The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
by Washington Irving
Where It All Goes Down
Sleepy Hollow, U.S.A.
Post-Revolutionary War America
When "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published, Irving's America still has its baby face and was looking up to big brother Europe. Everything was fresh and new—so fresh that there was a heck of a lot of land to be settled, and people were starting to move westward to do just that. The American Revolution was still on the brain, and everyone probably knew someone who knew someone who fought in it.
"Sleepy Hollow" is one of few stories in Irving's Sketch-book that actually takes place in the United States—and it is not hard to see why. "Sleepy Hollow" just couldn't have gone down anywhere else. Only in the U.S. could Baltus live so richly off of the land. Only in the U.S. were frontiersmen considered the epitome of masculinity. Set it anywhere else, and "Sleepy Hollow" would have been a very different story.
You couldn't ask for a better name for this town. The people are sleepy, and it's a little hollow along the Hudson River. The end.
Literally, we're out in the rural boondocks of New York. Metaphorically, we're preparing to enter the realm of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Really, doesn't Sleepy Hollow sound a lot like Hypnos's pad in Ovid's Metamorphoses? Check it out:
There silence dwells: only the lazy stream of Lethe 'neath the rock with whisper low o'er pebbly shallows trickling lulls to sleep. Before the cavern's mouth lush poppies grow and countless herbs, from whose bland essences a drowsy infusion dewy Nox [Nyx, Night] distils and sprinkles sleep across the darkening world. No doors are there for fear a hinge should creak, no janitor before the entrance stands, but in the midst a high-raised couch is set of ebony, sable and downy-soft, and covered with a dusky counterpane, whereon the god, relaxed in languor, lies.
The light about the chamber is weak and fitful, and languid gleams that woo to earliest slumbers vanish as the lamps flicker and dim. (Source)
Quiet, by a river, in a hollow, dark, with a strange mist that makes everyone sleepy. Check, check, check, check, and check. Just read the first three paragraphs of "Sleepy Hollow" and you'll know what we mean.
If you're the kind of person who likes to read really deeply into silly comedies (we're guilty of it!), this shout-out can get a little creepy. If Sleepy Hollow is the home of Hypnos, and its river is the river Lethe, then that means we are… in the Underworld? Hmmm, that means we're dead. We know, it's totally trippy. Although being in a town of dead people would be a pretty good explanation for why there are so many ghosts around those parts.
The sleepiness of the town and its contagious nature lures us right into Irving's tale. It's like when stories begin, "It was a dark and stormy night," and you know exactly what kind of story it's going to be. The setting becomes a persistent feature of the story, and we know it's always there, giving off its sleepy vapors, making people dream dreams.
The Van Tassel Estate
Baltus is rich. You know how we know? Because Irving tells us.
Irving's detailed description of Baltus's wealth both defines what it is to be rich in rural America and highlights the bounty of America's natural resources. The barn is "bursting forth with the treasures of the farm" (1.21), and the house inside has tables of dark mahogany (1.24). This place has tons of food and everything else you could ever need. Emphasis on need. What distinguishes Baltus's pad from other kinds of wealth is that it's not home to impractical things, like golden toothbrushes or HDTVs.
Baltus is humble when it comes to his farm and his wealth. He's just happy to smoke his pipe and chill in his chair, like any normal old Dutchman. But Ichabod, the sneaky city guy, is consumed with greed and envy from the moment he sets eyes on the farm. He stops at nothing to get what he wants. What does this teach us? Sometime characters' reactions to the settings are just as central as the settings themselves.