Veracity in Storytelling
Veracity in storytelling is a defining theme of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The story is distantly removed from the reader—Crayon has found the story in Diedrich Knickerbocker’s papers, who is dead, and who at the end of the story writes that he heard it from an old gentleman, who claimed to not have even believed half of it himself, ultimately getting much of the story from primary or even other secondary sources. Thus, even where the story is told with confidence, the narrator has given us reasons to doubt evrything.
We become critical readers, unlike Crane, who believes the ghost stories he reads. The narrator also admits to complete ignorance of one of the defining moments of the story—Katrina’s imagined rejection of Ichabod—as well as to its ending.
He does, however, relay a scene which he can only have knowledge of if Crane (or the horseman) has told his story. There were no other witnesses.
Given the narrative frame of the tale, we know that the narrator is not omniscient but has had to rely on others’ tales. Yet, the narrator has not demonstrated that factuality is the point. It is likely that the point of telling the story, just as it has been passed along from one person to another, is in the telling, the enjoyment of the tale. On the one hand, we are critical readers, because otherwise we would not figure out who is playing the role of the horseman. On the other hand, we shouldn’t act like a boring schoolmaster but like a true listener, enjoying the tale.
Crayon almost seems to be challenging the reader to enjoy the story even though he doubts most of it, for in the postscript to the story, in which we find out that the previous narrator does not even believe it, the one man who does not enjoy hearing the story says that the reason he cannot enjoy it is that he does not believe it. This man is presented negatively as some kind of dour doubter, however, thus emphasizing the fact that one is better off suspending disbelief, at least enough to enjoy the tale as it is presented. This is a lesson for some literary critics and professors who lose the joy of reading in the course of minute interpretation.
The Power of Imagination
The power of imagination is very prominent in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and throughout Crayon’s collection as a whole. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod is a rather comedic and foolish protagonist. This comes, largely, from the strength of his imagination, and this leads to his downfall. Ichabod’s primary enjoyment is reading stories about ghosts, demons, and witches, or hearing stories about the same; yet, because his imagination is so powerful, he pays for this dearly, having great frights every time he walks or rides home after dark. The littlest things frighten him, and he can convince himself that almost anything is supernatural. Ichabod’s imagination thus makes his life more difficult, but it does not seem to alter his behavior, since his imagination leads him to think the supernatural things are real.
He continues to read these stories, and he continues to walk home after dark. His imagination in its fantasizing function does, however, seriously affect his life in that it reinforces his impotence. Ichabod’s imagination is so powerful that he believes himself essentially already the owner of the Van Tassel farm. Because he gets so much joy out of this fantasy, he forgets that he has to put forth an effort to make it into a reality, so he does not. Ichabod also tries to woo Katrina, imagining his future life with her. But he does not take Brom seriously enough as a rival, nor does he do anything to prove that he could be a husband who would offer anything to Katrina besides singing lessons. Thus Ichabod’s powerful imagination renders him impotent in reality.
Lack of Class Structure in America
The theme of lack of class structure in America is most clear when reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the greater context of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which offers the European contrast. It is still apparent here, however. Sleepy Hollow is an old town inhabited mostly by descendants of its original settlers. This would seemingly make it prone to family prejudices, a younger parallel to the European aged communities, yet there is no evidence of this kind of hierarchy. Instead, people are valued for their merits, such as their book learning or their ability in teaching, activities requiring strength, or singing. Katrina Van Tassel is desired by almost every eligible young man in Sleepy Hollow, being the rich farmer’s daughter.
In Europe, her lack of title would have limited those who would be interested in her to others of similar status, but in America (or at least this sleepy town) her abundance of resources, combined with her good looks, youth, and charm, are enough to make her very desirable. This is more of a unique money issue than a general class issue. Even as the most desired bachelorette in the neighborhood, moreover, she ends up choosing between a well-liked but irresponsible and rowdy young man, with no fortune that we know of, and a very poor and homeless school teacher with an obsession with ghost stories.
In their community, Ichabod is recommended by his comparatively good education; Brom, by his physical skills and likable personality. Their titles, families, and even money are not explicitly brought into consideration. This contrasts greatly with, for example, “The Pride of the Village,” another story in Irving’s collection, in which a beautiful and virtuous young English woman ends up dying of heartbreak because the man she loves could not conceive of marrying her because of her comparatively low class.
Abundance of Resources in America
Although the source for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is believed to be an old European folktale, in the context of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., it is a very American story. This is clear, first of all, in the fact that it is set in America at all, when the primary cohesive factor of the collection is Crayon’s travels in Europe. Thus its being set in America is not just arbitrary but is an active choice and is thus essential, and this is reflected in several themes. While Europe has history, America has youth, promise, and resources. Ichabod, like Rip Van Winkle, is indolent and impotent, barely able to provide for himself, producing nothing. He is, however, still able to eat almost constantly, as his appetite demands, because of the plentiful resources available in Sleepy Hollow.
That this abundance is important is very clear, for almost half of the story is spent describing commodities: the Van Tassels’ land, farm, animals, house, possessions, and food. Whereas Katrina is described as youthful and pretty, each individual animal, each dish, is described in much more sensuous detail than she is. Thus resources become one of the most important features of the story, which goes along with Crayon’s belief that America’s advantages are in its natural resources and beautiful landscapes, while if one is looking for the best people and histories, Europe would be the better place to go.
Lack of History and Continuity in America
The lack of history and continuity in America, like the lack of class structure, is apparent in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and is even more apparent in the rest of the collection, which offers the European contrast. Sleepy Hollow’s overabundance of ghost stories, when compared to other American neighborhoods, is explained by the fact that it is an old village, whose inhabitants are largely descendants of the original settlers. Thus, even though it is an American village, it is presented as more like a European village than most American neighborhoods, which allows it to have legends. However, its youth in comparison to European towns is still very clear, as when Diedrich Knickerbocker says, facetiously, that the story he is going to relay happened during a very “remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since” (274).
In Europe, thirty years is barely a generation, not quite “history,” but in America, even a twenty-year nap like Rip Van Winkle’s can result in missing a defining period of history. Knickerbocker also emphasizes that a town like Sleepy Hollow is unusual in America, for most towns do not develop ghost stories, since no ghosts would come back to haunt people who move along so quickly. Sleepy Hollow is disconnected from other towns to the degree that even though Crane is alive somewhere, the people of the town never hear about him. The lack of history and continuity give people in America more freedom, such as freedom of movement, because it is accepted that people come and go and have to succeed on the basis of their talents. People do not have to live up to any expectations set by the generations that came before them.
The Natural and the Supernatural
Irving paints a strong contrast between the natural setting of Sleepy Hollow and the supernatural superstitions of the townspeople. Were it not for the people, with their stories of ghosts and their fears of ghosts, there would be no ghosts. Meanwhile, much of the tale focuses on the natural setting: the birds, trees, and the rest of the flora and fauna of the area, as well as the bodies of water, all described in beautiful detail. Was Ichabod hit by a ghostly head or a natural pumpkin? It seems clear that the natural explanation should make more sense.
But in Sleepy Hollow, there is a vibrant tradition of privileging ideas of the supernatural, and despite all the natural evidence, many people in the town blame the Headless Horseman for Ichabod’s disappearance. Finally, folklore about supernatural beings often focuses on ways that they can be controlled by natural things. For instance, because of the idea that ghosts haunt specific areas, people imagine that they cannot cross a bridge over a body of water, which would take them into a new area. Althouh the supernatural is by definition beyond the natural world, people seek to rationalize, contain, and contain it through storytelling and folklore.
Although “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a light-hearted story, told in a humorous manner, it does not paint the most flattering picture of humanity—it probably does not “prompt a benevolent view of human nature” as Crayon says he desires to do in his writing. This is particularly true in the rampant selfishness seen in most of the characters. Most obviously, Ichabod desires Katrina most of all for the increase to his material wealth she would represent, and he even imagines himself selling off her family’s farm once it would be in his possession, for the money. Even when Ichabod shows his better characteristics, helping out around the farms he stays at and keeping the children and wives happy, his primary goal in doing so is to keep his hosts content so that they will let him stay, and continue to feed him.
Yet this is not the only example of greed or selfishness. Katrina uses Ichabod to secure Brom’s affection—she may understand Ichabod’s true motives, but either way, it cannot be denied that she does not hesitate to use him to suit her purposes. That this selfishness, or at least self-centeredness, is not confined to a few characters becomes very clear when Ichabod disappears. A search party is created, but only because Hans Van Ripper wants his missing saddle back, and when there is no sign of Ichabod, nobody cares. This is because has no debts, the assumption being that if he had owed anyone any money, they would have put much more effort into finding him. Thus Sleepy Hollow is a collection of people who, as in most places, put their self-interest first.
About The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published as part of Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, which came out in 1820. It is probably the most famous story from the collection, and it is considered one of Irving’s most important stories. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon was extremely well-received in America and was the first work by an American author to be reviewed well in Europe. The collection of stories and essays made Irving’s reputation and established him as a preeminent American author. Most of the sketches concern his observations as an American visiting England, but six, including the two most famous—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—deal with American scenes, including adaptations of German folklore retold with New York as the setting, a romantic defense of Native Americans, and a few other essays.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” thought to have a source in a German folktale, tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a greedy and naïve schoolmaster from Connecticut who tries to win the hand of the flirtatious and very wealthy Katrina Van Tassel. Brom Bones, a neighborhood hero, is also in love with Katrina, and he has a tendency to play pranks on others, which will come to haunt Ichabod soon enough. Ichabod is especially fascinated by ghost stories and witches, and Sleepy Hollow is known for its supernatural activity–especially its infamous ghost, the Headless Horseman. One night, after a party at the Van Tassels’ at which Katrina probably rejects Ichabod (she might be in on Brom’s plan), Ichabod finds himself joined by a dark figure on a large horse on his ride home. He cannot shake his unwanted companion, and Crane eventually realizes that the horseman has no head. Ichabod does his best to escape, but just when he expects the Headless Horseman to disappear, the ghost instead throws the “head” at him, knocking him off his horse.
The next day, nothing is found of Ichabod but his hat, and next to it lies a smashed pumpkin. Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again, and Brom Bones soon after marries Katrina. The townspeople blame Ichabod’s disappearance on the headless horseman, but Brom seems to know something more. The tale thus brings a love story and a ghost story together, but most of all it is a comic tale. The plot appeals to common sentiments, but the story makes fun of communities that are so sleepy that they need ghosts and ghost stories to keep people occupied. It also makes fun of a schoolmaster who is supposed to be one of the smartest people in the town, yet he believes in ghosts and is easily spooked and tricked by a practical joke. The man of letters plays second fiddle to the athletic, strong Brom Bones
Baltus Van Tassel
Baltus Van Tassel, also known as Balt, is a thriving and contented farmer, father of Katrina, who is perfectly happy within the confines of his farm. He lives abundantly but not proudly.
Brom Van Brunt
Brom, short for Abraham, is Ichabod Crane’s greatest rival in the fight for Katrina’s hand. He is boisterous, burly, and the hero of the area, known for his heroics and feats of strength, for which he earns the nickname Brom Bones. He is especially for skilled on horseback. He is mischievous, but he is often motivated by goodwill. He is most likely the one in disguise as the Headless Horseman.
Hans Van Ripper
Hans Van Ripper is a choleric old farmer who is housing Ichabod Crane at the time of the Van Tassels’ party. He lends Ichabod the horse on that fateful night.
A native of Connecticut, Ichabod Crane comes to Sleepy Hollow to work as a schoolteacher and singing master. His erudition and skill at singing are disputed only by the narrator. He is tall and extremely thin with a huge appetite and a certain amount of greed. He uses the rod as his preferred method of disciplining his students—but only on those strong enough to bear it. He is especially interested in ghost stories and the supernatural, because he believes in it. His attempt to woo Katrina Van Tassel fails just before he meets the headless horseman, who is most likely Ichabod’s primary competition in disguise.
Katrina Van Tassel
The only child of a wealthy farmer, Baltus Van Tassel, Katrina is eighteen and universally known for both her beauty and her riches. She is also a flirt, and she always dresses to show off her best features. She is one of Ichabod Crane’s singing students, and she is the object of his desires. Just at the point when Ichabod thinks he has won her over, the narrator suggests that an undisclosed attempt was unsuccessful, which means that Ichabod must leave her house dejected and susceptible to his worst fears.
Quotes and Analysis
1. I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access; while others have a thousand avenues, and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great triumph of skill to gain the former, but a still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for a man must battle for his fortress at every door and window. He who wins a thousand common hearts, is therefore entitled to some renown; but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette, is indeed a hero.
Narrator, para. 32
This passage demonstrates the differences between what today are called high-maintenance and low-maintenance women. This idea sets up women as something of a commodity, and high-maintenance women (coquettes) sometimes willingly play the part. As the narrator suggests, the coquette sometimes plays hard to get in order to make the man prove that he is truly a hero, but other coquettes are stereotypically inconsistent and irrational such that the suitor must be on the top of his game–and extremely attentive–in order to woo the coquette’s heart. Katrina Van Tassel, the only important female character, is commoditized as a young, pretty, and rich coquette, and that is about as much description as the reader gets, although her future possessions, or future husband’s possessions, are rapturously described in detail. The metaphors and language here are of battle and ownership, making clear that the narrator perceives that women are understood as puzzles to unravel or prizes in a male game of tug-of-war. They must be “captured,” and a man must “maintain possession” and “battle for his fortress.”
2. Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats; but are trampled under foot, by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarce had time to finish their first nap, and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have traveled away from the neighborhood, so that when they turn out of a night to walk the rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long established Dutch communities. Narrator, para. 52
This passage emphasizes the characteristic youth and continual flux of most American neighborhoods. Although Knickerbocker is noting that this means that there are few ghost stories in American villages, what he really means by ghosts are traditions, engrained cultures, histories, or feelings of continuity between past and present. A ghost does exactly that—ties the past, the history of a place, to its present. But if there is not enough time for there to truly have been a past, and if people keep moving, and if thus the past is quickly forgotten or never known, there can be no continuity and thus no ghosts.
This, to the classically conservative and very historically aware Crayon and Knickerbocker, is a terrible loss. Knickerbocker and Crayon both work to some extent to remedy this disconnection through their acts of storytelling. Although the pasts they deal with may be fictionalized, they are still connecting a generation that was to a generation that is, telling stories set in the previous time. They are keeping the ghosts in play, focusing on their metaphorical value. American literature at the time was functioning without much of an independent history or tradition of storytelling, which provided great narrative freedom but also threatened to prevent the formation of a American narrative tradition in all but the places where people are more stable in their habits and geographic movement. 3.
As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to
him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a waggon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where! Narrator (reflecting Crane’s mind), para. 24
This passage makes very obvious the source of Ichabod’s feelings for Katrina. It was already abundantly clear that his love for her was rooted in his material wants, but it seemed that he loved her farm too. This passage, however, shows that Ichabod’s love for the farm itself is not a love of the land, but just pure greed—in his fantasy he sells the farm for money and might move on to another state. It is thus the farm’s worth that is so attractive to him. This makes him, in the conservative mind of Knickerbocker, even worse, for he cares nothing for the fact that the Van Tassels are one of the few old and rooted families in this country characterized by the rootless. This passage also emphasizes just how powerful Ichabod’s imagination and ability to fantasize are. He does not need reality, for “his busy fancy already realized his hopes.” He has already won Katrina, and he sees himself with a large family and all the money from selling the farm.
It is this ability to go so far in his imagination that prevents Ichabod from having much success in the real world—he is not quite grounded enough in reality, despite his learning and his singing, and he thus does not act as he must to get what he wants (if he even could become a strong enough challenger to Brom) and truly win Katrina’s heart. 4. Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tete-a-tete with the heiress; fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chopfallen—Oh these women! these women! Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks?—Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival?—Heaven only knows, not I! Narrator, para. 57
This passage emphasizes the unreliability of the story. This scene is crucial—it is essentially the resolution of the love triangle that drives the tale forward—yet the narrator says he has no idea what happened and can only speculate. His speculation is based on Ichabod’s attitude as he leaves, which presumably was not witnessed by anyone, so the tale is either made up, based on a reasonable conjecture from Katrina’s telling of the story to others, or traceable back to Crane himself, surely not a reliable narrator of his own story. Similarly, the scene that follows is described in great detail, even going so far as to include what Ichabod was thinking about. Thus, in admitting here, of all places, that he does not know what happened, he throws the reliability of everything into doubt. We end up questioning whether it matters which part of the story is more reliably told. It seems that Irving is using the old narrator’s trick of leaving the most poignant scenes up to the imagination in order to increase their power.
In addition, more prudish nineteenth-century readers would understand that such a private moment, which might have included a physical indiscretion, was inappropriate to put into words on paper. This passage is also important in that show’s Katrina’s agency. Katrina, who has been seen essentially as a prize that Brom Bones and Ichabod are fighting over, demonstrates that she has the real choice in the matter. She evidently has chosen Brom, and it is possible that she is in on the practical joke or “sham,” given that Brom all too easily leaves the field and that Katrina was giving Ichabod many signals that he should stay late. Reading her act even more powerfully, as the narrator suggests, Katrina might even have played her own expert game to make sure that Ichabod got the final NO that would make him go away and leave the field open for Brom.
5. The mysterious event caused much speculation at the Church on the following Sunday. Knots of gazers and gossips were collected in the church yard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others, were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him, the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead. Narrator, para. 71
This passage emphasizes the self-interest characterizing the townspeople. Though none of the characters is basically evil, neither is anyone truly good. Nobody in the town seems to worry much about a man who was never really a town insider anyway. Once the most romantic story about the disappearance is accepted–the story that just confirms people’s preconceived superstitions–nobody worries about Ichabod again. Of course, they would have cared more if he had owed anybody any money. Instead, the possessions he left behind are disposed of or liquidated. His reappearance would not benefit others that much, and a new teacher can be found. This passage also emphasizes a way that legends and stories are built. Here the setting, together with stories that have been told in the past, reminds the townspeople of the Headless Horseman, so they quickly and easily choose that phenomenon as the most likely explanation for Ichabod’s disappearance.
They plainly ignore the physical evidence, the mysterious pumpkin. The better story is the more legendary and romantic one, and that is good enough for the people. 6. This neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war—it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and been infested with refugees, cow boys, and all kinds of border chivalry. Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each story teller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit. Narrator, para. 50
This passage touches on the danger or, from another perspective, the opportunity involved in storytelling. With the passage of time, historical truth becomes more malleable, since fewer and fewer people can truly remember it, and it is easy to embellish the story. Enough time has passed in Sleepy Hollow that the people can alter their own histories to make the stories better. While this phenomenon may seem repugnant to the historian, from a literary point of view the more interesting story is the better one and provides greater pleasure. The important distinction here is between story and history.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” borders between them, being a largely unreliable history that is still closer to the truth than any of the accounts of it told in the town. The men in this passage, for their part, are not writing down their stories for posterity, but simply telling the best parts and dressing them up in order to promote themselves and to give their listeners the chance to hear a good story. In this case, truth becomes flexible, because it is the story that is paramount. 7. The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood, being considered a kind of idle gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. Narrator, para. 15
In this passage, Knickerbocker is cutting into Ichabod’s feeling of self-importance in this tiny little village. He is “vastly superior” in matters of taste, accomplishments, and education—but a few lines later, it becomes clear that this expansive learning actually consists of little more than having “read several books quite through.” This emphasizes the power of presentation, of convincingly telling your own story—Ichabod’s minor superiority in education allows him to pretend that it is a great superiority. This allows him to gain some standing among the women of the neighborhood, which is essential and quite impressive, for he really has almost nothing to offer to a wife. At the same time, it is disappointing that he might actually be inferior only to the parson in his learning. His education is actually quite miniscule, he has very little drive, and he seems content to live off of others. He consumes and consumes incessantly, and what he produces cannot be commoditized (song and teaching). 8. There was something extremely provoking in this obstinately pacific system; it left Brom no alternative but to draw upon the funds of rustic waggery in his disposition, and to play off boorish practical jokes upon his rival. Narrator, para. 33
Sleepy Hollow is a civil society, not a martial one, where Brom would be able to prevail easily against Ichabod, the weaker party. This peaceful or “pacific” society puts Brom in the position of having to succeed by hook or by crook, playing mostly within the rules and not creating too much public disorder. His practial jokes do cause minor problems that today would be seen as something like harassment, and they probably succeed, despite being boorish, in raising his profile against Ichabod in the mind of Katrina. This passage also is importantly foreshadowing of the final practical joke on Ichabod: dressing up as the Headless Horseman and scaring Ichabod out of the town. 9. In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the neighborhood …
It was a matter of no little vanity to him, on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson. Certain it is, his voice resounded far above all the rest of the congregation; and there are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the mill-pond, on a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane. Thus, by divers little make-shifts in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated “by hook and by crook,” the worthy pedagogue got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it. Narrator, para. 14
This satirical look at Ichabod Crane’s sense of self-importance should not be taken literally. This passage is mostly about Crane’s pride in singing, which the narrator makes fun of by suggesting that the hoor or crook of his nose is what makes him sing so well. If Crane is second to the parson in learning, at least he can outdo the parson through the power of his signing (carrying the palm is an ancient symbol of victory). As for most people not understanding “the labor of headwork,” this is also an ironic swipe at the complaints of those people who do not do physical labor but think that their intellectual pursuits are so terribly difficult. 10. The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. Narrator, para. 73
This ironic passage reveals that the narrator attributes superstitions in large measure to ‘old wives’ tales.’ The old women like to think that they are the best interpreters of events, but they are wrong. It is true that they might have the best opportunity to see the longer patterns of local history, but they interpret each new event in the easiest way, the way that reinforces their superstitions. As for everyone else, the supernatural version of the story is fun to tell, so it doesn’t much matter what really happened. The story of Ichabod Crane has become a myth or legend that helps the town enjoy itself and understand itself. It is a traditional story for the community.
Tarry Town, also known as Greensburgh, lies between the Hudson and Tappan Zee rivers, and it is a small market town. Near this town is a very quiet glen named Sleepy Hollow. In this glen, the land and its people all seem to exhibit a quality of dreamy drowsiness. Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose story this is, is convinced that this quality has been caused by some kind of spell or curse. Because of its relative isolation for a fair amount of time longer, Sleepy Hollow has more than its share of legends, superstitions, and strange occurrences. The town’s most dominant spirit is that of a headless man riding on horseback, believed by many to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War, who is frequently seen rushing quickly through the village, often near the church. It is thought that he is rushing in search of his head, and he is known throughout the region as The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, originally from Connecticut, is the schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow.
His school house is designed so that any thief could break in easily but would find it difficult to get back out. He believes in disciplining his students with the rod, although he is careful to use it only against those who can bear it, and he treats the weaker students much more gently. The students do not hate him, and this benefits Ichabod, for by custom he relies on the hospitality of his students’ families to give him room and board, each for a week at a time, since his pay is very low. He has few possessions. To alleviate his burden on the families, Ichabod does his best to make himself useful around the farm and to be on good behavior.
He is also the singing master of Sleepy Hollow, for which he makes some extra money, and the local women like his skills, so he gets by quite well. Ichabod’s status as the schoolmaster, being second in learning only to the parson, gives him much of his importance in the female circles of Sleepy Hollow. His traveling lifestyle gives him greater access to gossip than most have, which adds to the welcome that he receives in most of the farmhouses. Ichabod is fascinated by Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft, and he is a firm believer in it and in the supernatural generally. Indeed, he often spends all afternoon reading this history before heading home for the week, and he scares himself so badly that he must sing psalms while walking to maintain his composure. He also enjoys listening to the housewives tell their ghost stories, especially those involving the Headless Horseman, and he scares the women with his stories of witchcraft in return.
Ichabod Crane is an anti-hero in that he is the tale’s protagonist and has some good qualities, but his serious character flaws make him not admirable—and these flaws will doom him. He is a schoolmaster, but he does not seem particularly interested in his students, and he is only well-educated relative to the others in the town, having finished a few books. The only one he seems to focus on is Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft. He is obsessed with the supernatural apart from religious faith, despite his learning. This in itself is not enough to make him foolish, but he fails to realize that he is the agent of his own undoing in that he makes himself scared just to walk home at night. In addition, this opening section makes clear that, although Ichabod is popular with the ladies of Sleepy Hollow for his gossip and his relatively advanced education, he would not be much of a catch as a husband—he can barely support himself, is homeless, and seems to have a mistaken idea of his own worth.
The narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, uses irony and sarcasm when giving Ichabod accolades for what skills he has, such as his singing voice. Ichabod Crane also has a “speaking name” in that he looks like a crane, a kind of bird. He is an outsider compared to the residents of the town, which has gone on its way with its own traditions for a relatively long time without him. The emphasis on Sleepy Hollow’s unusual amount of ghost stories and legends is interesting, for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of the few sketches in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon that is not set in Europe. The dichotomy that Crayon makes throughout The Sketchbook is between storied Europe and young, unstoried America. But Sleepy Hollow is filled with people who are descended from its original settlers; it is, therefore, full of stories and legends, although still relatively young compared to European villages.
Sleepy Hollow has a quality that is rare in early America—its inhabitants have all lived there for generations, instead of moving around frequently. This allows histories and legends to be built and passed on in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Irving himself is doing his part to create a distinctly American literary tradition, distinguishing American ways from European ones and focusing on distinct American traits. These include unprecedented levels of liberty and ease of movement and migration, vast available resources, and little emphasis on class hierarchy.
These characteristics are present in and around Sleepy Hollow, so Sleepy Hollow’s legends and folklore can have a particularly American flavor. Knickerbocker seems quite pleased with their existence. Indeed, stories are essential in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They add excitement to Ichabod’s otherwise fairly mundane life and the similarly mundane lives of the townspeople. They serve as his currency for treats from the farmer’s wives, providing for a welcome stay in their homes. Ichabod’s work to educate the children of the town seems to be valued less than his enjoyment of supernatural stories, his energy in sharing them, and the ways that his own experience will become another set of stories for the community.
One of Ichabod’s singing students is Katrina Van Tassel, an eighteen-year-old known for her beauty and her wealth. She is the daughter of a very rich farmer, which gives her many suitors. Ichabod, already taken in by Katrina’s womanly charms, falls for her completely when he sees her father’s abundant farmland, animals, and spacious farmhouse. He decides he must have her. Among Ichabod’s rivals, Brom Bones is his greatest threat. Brom is a rowdy and boisterous troublemaker, known throughout the country for his heroics and feats of strength. He is liked and respected by almost all. Although he is mischievous, his basic kindness makes him easy to like. Brom has singled out Katrina for his attentions, and most of the other rivals have already fallen away, not daring to cross his path. Ichabod is not, however, dissuaded by Brom’s formidable presence, although he does make his overtures much more subtly and insinuatingly than he otherwise would, so as not to disturb Brom too much. He comes to Katrina’s house repeatedly under the guise of his role as her singing teacher, and he woos her under her parents’ not very watchful eyes. Katrina, being a coquette, returns both Brom’s and Ichabod’s interest, and a powerful feud quickly develops between the two suitors.
Brom, not surprisingly, would like to settle this in a physical contest, but Ichabod is too aware of his shortcomings in that area to do so. This issue frustrates Brom, who instead turns to practical jokes and doing his best to humiliate Ichabod in front of Katrina. This conflict continues on for some time with no real winner. One day, while Ichabod is teaching, a messenger from the Van Tassels comes to invite him to a party at their farm that evening. He finishes the day’s lessons as quickly as he can and sends the students home early so that he can start preparing for the party. He puts on his only suit, borrows a horse from the farmer he is staying with, and heads to the Van Tassels’ farm.
The horse, Gunpowder, is an old and quite broken down plough horse, but still vicious enough. Ichabod arrives at the party, where there are many farmers and farmers’ wives. Brom Bones has arrived on his dangerous horse Daredevil. Ichabod is immediately drawn in by the abundant cakes, pastries, and dishes, and he spends his time characteristically eating all he wants. He then has a wonderful time dancing—another skill he prides himself on—with Katrina. He is in ecstasy while Brom looks on jealously. After the dance ends Ichabod goes over to where some of the older men are smoking and telling war stories—all of which are far enough in the past to be safely exaggerated. They then move to ghost stories, covering many of the local legends and continually returning to the favorite: the tales of the Headless Horseman. Brom Bones tells a story of the time he encountered the Headless Horseman and offered to race him for a bowl of punch. Ichabod listens closely to all the stories and adds a few of his own.
The crux of the story emerges in this section—the love triangle between Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones. It quickly becomes clear
that Ichabod’s love is far from pure. Although he is attracted by Katrina’s pretty youth and flirtatiousness, it is not until he sees her father’s property that he truly considers himself in love with her. The other suitors probably feel the same way. After all, Katrina is a fairly flat character, not really more than the stereotypical farmer’s daughter. Irving is using a traditional plot line, the suitor disguised as a teacher, and the real literary interest here is not the plot or the characterization of Katrina but the rivalry between two very different lifestyles. Brom is a man of action, a successful one at that, but Ichabod is a man of letters, a barely successful one, and despite his other skills, he is not much more. He is bold when he carries the rod against the strongest children, and he lets himself think he has other great skills, such as singing and dancing. In reality, Brom Bones has all the social and athletic success. The differences between the two men ultimately are judged by Katrina.
Katrina and her father’s farm blur together, both in Ichabod’s perception of her and in the reader’s, for Katrina is commoditized by the suitors. She is a young, attractive coquette, which the narrator describes as a shifting cipher. Her value apparently lies in her inheritance, and the narrative goes on for pages describing all of her father’s lands, his animals, his house, and its decorations. Thus Katrina becomes a means to the end of wealth. Ichabod does imagine a life with her, but in his mind she is the bearer of his children rather than some kind of equal partner in marriage. Ichabod’s confidence in his one suit is a bit pathetic. He would be unlikely to be able to provide support for his wife; he would need to rely on Katrina’s wealth. He is something like a parasite in his constant desire to consume.
He does nothing to produce material wealth, and the townspeople do not much value unproductive skills like thinking (this is a sign of the stereotypical American anti-intellectualism of a sleepy country town) or singing and dancing. His desires are so enflamed by the bounteous resources of the Van Tassel farm, and his fantasies of being its owner are so strong, that he loses all sense of probability, considering himself practically to have won Katrina’s hand already. Ichabod’s distance from reality is also underscored in his rivalry with Brom. The reader sees Brom grow frustrated and jealous as Ichabod spends time with Katrina, but we never see Ichabod’s reaction to Brom’s suit except avoidance. Indeed, even once Brom starts to play pranks on Ichabod, we never see Ichabod react at all—he is too busy fantasizing about being master of the Van Tassel farm to deal with the realities of obtaining his objective.
Brom has a strategy that is working, though as the town darling, he does not need to do much other than be himself. In contrast, Ichbod is still an outsider so far as the townspeople are concerned. The absurdity of Ichabod’s character is also highlighted further in this section. He excitedly sends his students home from school early so that he can prepare for the party, and he borrows a horse so that he can arrive in style. Even so, he looks absurd on the broken-down horse he rides, for which his legs are much too long. Try as he might, he cannot escape his own comedic look. He is more likely to be the butt of a joke or the target of a story than to be the creator of his own story. He does his best to control his circumstances, but he does not have the grasp of reality or the skills or the wealth to do so.
Paragraph 57 to Postscript
The party eventually breaks up, and Ichabod stays behind to talk to Katrina. The narrator does not know what passes in this conversation, but Ichabod leaves the place looking rather crestfallen, and readers must use their imagination; it seems that in one way or another, Katrina was using him to secure his rival’s affections. Ichabod wakes his horse and sets off during the darkest and quietest hour of night. As he rides, all the ghost stories he has heard come back to him, and he gets more and more uneasy as he approaches the infamous church where the Headless Horseman most often rides. He makes it past the fearsome Major Andre’s tree, but he has to calm himself by whistling. He then approaches the bridge that crosses the haunted stream, and his horse comes to a sudden halt. Ichabod sees a large, dark figure on the edge of the brook. He knows he cannot outrun a ghost or goblin, so he tries to summon his courage and asks, “Who are you?”
He tries to get Gunpowder the horse to continue on, and he starts singing a psalm. The figure goes into motion—he is a large horseman on a large black horse. The horseman rides along beside Ichabod and Gunpowder without saying anything or making any sign. Ichabod, bothered by this, tries to outpace him, but the horseman quickens his steed as well. Ichabod tries to lag behind, but the horseman keeps pace with him no matter what he does. Ichabod tries to sing again, but his mouth is too dry with fright. He is not quite sure what it is, but something about his companion is greatly disturbing. When the horseman is suddenly in relief against the sky, Ichabod realizes something ever scarier—he is headless, and he has his head resting on his saddle in front of him. Ichabod panics and attempts to get away by suddenly dashing forward. The Headless Horseman easily keeps pace, however, and when they reach the road to Sleepy Hollow, the frenzied Gunpowder veers off in the opposite direction, toward the infamous church.
In Gunpowder’s frenzy, they gain some ground on the Headless Horseman, but Ichabod’s saddle starts to slip and falls off just as he grips Gunpowder’s neck to hold on. They approach the bridge by the church at which (in the stories that Ichabod has heard) the Headless Horseman vanishes. As soon as Ichabod gets across the bridge, he looks back to see if the ghost has vanished—but as he does, Ichabod sees the ghost stand up in his stirrups and throw his head at Ichabod. It hits Ichabod right in his head and knocks him off of his horse. Gunpowder appears at Hans Van Ripper’s gate the next day without saddle or rider. When Ichabod has not appeared by dinnertime, either at Hans Van Ripper’s place or the schoolhouse, Hans becomes worried enough to send out a search party. They find hoof prints and the trampled saddle, and they finally find Ichabod’s hat lying next to a smashed pumpkin.
They cannot find the schoolmaster, and though they search the creek for his body, they do not find it. But since Ichabod was a bachelor and in nobody’s debt, the townsfolk decide that he has been carried off by the Headless Horseman, and they worry no more about it. Some say that he left town, partially in fear of the ghost and partially out of shame for having been summarily dismissed by Katrina. Brom Bones, who marries Katrina shortly afterward, also always seems to have a knowing look whenever the story is told, and he finds mention of the pumpkin especially funny. The old country wives of the area, however, continue to hold that the ghost of the Headless Horseman spirited Ichabod away.
This tale becomes a favorite story of the area. The schoolhouse is no longer used, and some say that it now is haunted by the ghost of the hapless schoolmaster. Mr. Knickerbocher concludes the story with a postscript stating that he has printed this tale almost exactly as he originally heard it from a shabby old gentleman at a corporation meeting. When this man told the story, one gentleman did not seem to enjoy it as much as the others, and he said that he found some parts of it hard to believe. The narrator says that he does not believe half of it himself.
The primary theme in the final section of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the difference between truth and conjecture. What drives the plot is, first, Ichabod’s failure to understand the truth that he never was a viable suitor for Katrina, and then his failure to suspect that the “Headless Horseman” is just another practical joke on the part of Brom Bones. The importance of truth in storytelling is also central here. Who gets to be in charge of keeping the facts of a story separate from the conjectures, and who can evaluate the conjectures? Can wild tales like this one be verified, and it what ways does it matter or not matter if the story is exactly true or completely false? One of the key moments in the narration, in the love triangle between Ichabod, Katrina, and Brom, is Katrina’s rejection of Ichabod.
The reader sees none of this scene; we only know that he leaves her home dejected. The narrator does not know the details either, but he does not even know if this rejection really happened; he can only offer the reader conjecture, his best guess. Since the townspeople suspect that a rejection was one of the reasons he left town, such a conjecture has at least a minimal basis, and it would be quite understandable. Yet, what really happened? Did he take a liberty that she rejected, such as kissing her inappropriately? Did he make an offer that she rejected? Did he say something that proved his unsuitability for her? The narrator, like the reader, has to use imagination to put in place this key moment in the story. It is a common narrative strategy to leave a key moment off stage or unsaid. Indeed, the reader knows how these kinds of experiences often go and can easily supply some realistic scenarios regarding rejected professions of love. Yet, because the reader is given no clear view of what may have happened, the uncertainty in this scene leads us to question the reliability of all the rest of the story.
Like the old men with their war stories, everyone has an interest in making the story the way he or she wants it to be. This point emphasizes how unimportant the literal truth is in a story, from a literary rather than a historical point of view. For the townspeople, who are not personally invested in Ichabod’s feelings, he is now just an interesting character in their local folklore, and maybe another ghost for the town to imagine they see or hear from time to time. They will tell the story in the way that makes it most fun or interesting or scary. Any teller of the story, at a number of removes from the actual story, has no reason to believe more than half the story anyway, but the present narrator tells the whole thing as he heard it (he claims) because the story is worth knowing in itself. What happened to the protagonist is left unknown.
Some say he ended up very successful in another state, some say he was spirited off by a ghost, and some say he left the town in shame, but the narrator has only other people’s conjecture on this matter. There is reason to believe, on the basis of the details of the story, that somewhere along the line Ichabod told his side of the story—Brom has never admitted to his role in the practical joke, and Katrina has never suggested knowing about it, so only Ichabod could have told the details of the dark night when Ichabod was chased by a horseman. Still, it is difficult to discern which elements came directly from him and whether they can be believed. The story is too good to be true, though it is believable in many respects.
Crayon’s choice to have the disclaimer in a postscript at the end of this tale, concluding the whole collection, emphasizes his opinion that the veracity of a story is insignificant for literary purposes, if it provides enjoyment and a positive moral result for the reader. Irving likely shared this opinion. It is hard to write fiction without an appreciation for the ways that fiction provides truth in a way different from fact-heavy histories. Although Ichabod is so foolish, he has something in common with Crayon: both have very powerful imaginations. Ichabod’s causes him to believe in supernatural stories, and he even finds walking alone terrifying.
He also can imagine himself as the lord of the Van Tassel farm so clearly that he forgets that he really has nothing to offer Katrina in a marriage, while another suitor could easily stand in his way. Crayon’s imagination, for his part, allows him comfort and keeps him happy with fantasies, but his imagination seems less foolish in the end because he uses his imagination to tell stories with a purpose. He gives pleasure and some measure of education, while Ichabod’s imagination is emotional and expresses unrealistic hopes instead of a literary perspective on reality.
|Title||The Legend of Sleepy Hollow|
|Written by||Washington Irving|
|Type of Writing||Gothic tale|
|Genre||Gothic Horror Fiction|
|Main Topic||A romantic horror story based on a local superstition|
|Setting||Sleepy Hollow, Dutch village near Tarrytown, in the year 1790|
|Main Characters||The Headless Horseman, Ichabod Crane, Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, Katrina Van Tassel|