The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Washington Irving's short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


Epigraph and Setting

The epigraph at the beginning of the story is a portion of a poem titled "Castle of Indolence." Written by the Scottish poet James Thomson and published in 1748, the poem inspired other Romantic poets with its honoring of nature. Since an epigraph is used by an author to set the stage for or hint at the theme of the work, readers might feel that the place described in the poem's lines is Sleepy Hollow, especially since Irving begins the story with several paragraphs describing the setting.

First the narrator describes the origins of the two names of the area, Tarry Town and Sleepy Hollow. Housewives claim their men tarry around the tavern in the village, which explains the town's name. The "listless repose" of the nearby "sequestered glen" accounts for the valley's name.

The descriptions of the area are all positive; indeed, the narrator who pens the story, Diedrich Knickerbocker, practically identifies it as paradise. Much of the description is focused on the dreamy nature of the valley and its inhabitants, who appear to be almost in a perpetual trance "under the sway of some witching power." They are very superstitious people, but the "dominant spirit ... that haunts this region" is that of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. This apparition is believed to be a Hessian soldier whose body is buried in the churchyard but whose ghost seeks its missing head nightly at the nearby battleground where it was severed from his body.

Knickerbocker also lauds the unchanging nature of the valley, contrasting it with the "incessant change" that is occurring throughout most of the rest of the country. He speaks admiringly of the Dutch settlers who choose to keep Sleepy Hollow "one of the quietest places in the whole world."

All about Ichabod Crane

After describing the area and the main legend that haunts it, Knickerbocker introduces the main character of the story—which, incidentally, took place 30 years prior to his recounting—who is an outsider to the region, hailing from Connecticut. He is the schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane.

Crane is an odd-looking fellow: tall, skinny, and long limbed, with a small head and big ears, glassy eyes, and a large nose. As a schoolmaster he is authoritative and swift to inflict corporal punishment. After hours, however, he aims to be a helpful member of the community. He entertains the older students and babysits the younger students, gives singing lessons, does odd jobs on the farms, and generally makes himself useful in order to earn the free room and board he is given as he moves from household to household. Ichabod is especially popular among the women of the valley, as he spreads gossip from farm to farm and readily shares what most of the people perceive as his superior intellect.

Like the residents of Sleepy Hollow, Crane is superstitious and enjoys ghost stories. He is especially fond of the tales of witchcraft that supposedly occurred in New England towns as they were first settled. He loves sharing these tales and listening to those of the people of Sleepy Hollow, although he takes them to heart and often becomes horribly afraid when walking alone in the valley at night.

Another significant characteristic of Ichabod Crane is his greed. He can barely be sated by food, having a huge appetite and the "dilating powers of an anaconda." He lusts after women and money, particularly Katrina Van Tassel and the wealth of her farming family. As Knickerbocker describes the well-appointed Van Tassel farmland and home, he does it through Ichabod's eyes, letting readers know that the schoolmaster practically licks his lips when thinking of getting his hands on the abundant sources of food and fine furnishings—not to mention the cash.

In Pursuit of Katrina Van Tassel

Ichabod Crane sets his sights on winning the hand of Katrina Van Tassel, but he is not without rivals in that pursuit. She is a beautiful, flirtatious 18-year-old, and as the only child of the wealthy Van Tassels, she offers much to be desired in a wife. The most formidable foe of Ichabod is the hero of Sleepy Hollow, a burly native son named Brom Van Brunt, nicknamed Brom Bones. Brom is so well-liked and admired in the valley that no one but Ichabod would bother to go up against him in pursuit of Katrina. Besides, it seems clear that Katrina likes Brom and encourages his advances.

Nevertheless Ichabod proceeds to quietly woo Katrina, calling often at the Van Tassel home and giving her singing lessons. In response Brom and his gang regularly play pranks on Ichabod, publicly ridicule him, and even train a dog to howl whenever it hears the schoolmaster sing.

Then one autumn day Ichabod has an invitation delivered to him at the schoolhouse by a Van Tassel servant to attend a party at their house that night. Thinking this might finally be his big break, Ichabod takes extra care in getting ready to go, dismissing the schoolchildren a full hour early. He grooms and dresses carefully and borrows an old horse named Gunpowder from a neighbor, Hans Van Ripper. As described by Knickerbocker, Ichabod Crane is a cartoon version of a knight-of-old setting out to claim the hand of his maiden. He looks ridiculous as he trots along on a "broken-down plow-horse" through the beautiful countryside.

When he arrives the locals are all gathering for the festivities, and Brom Bones looks particularly debonair on his beautiful horse. Undaunted, Ichabod avails himself of every wonderful dish spread before him. He then dances wildly with Katrina, his joyful smile and "amorous oglings" making Brom jealous as he looks on.

The evening continues with storytelling. Stories of the Revolutionary War soon give way to the usual ghost stories, much to Ichabod's delight. Before long many different accounts of encounters with the Headless Horseman are given, including one by the heroic Brom Bones. Finally Ichabod takes center stage with his witchcraft tales and descriptions of creepy encounters during his evening walks through Sleepy Hollow.

As the party breaks up Ichabod lingers to have a private conversation with Katrina. However, something upsetting to him, perhaps Katrina's inattention, happens during their visit, and he leaves the party "quite desolate and chapfallen."

The Terrifying Chase

It is the "witching time of night" when a very melancholy Ichabod Crane begins traveling home. He feels spooked as he remembers all the ghost stories he heard that night, several of them set around the area through which he rides. Normal sights and sounds suddenly seem scary, and Ichabod takes his fears out on the poor old horse on which he rides, kicking it and whipping it and trying all sorts of things to get the horse to trot faster. As he tries to cross a stream that the village people believe to be haunted, he sees that another horseman is nearby. He calls out but receives no answer. This rider shadows Ichabod, speeding up or slowing down as Ichabod does. When the frightened schoolmaster is finally able to see his unwanted companion in the moonlight, what he beholds is a headless rider—who carries his head on the saddle in front of him!

Now Ichabod begins a desperate ride to the church, where the legend of the Headless Horseman says all will be safe. The headless rider is right behind him as Ichabod loses his saddle and must cling to the neck of the horse. As he crosses the last bridge, he turns to see if his pursuer will vanish, as the legend promises. Instead, the horseman stands up in his saddle and hurls his head, striking Ichabod forcefully in the cranium. As Ichabod falls to the ground, the horseman thunders by. Ichabod's horse gallops away as well.

Afterward and the Postscript

The next day the old horse is found at his master's gate. The villagers begin to search for Ichabod Crane, and they soon find evidence of what happened at the bridge. The horse's lost saddle is there, trampled by another horse that is obviously big and fast. Also by the bridge is a smashed pumpkin and Ichabod's hat. But Ichabod Crane is never found. His meager belongings are dispensed with; his books and papers are burned. Most of the inhabitants believe that the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow has struck again and has carried off Ichabod's body.

Some years later the old farmer who told Knickerbocker this story reports to the villagers after a trip to New York that Ichabod Crane is alive and well, has become an attorney and a politician, and was appointed as a court justice. However, most choose to continue to believe in the story of Ichabod being spirited away by the Headless Horseman. As for Brom Bones, he wed Katrina soon after Ichabod's disappearance and often laughs whenever the smashed pumpkin is brought up as the story is told around the fire.

The postscript at the end of the story is also supposedly written by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Here he reflects upon the evening when he heard the story from the farmer, in a group of highly respected businessmen and government leaders. One of the men questioned the storyteller about the meaning or moral of the story, and the storyteller responded rather flippantly but also apparently mostly to the man's satisfaction. However, upon hearing the man's observation that he still had a few doubts, the storyteller responded with these words: "I don't believe one half of it myself."


"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" opens with a great deal of description—of the setting and the main characters—before any narrative action occurs. Irving consistently embraced this style, as he viewed story as a simple frame "on which to stretch my materials." As he describes in a letter he wrote in 1824 to his close friend Henry Brevoort Jr. (a wealthy Dutch American from New York who traveled the world), descriptions of characters and scenes are as important as story line in his writing: "It is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole,—these are among what I aim at."

Other elements of Irving's style are equally evident in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and contribute to the enduring success of the story.

Idealized Place, People, and History

In describing Sleepy Hollow, Irving paints the picture of an idyllic place, frozen in time, and graced by the beauty of nature, in opposition to too-rapid progress. This is a hallmark of literary Romanticism, which looks to the past and to nature for inspiration. By weaving in ancient stories and folktales, Irving makes it clear that the people of the area have remained true to their roots and have a strong sense of their identity.

Irving also gives plenty of details about the ideal home, the farm of the wealthy Van Tassels. Food and comfort are visible everywhere; there is little need to leave this idyllic "fertile nook." The family is obviously happy and content to live within the boundaries of their farm, without suffering from the sin of too much pride in their "hearty abundance."

Against this dreamy backdrop, the elements of horror introduced by the ghost stories and the frightening chase scene are intriguing without taking over the many touches of humor, romance, and human fallibility that round out the story's appeal.

Stereotyped Characters

Irving plays up a host of stereotypes in developing the characters in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In the rivalry between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones readers see the typical "brains vs. brawn" battle. Ichabod is the intellect of the community and has the stereotypical physical body and demeanor of a brainy nerd: skinny, odd looking, and clueless. Brom Bones, on the other hand, is extremely well built, athletic, and good-natured in a way that makes him popular with all.

Katrina Van Tassel, too, is a stereotypical character. She is young and beautiful and very aware of that fact. Her coquettishness is a game for her, a game that she always wins. Her indulgent father, Baltus Van Tassel, contributes to the stereotype as the doting father of a spoiled, beautiful daughter.

Ichabod might also be seen as the stereotypical greedy New England Yankee who comes into rural areas to profit from them, viewing himself as superior. If his character is interpreted this way, the situational irony is in the fact that he is the gullible one. He falls victim to the local folklore and his extreme fear, becoming the laughingstock at the hands of the local hero, Brom Bones.

Satirical Moralizing

Satire, the type of humor that exposes the inane nature of people or institutions through the use of exaggeration and contrast, can often be harsh and in itself moralistic. But Irving uses satire with a light touch. His goal as a writer was to give this light tone to his writing, even when offering a lesson. As he explained in 1824: "I am not, therefore, for those barefaced tales which carry their moral on the surface, staring one in the face; they are enough to deter the squeamish reader. On the contrary, I have often hid my moral from sight, and disguised it as much as possible by sweets and spices, so that while the simple reader is listening with open mouth to a ghost or a love story, he may have a bolus of sound morality popped down his throat, and be never the wiser for the fraud."

Thus Irving does have points to make in this story, as in all of his stories, but rather than using a preachy tone he often employs humor. Some of his points are political. For example, he is against urbanization and industrialization, and so he presents an idealized rural setting in which farming is king. However, the atmosphere is clearly over the top in terms of its dreaminess, and he humorously suggests that "a High German doctor" bewitched the area or an "old Indian chief" cast a spell on it. The people walk around in a daze, and even the skies are filled with an unusual number of shooting stars and meteors.

Similarly, after painting a comical, unflattering portrait of the hapless Ichabod Crane, Irving suggests at the end of the story that the schoolteacher was able to become a successful politician. This reveals Irving's distaste for politicians. If the pompous, self-serving, gullible Crane can make it in politics, it indicates what types of people often succeed in that arena. This point is made more obvious in the postscript when the storyteller suggests one moral of the story: "For a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high preferment in the state."

Irving also has something to say about greed and materialism. Again he uses the characterization of Ichabod Crane to ground his satirical humor, with exaggerated descriptions of Ichabod's insatiable appetite for food and for Van Tassel's belongings that "might be readily turned into cash." In contrast, the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel is described in very positive terms as a "perfect picture" of a good and hardworking man, "satisfied with his wealth, but not proud of it." Since greed is most likely what Irving views as the root of many undesirable industrial changes taking place in the United States, this character contrast is significant.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane settles in Sleepy Hollow.

Rising Action

2 Ichabod begins wooing beautiful, wealthy Katrina Van Tassel.

3 Ichabod is invited to the Van Tassels' for a big party.

4 He enjoys eating, dancing, and telling ghost stories.

5 The confident Ichabod's hopes are crushed by Katrina.

6 Riding home, Ichabod is pursued by the Headless Horseman.


7 The Headless Horseman hurls his head at Ichabod.

Falling Action

8 Ichabod disappears, leaving behind his horse and a pumpkin.


9 The narrator writes the story 30 years later as told to him.

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