The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Themes


Nature's Bounty

From the opening of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the lush nature of the Hudson River Valley is described in detail. Both the bounty of nature in the wild and the bounty afforded to the farmers of the region by the fertile soil and favorable climate are featured. Trees, wild grape vines, all sorts of birds, squirrels, fireflies, small brooks and spring-fed streams and ponds teeming with fish and ducks and geese—all are plentiful in the wooded countryside. Farmers' barns are filled with crops from orchards and fields; pigs, turkeys, chickens, and other animal food sources populate the yards and pens. There is no shortage of food in the valley!

This bounty gives the people of the valley security and stability. Although monetary wealth is not much discussed in the story, it is evident that the more successful a farmer is, the wealthier his family is—such as the Van Tassels. Outsiders such as Ichabod Crane covet this form of wealth at a time in the history of the United States when life in the cities is becoming more materialistic, industrialized, and fast paced. Yet his greed for the bounty of the valley seems misplaced, as the inhabitants are neither prideful nor interested in the world or what they can acquire outside of their pleasant, dreamy residence.

Unreliability of Stories

One of Washington Irving's main messages in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the need to question stories, whether they are legends that have been handed down, tales told among friends, or contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction. By using and explaining a complex framing device, Irving sets readers up to question the story's veracity. It is the story of Ichabod Crane as narrated by Diedrich Knickerbocker, who heard it told orally from an unnamed person, with a 30-year lapse between the events and Knickerbocker's recording of them. He follows through with this in the postscript, in which a listener to the oral version of the tale displays doubt about it and the storyteller confirms, "I don't believe one-half of it myself."

Irving, as an early Romantic, certainly believes in the power of story and superstition. Nevertheless, he pokes fun at gullibility by portraying Ichabod Crane as an unquestioning believer in every ghost story he hears, resulting in his irrational level of fear. People can hold to their traditions and be entertained by old stories, and the history of a place can be somewhat bound up with the stories passed down through the generations, but readers and listeners must still be logical and ask questions when warranted.

The Supernatural

Sleepy Hollow is a place seemingly ruled by the supernatural. It is said to have been bewitched by an early settler or an Indian. As the narrator describes, "Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people," who are "given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air." Ghost tales abound and are one of the main forms of entertainment when people gather together socially. Specific places are thought to be haunted, many of them attached to the most famous tale of the area, that of the Headless Horseman.

The inclusion of supernatural elements in a story is one of the traits of Romantic literature. However, the emphasis on the supernatural in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" goes beyond this by opening up space for doubt among Irving's readers and the listeners within the frame narrative. This is perhaps one reason why the short story has remained so popular for hundreds of years. By establishing the believability of the ghostly tales for the inhabitants of the valley while making it ambiguous whether the Headless Horseman is real or not, Irving hits the mark for creating a ghost story with lasting appeal. It is up to the reader, as it is up to the citizens of Sleepy Hollow, which version of the tale of Ichabod Crane to believe.

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