ichabod’s skills; however, Ichabod is not worth it. Later on, he wonders at Katrina’s heart that he has no idea how women become hard to woo sometimes.
The title “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” refers to Irving’s gothic story as a legend, thus adding it to the historic trend of great legend stories. Likewise Sleepy Hollow is a real place. This gives a touch of realism to the work.
The term “Sleepy Hollow” also signifies the sleepiness of the people of the town. They are always in a dreamy state. For instance, they seem to be under the effect of some kind of supernatural influence. There is very little change or improvement in people’s lives except for their increasing ghost stories.
The word hollow may refer to Ichabod’s hollow personality as a protagonist. He is an absentminded teacher and a fragile character. The “Hollow” also symbolizes the supernatural stories that the people make without confirming their true value. Their mental levels have accepted the reality of those stories up to the extent that they feel them happening in their surroundings.
The setting of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the post-Revolutionary War American state. In America, the effects of the war were felt for a longer period. It affected the writings of several writers who portrayed the miseries of war. Irving was one of them. In the story, he depicts a small town of America, Sleepy Hollow.
The minds of the people of Sleepy Hollow were hugely affected by the bloodshed of war. Therefore, they remembered it for a long time. Irving presents such supernatural tales mixed with historical events from the war. The town of Sleepy Hollow confirms its name with the narrator’s description of it. For example, the people and the place are in a dreamy state. They love spooky tales and that influence the area.
Another significant setting is the farmhouse of Baltus Van Tassel. Van Tassel is a rich farmer with lands, birds, animals, fruits, and pulses in his ownership. For instance, the long description of Baltus’ riches defines the standard for wealth in rural America. The place has abundant “treasures of the farm”. Baltus is happy with his needs fulfilled. He does not crave extravagant riches.
“A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
For ever flushing round a summer sky.”
The epigraph for the story is extracted from James Thomson’s poem “The Castle of Indolence”. It occurs as an inspiration for many other gothic works. Similarly, the epigraph develops the tone for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” also. After this serene description, Ichabod shows up making things complicated.
Irving’s writing style is quite complex. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, he uses long sentences with an abundance of punctuation marks. Some of the sentences are above one-hundred words.
Irving’s style also consists of huge descriptions. For example, he gives a full-length description of Ichabod and Baltus’ farm. He even describes a beautiful day in Sleepy Hollow through an interestingly detailed account of it. The descriptions a bit slow down the narrative and give little action to the story. However, Irving does succeed in creating pictorial representations of the incidences.
Point of View
The story is narrated through a third person objective narration. It has many layers of narrations. For example, the story is retrieved from the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker. Therefore, Knickerbocker is the narrator. However, it is revealed in the postscript that he has heard the story from an old man in a business meeting in New York.
The story is published in “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” with the pseudonym, Geoffrey Crayon. The writer is also fictive like the narrator. However, Washington Irving is the real author of the short story. This confused narration makes distances between the story events and the readers. It is because the objective narrator does not peek into the individual lives so openly.
However, Irving tries to give the story a realistic touch by limiting the narrator’s view. For example, he is unaware of what happens between Katrina and Ichabod that forces him to leave in such despair. Similarly, the narrator does not describe the end of Ichabod after falling from the horse. It is because he is simply not present there and cannot tell some fabricated story.
The Headless Horseman
The Headless Horseman, despite being a major part of the stories of town people, is a symbol of Ichabod’s fears. The myth of Headless horseman is not entirely made off by Irving. It is taken from other sources and is molded according to his tale. Before Irving, the horse chasing theme can be witnessed in German Gottfried Burger’s “The Wild Huntsman”. Similarly, Karl Musaus, the German folklorist, also composes his folktale based on one such theme of horse chasing as a supernatural pursuit.
However, Irving associates the Headless Horseman’s figure with a Hessian soldier who had lost his head in the Revolutionary War. The Hessians were those warriors who were hired by the British military to fight against American rebels. Therefore, they were frightening even in their lives because of their training and a huge number. Irving finds a good reason to make a Hessian as a spooky supernatural figure. The Galloping Hessian’s figure indeed creates fear in the minds of people as an enemy even after death.
The people of Sleepy Hollow had witnessed the terror of these warriors. They also are aware of the trauma caused by the war that happened in the near past. Therefore, they create real historical figures as ghosts in their stories because they have seen how horrible the bloodshed of war was. It deprived the people of their belongings and they seem to be in search of them.
Likewise, the head of Headless Horseman may also symbolize the line between fiction and reality of the people. They weave the stories in such a way that they appear true. Most of the people believe in them which create dread in them. The head of Horseman also signifies Ichabod’s flaw to separate reality from imagination. The Headless Horseman has his head blown away in the war. However, Ichabod loses his reality each time he listens to the ghost stories. In turn, he gets tricked by Brom Bones who uses his mind to strike Ichabod through the “head” of the Headless Horseman.
Ichabod Crane is the lanky school teacher with a depreciative voice. However, he is enormously proud of his singing that he begins teaching singing and dancing skills. The town people are also impressed by his singing capabilities. For instance, Ichabod sings Sunday prayers for them also.
To clarify, Ichabod only sings in certain instances. His songs mostly occur on religious occasions. For example, Ichabod sings in the chapel on Sundays. However, he also sings when he reads or listens to scary stories and is frightened. At that time, he sings psalms either to keep the ghosts away or to turn his mind to something else than reminding horror tales.
On the other hand, when Ichabod encounters the Headless Horseman at the end, he loses his capacity to sing. It depicts that there is some real figure in the scene that grips Ichabod’s consciousness so he cannot sing anymore. He has to fight instead of diverting his mind from reality.
“History of England Witchcraft” by Cotton Mather
Though Ichabod seems to be a figure of intelligence and knowledge in the Sleepy Hollow, he does not represent such qualities in reality. He is interestingly famous among town ladies because he interacts with them through his horror tales. This shows their bend towards ghost tales also. He also has other books, which is a rare thing in Sleepy Hollow. It means for them that he is intelligent. However, the fathers of town children consider schoolteachers as “drones”. They do not favor book learning for their children. Finally, after Ichabod, Han Van Ripper burns his books.
Ichabod’s reading of “History of England Witchcraft” presents the same idleness. He is overly obsessed with witchcraft and spirits. This presents him as a cunning and evil-minded person. However, this also shows his position as a flawed schoolteacher who takes interest in imaginative fiction rather than conforming to scientific realities.
His knowledge and books signify reason and logic. On the contrary, the town people are not welcoming towards scientific reason. They ask Ichabod to keep his reason with himself. They are reluctant to change their lives according to the emerging advancements and tend to live traditionally. That’s why when the man says that Ichabod is alive, people do not consider him worth noticing. However, they remain to think that he has been taken away by the Headless Horseman.
The witchcraft book also symbolizes his place as an immature person who shows interest in fairy tales and terror creating stories. He is not yet free from his childlike imagination and cannot separate his reality from imagination. This is expressed by the fact that he “tarries” purposelessly in TarryTown rather than being serious about his future. However, when he presumably leaves the town in search of reality, he finally gets a knowledgeable and respected life.
Hunger for Food
Ichabod has a massive hunger and he cannot fill his belly with the salary of a schoolteacher. Therefore, he lives with the farmers to feed him. He has, in a sense, “dilating powers of an anaconda”. However, food is not his only appetite.
Ichabod is overly obsessed with spirits also. For instance, he takes great pleasure in reading and gossiping about ghost stories. This makes him over-imaginative and spooky himself. He fails to understand the line between what’s real and what’s made up.
His appetite also extends to the riches of the people. For example, Baltus Van Tassel is a rich farm owner with lots of resources. When Ichabod encounters his life, he falls for his wealth. Therefore, he makes up his mind to marry his daughter to become the master of Van Tassel’s riches. These obsessions show that Ichabod is an enormously greedy figure with a huge appetite to devour everything.