The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Symbols



Music is an essential element for setting the mood throughout "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Ichabod Crane is depicted as vain when it comes to his singing voice and his dancing ability. With tongue-in-cheek descriptions of his efforts in both areas, Irving reveals that Ichabod Crane's vanity is not backed by talent. Nevertheless, giving singing lessons to young people is one way Crane makes extra income. When he sings for this purpose, he is confidently in charge. Music represents the cocky side of his personality; he is blind to his own shortcomings. However, he also sings at other times, times when he is far from confident and is in fact filled with fear. When he travels through the valley at night and becomes spooked because of his belief in ghosts, Ichabod Crane sings psalm tunes, no doubt believing the force of God will protect him. At these times, the music highlights his weakness in a different way.

Music is also present in the form of the singing birds in the valley. It is part of the rich description of the beautiful natural world. Here birdsong represents the ideal rural life. Yet sometimes it is this type of music that spooks Ichabod Crane, the outsider, on his travels through the area at night.


For the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, books are a symbol of high-level education and learning. The people do not seem to own books, preferring to share stories and news orally. It is telling that among all the details given about the Van Tassel home, for example, a library of books is not included. Instead, shelves and cupboards are filled with natural objects and valuable items used when serving or enjoying meals. Equally telling is how the few books that are seen in the valley are used to repair the windows of the schoolhouse, which are patched "with leaves of old copybooks."

Part of what impresses people about Ichabod Crane is his book learning, which, Irving points out humorously, is actually minimal: "He had read several books quite through." His particular fascination with Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft indicates something about his level of intelligence, however. A Puritan, Mather believed that the devil was very present and at work in the New England colonies; he fervently believed that people could be possessed by the devil to do evil in the world. By wholeheartedly accepting Mather's words about witchcraft in New England—similar to how easily he believes the ghost stories of Sleepy Hollow—Ichabod Crane shows how naive his thought processes are. The book he loves is not factual, yet he believes in it as such.

When Ichabod Crane disappears from Sleepy Hollow, his books are burned by Hans Van Ripper. To him they symbolize nothing but trouble, and no one in the valley ever misses them.

Brooks and Streams

Fresh, flowing water is found throughout the setting of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." It is part of the bounty of nature found in the area. The brook running through the area makes a soothing sound and is part of the magical quality of the landscape, "with just murmur enough to lull one to repose." Diedrich Knickerbocker uses water as a metaphor to contrast Sleepy Hollow with the other rapidly changing areas: "The great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved."

However, where the brook runs at its boldest in Sleepy Hollow, tumbling over rocks and deep enough for the water to be dark, that is where the Headless Horseman is most often seen. He supposedly crosses the bridge over the water to reach the churchyard after he has wandered the nearby battleground looking for his head. This is where Ichabod Crane experiences the terrifying encounter with the specter on the night he disappears.

In the story, then, small, murmuring brooks represent peace and a desirable way of life. Rushing, noisy streams represent chaos and fear. Small brooks symbolize the rural way of life; rushing streams are like the undesirable life one encounters in cities.

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