BookRags Literature Study Guide The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving For the online version of BookRags' The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Literature Study Guide, including complete copyright information, please visit:
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Introduction The great American short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was written while Washington Irving was living in England, and it was published in England in a volume called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The Sketch Book was published in installments in the United States beginning in 1819, but the section that included this story was not issued until 1820. Readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean thus encountered the story at approximately the same time.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a snug rural valley near Tarrytown in the Catskill Mountains. Constructed from German tales but set in America, it is a classic tale of the conflict between city and country, and between brains and brawn. Ichabod Crane courts Katrina Van Tassel, but is frightened away by his rival, Brom Bones, masquerading as the headless horseman. The story demonstrates the two qualities for which Irving is best known: his humor, and his ability to create vivid descriptive imagery.
Readers immediately took to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and another tale from the Sketch Book, "Rip Van Winkle." Although little formal criticism greeted the arrival of the story specifically, the Sketch Book became wildly popular and widely reviewed both in the United States and in England. It was the first book by an American writer to become popular outside the United States, and helped establish American writing as a serious and respectable literature. In 1864, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published as a separate illustrated volume for the first time, and there have been dozens of editions since. Today, most of Irving's work has been largely forgotten, but the characters of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman have lived on as part of American folklore.
Author Biography Considering that Irving's best-known fiction takes place in the countryside of rural upstate New York, it is perhaps surprising that he spent most of the first thirty-two years of his life in New York City, where he was born on April 3, 1783. He was the eleventh child of immigrant parents, and remained close to his family all his life. Irving's family had money and some influence in New York, and he received a solid education and then studied the law. He was only a mediocre student, and would probably not have made a good lawyer. Instead, he turned to a somewhat leisurely life as a man of letters, attending parties and the theatre, traveling around the state, and writing humorous newspaper pieces under a false name, Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
In 1807, Irving was part of a group that collaborated on a humorous periodical called Salmagundi, poking fun at the manners and customs of the day, describing the fashions, theatre and arts in wicked detail. The style of the pieces echoed essays written by the English writer Joseph Addison, but with determinedly American subjects. There were no important American literary influences for Irving to follow; the United States was still young enough that its artists had to look to Europe for their models. His first book was A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809), satirizing Dutch customs and manners, and also the pretentious writing style of historians.
He sailed to Europe in 1815, and lived there for the next seventeen years, finding acclaim as a writer and as a diplomat. His most enduring book, The Sketch Book, from which "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" are taken, was published in America beginning in 1819, and in England in 1820. It was the first book by an American writer to reach a wide international audience, and proved to the world that America had subjects and themes that were of interest to Europeans. Irving wrote many more books, but never wrote as well again as he had in the Sketch Book.
Back in his homeland, he traveled across the plains of the western frontier, and finally bought a large rural property in Sleepy Hollow, a valley near Tarrytown, New York, where he entertained the many people who wanted to meet the famous writer. He died on November 28, 1859, at the age of 76--a long life for the nineteenth century. He is buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Although in his own lifetime Irving was considered the most important writer America had ever produced, almost none of his books are read today. Only a few of his short stories live on, still loved for their vivid descriptions and humor.
Plot Summary The story opens with a long descriptive passage offered in the first person by the narrator, who is revealed at the end of the story to be a man in a tavern who told the story to "D. K." Irving's contemporaries, and readers of the entire Sketch Book, know that "D. K." is Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional author of an earlier book of Irving's. The narrator describes the story's setting, creating images of a quaint, cozy Dutch village, "one of the quietest places in the whole world," in a "remote period of American history" that seemed long-ago even to Irving's original readers. The village is not just far away and long ago; it is a magical place, "under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie."
In this land lives Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher and singing instructor who comes from Connecticut. His last name suits him. He is tall, lanky and sharp-featured, with clothes too small and ears too big. Crane is a serious and strict teacher, but liked well enough by his students and their families. He has apparently no real friends in the community, but is welcome as he passes from house to house eating whatever he can help himself to in exchange for doing light chores and entertaining the housewives with his stories and gossip. He is much admired for his intelligence, for, unlike the rest of the village, he has "read several books quite through," and he is especially interested in tales of witchcraft and magic. Several local tales feature the ghost of a Hessian trooper, who was killed by a cannonball and who rides through the countryside each night looking for his missing head.
One of Crane's singing students, Katrina Van Tassel, has caught his eye, and he dreams of marrying her. Katrina is eighteen years old, plump and ripe, and "a little of a coquette." Crane desires her not because of her beauty or her personality, but because her father is wealthy and there is always wonderful food at the Van Tassel home. He fills his thoughts with images of roast pigs and pies and sausages, and imagines selling off the Van Tassel land to buy a homestead in the wilderness where he and Katrina "with a whole family of children" could go in a covered wagon. So Crane begins to court Katrina.
Because she is beautiful and wealthy, Katrina has other suitors. Chief among them is Brom Bones, a man who is everything Ichabod Crane is not: strong, rugged, handsome, humorous and clever. Katrina seems content to be courted by two men, and does not discourage either man's attentions. Brom's natural instinct is to fight with Crane, but since Crane will not fight Brom resorts to playing a series of practical jokes on Crane instead.
One evening, Mr. Van Tassel hosts a big party for everyone in the village. Crane dresses up in his finest and makes himself look as handsome as he can. He is so awestruck by the tremendous foodladen tables at the party that he decides to ask Katrina for her hand. After an evening of swapping ghost stories with his neighbors, he approaches his intended bride. Although the discussion is not recorded, a few minutes later he leaves the house "with an air quite desolate and chop-fallen." Feeling dismal, he begins the long ride home alone. Remembering all the ghost stories he has heard and told that evening, he gets more and more nervous.
Suddenly, he sees a large shadowy figure on the road ahead. It appears to be a headless man riding a horse, and Crane can just make out the shape of a head resting on the pommel of the saddle. Terrified, he races away, chased by the headless horseman. He is unable to escape. The last thing he remembers is the sight of the rider about to throw the head at him; struck by the flying object, he is knocked unconscious to the ground.
The next morning Crane does not come to school, and he is never seen in the village again. A search party finds his hat and a bundle of his possessions, and nearby on the ground a smashed pumpkin. Brom Bones marries Katrina, and for the rest of his life gives a knowing look and a laugh when the mysterious disappearance of his rival is mentioned. Though some in the village may suspect that Brom was responsible for Crane's disappearance, most of the women maintain that Crane was carried away by the headless horseman. Crane himself has become the subject of the kind of ghost story he so loved to tell.
Summary This short story begins with a statement qualifying the source of the tale. The statement was among the papers left by the deceased Diedrich Knickerbocker. This opening is followed by a poem, describing a place where dreams flourish under the summer sky. The story itself actually begins with a description of a neighboring community. It's a market town nicknamed Tarry Town, so called because husbands like to stay for a while in the tavern on market days. Tarry Town is sheltered from the elements by a cove, and not far from there is Sleepy Hollow, a place along the Hudson River, untouched by time and reason.
The narrator recalls how he was out hunting and one day happened upon this sleepy village. The day was Sunday and nature seemed irritated at the disruption of his gun's discharge. The narrator shares with the reader that he would like to linger in this peaceful escape, but then continues to describe the area. It seems that the inhabitants are descendents of the Dutch. The country lads are referred to as the Sleepy Hollow Boys. The place has such a sleepy, dream-like quality and is laden with superstition and legend. There are even some who believe a German doctor bewitched the area, while some believe an old Indian chief held ceremonies there. Whatever the cause of the strange and varied phenomena, most residents agree to having seen strange sights, suffered trances and visions, and heard unexplained music and voices.
There is, however, one figure that dominates the town's stories and landscape: the Headless Horseman. The Headless Horseman is believed to be a soldier from the Revolutionary War who was beheaded by a canon. His nightly runs are in search of his head, making sure he returns to the buried body in the cemetery by daybreak. This 'superstition' is referred to as the "Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."
The speaker then returns to his assertion that there is, in fact, something magical and mystical about the area. This area is sure to bewitch travelers with imaginative mind play, dreams, and apparitions. The narrator attributes this state of being to the fact that Sleepy Hollow remains untouched by the surrounding areas. Sleepy Hollow's people and their customs are static; they remain unchanged by the current of activity and time that surrounds them.
The narrator next begins to relay the action of the tale. The action part of the story is set thirty years previous to the time of the telling of this tale, making the time period of the story around 1789. The story seems to revolve around a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. Like the gangly bird his surname suggests, Ichabod was long in arms and legs with narrow shoulders. His feet were large, and his head was small. Ichabod's green eyes were wide, and his nose also brought to mind a bird, only this time a beak. Ichabod's clothes were too big and blew around him when he moved, and his gait was awkward.
Ichabod's schoolhouse was a one-room log cabin. The cabin's construction was compared to an eelpot, easy to enter but difficult to exit. The cabin is in a somewhat lonely setting, with only a birch tree growing near it. That tree supplied the teacher with all necessary disciplinary tools. Apparently, Ichabod knew how to use these birch switches and used them often. Unfortunately, however, the schoolmaster administered justice discriminately, protecting the weak and admonishing the strong.
When not at school, Ichabod would join the somewhat older boys in his class, and on special occasions, he would accompany home the younger ones who had pretty sisters or gifted mothers in the kitchen. To these ends, he stayed on somewhat good terms with his students, especially when a good meal was at stake. Ichabod had a voracious appetite. Ichabod ate huge volumes of food, contradictory to the indications of his bony frame. The residents, of course, would know about the teacher's eating habits since he was boarded at his students' homes a week at a time. While there, he might help farmers with less taxing chores, such as cutting wood, tending cattle, or mending fences. Ichabod knew how to endear himself to mothers by tending to their small children.
Ingratiating himself to his patrons was not the only secondary occupation this teacher possessed. Ichabod was also choir master and music instructor to a private few. Ichabod proudly stood in church, leading the others in psalms. As busy as he was, others thought his life easy.
Also of interest regarding the schoolmaster was his hunger for the occult. Left with an overactive imagination from his constant diet of local scary tales, the teacher would walk home, skittish from natural sights and sounds that became ghosts and other phantasms in his mind. To guarantee his safety and quell some of his fears, whether imagined or real, the good teacher would sing his psalms within earshot of the homeowners of Sleepy Hollow.
In addition to keeping the company of his older students and pretty maidens, Ichabod would spend evenings with the old, Dutch wives, who told regional tales of the marvelous and unexplainable. In turn, he would tell stories of signs and visions from his native Connecticut. The way home from these story-laden evenings would, however, prey upon the imagination of this country instructor. Ichabod imagined haunting, shrouded, snowy figures out of nature. Ichabod's greatest fear is to; perhaps, encounter the Galloping Hessian, the Headless Horseman. Every step anticipated this chance meeting. Ichabod was, in fact, prepared for such an engagement, since he had seen spirits before and feared the ever-present Satan. There was, however, one force even greater than the Devil that was to be feared, and that was a woman.
Just such a woman for Ichabod in this tale was named Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a well-to-do farmer. Katrina was just eighteen years old, plump, and a bit of a flirt. The speaker compares her to food, and it is no wonder, because Ichabod's real love was filling his stomach. To the end of one day owning all of Van Tassel's estate, Katrina's father was where Ichabod's real attention lay. Baltus Van Tassel had a big, productive farm. Van Tassel's home was "bursting forth with the treasures of the farm." The narrator shares detailed accounts of the abundance on his farm. According to the storyteller, "The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare." Ichabod wanted the woman due to inherit all this wealth that could be sold and invested into real estate.
The livestock alone could have stolen Ichabod's heart and stomach, but the house made him a man with a "holy" cause. The house was large and filled with expensive furnishings and ornaments. Ichabod had one focus from this point on: to win the fair Katrina's hand in marriage. Ichabod felt like a knight on a holy quest, but he knew this would be difficult, because she was a flirt and many desired her.
Among the contenders for Katrina's hand was the burly Brom Van Brunt. Curly dark hair sat above his broad shoulders. Van Brunt was fit and fun loving; he was not malicious but riotous. Van Brunt settled disputes and "was always ready for either a fight or a frolic." Because of his great strength, he was referred to as Brom Bones, and his comrades loyally followed him. Inconvenienced or disturbed neighbors regularly dismissed their antics.
Ironically, however, the raucous Brom Bones shared one thing in common with Ichabod Crane, the desire for the voluptuous Katrina. Ichabod was not driven away by the powerful Brom Bones in securing the hand of Miss Van Tassel. Ichabod pursued Katrina, even under the doting eye of her protective father, who valued her more than his pipe. Brom Bones, however, wanted to settle this issue with brute force, but our gentle schoolteacher knew his adversary and chose less aggressive means to battle for the fair maiden. Accommodating Crane's strategy, Brom and his boys tormented Ichabod with practical jokes, such as smoking out the schoolhouse and disturbing the classroom's furnishings. Brom even taught his dog to whine when Ichabod sang.
It was during this time of rivalry that a message was delivered to Ichabod, inviting him to the Van Tassel household one evening for a party. Sending the students home early, the teacher took great care tending to his appearance for that evening's event. Ichabod even borrowed an old plow horse from a neighboring farmer. The horse, Gunpowder, although old and docile, was so named for his quick discharge in the event of another horse of the opposite sex or whatever moved his fancy. Astride this horse, Ichabod cut a comical appearance, resembling a gawky bird, with his angled limbs protruding awkwardly.
It was fall, and Ichabod made his way through fields reminiscent of rich harvests, while animals scurried in frenzied preparation for the winter. It was evening when he arrived at "the castle" of Van Tassel and met his rival, Brom Bones. Brom arrived on his horse, Daredevil, named for the animal and rider's dispositions. After feasting his eyes on the food, Ichabod feasted his eyes on the tender morsels of womanhood. The host mingled among his guests until, eventually, it was time to dance. Ichabod cut quite a figure on the dance floor when he whirled around the lovely Katrina Van Tassel. This, of course, upset the watching Brom Bones.
After dancing, the men shared stories of battle bravery. These tales were followed by the exchange of ghost stories. The region itself, according to the narrator, "breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies." The story that dominated all the rest, of course, was that of the Headless Horseman. According to legend, his horse was in the churchyard each night and the bridge near the church was where the horseman would stop any pursuits. The church itself provided a perfect setting to these stories. It was isolated and nearby trees shrouded the area in darkness. Brom Bones added his own experience of racing on Daredevil with the Headless Horseman, and his triumph in that match. Hair-raising tales of sounds and phenomena mesmerized Ichabod, who later shared his own personal experiences with the supernatural.
It was dark when the party broke up, the bewitching time of night. Ichabod did not immediately notice, because he had dejectedly left the party. Ichabod and Katrina had conversed before he left, and Ichabod had walked away from the evening looking forlorn. It was not too long, however, before the teacher realized the potential danger of time and place, and he began to whistle. When he approached the tulip tree, the place of several sightings and abduction of Major Andre, Ichabod was overcome with fear. In this frame of mind, the teacher imagined fantasy out of fact, ghosts out of trees, voices out of wind.
When Ichabod and his horse, Gunpowder, approached a stream's bridge, he tried to steer the horse ahead, but the stubborn animal resisted and went its own way, directing Ichabod into some bushes. Ichabod tried to whip the horse onward, and Gunpowder leapt ahead, only to come to an abrupt stop when Ichabod sighted a large figure. Asking the figure's identity, silence followed, and Ichabod then darted forward with closed eyes. Ichabod tried singing one of his reassuring psalms, but that did not discourage the large rider on the horse. The dark horse and rider entered the road and, with time, Ichabod and his unknown companion were riding in tandem.
When Ichabod came upon a more open area, he was able to view his traveling companion. It appeared to be the Headless Horseman, with a head riding on the saddle. Ichabod tried to spur Gunpowder to flee, but the other rider kept up with them.
When Ichabod and his unwelcome guest reached the road to Sleepy Hollow, Gunpowder again resisted and made another turn. This path led the traveling men toward the church. It was there Ichabod hoped to lead the Headless Horseman so his pursuit would stop by the bridge. Unfortunately, though, in so desperately riding the horse, Gunpowder's saddle fell off, and Ichabod held on for life. This did not deter Ichabod from reaching that bridge, yet when his approach seemed certain, the Headless Horseman rose in his saddle and threw the head at Ichabod. It hit the teacher's head, knocking him to the ground and off road the Headless Horseman and his horse.
The next day, Ichabod Crane was not to be found. Gunpowder was grazing, and his owner, Hans Van Ripper, was concerned for the previous night's rider. Only a trampled saddle, tracks from horses, Ichabod's hat, and a smashed pumpkin could be found. The inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow searched for the body of Ichabod Crane, and satisfied it was not to be found, Van Ripper disposed of Crane's belongings. With time, it came to be believed that the Headless Horseman carried Ichabod away, and since he had neither money nor family, he was quickly forgotten.
Interestingly, though, a farmer visiting New York years later brought home the news that Ichabod Crane was alive and had tried his hand at teaching, law, politics, writing and judging. In Sleepy Hollow, however, life went on. Brom Bones married Katrina Van Tassel. Whenever the tale of Ichabod Crane was told, Brom had a smug expression on his face. It was the telling of the pumpkin, however, that brought laughter to him. Whatever the reason, Ichabod Crane did not return to Sleepy Hollow. Some say it was because of the rampage of the Headless Horseman or the possible anger from Van Ripple over his saddle; others believe he was embarrassed over losing the rich Katrina.
The old country women believe the Headless Horsemen carried Ichabod away. Some even believe he haunts the area, and his melodious psalms are still heard. Ironically, the schoolmaster has become one of the haunting tales he so loved to hear and tell.