Knickerbocker is our straight man, telling it as he sees it. But here's the thing: what he sees is absurd. Take this description of Ichabod's fine dancing (please!):
Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought Saint Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. (1.47)
We dare you to find a paragraph of "Sleepy Hollow" that isn't infused with some impressive—and apparently timeless—humor.
It's also worth mentioning that our narrator often has no clue what's going on. When Ichabod decides to woo Katrina, he writes, "I profess not to know how women's hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration" (1.30). In other words, "I don't know anything about the ladies, but I'll try to tell you what I can about Ichabod's romance." This is not a guy who inspires confidence.
Check out what we have to say about "Narrator Point of View" for more on why we can't trust this dude as far as we can throw him.
Whew, that sure is a lot of genres. How did Irving manage to fit them all into this little story? Never fear—Shmoop is here. Plus, these are some of the easiest genres to identify.
To be more specific, there was Gothic-Romanticism, a sub-genre of Romanticism. Ah! So many we-have-to-think-too-hard-for-this words! Let's break it down. Romanticism was a movement that rebelled against the Enlightenment by valuing emotions over reason. What makes this Gothic-Romanticism instead of just plain old Romanticism is that the important emotion is horror or dread. (That wasn't so bad, was it?)
But in case it's not crystal clear, let's point out some key features along the way. At its base, a Gothic novel is a scary story in a gloomy setting that involves supernatural elements that probably want to kill you. The natural world is important, and usually, the setting is so detailed that it becomes its own character.
Does that sound like the easiest thing in the world to make fun of? It was. In Irving's day, some authors were getting bored of the really cheesy novels that were dominating the literary scene. Since the elements of Gothic fiction are already exaggerated and easily identifiable, it was easy for those authors to start writing Gothic parodies. Irving seems to have just jumped on that bandwagon.
What makes a romance? Usually, it's about having a super strong, chivalrous knight who goes on a quest for something and fights a monster and fantastical creatures in order to win the hand of a fair lady. Think Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Think The Sword in the Stone. Don't think Ichabod on his busted up plough horse.
Wait, then how is "Sleepy Hollow" a romance? Aha! That's where the genre of parody comes into play. Both Ichabod and Brom are referred to several times as knights errant—metaphorical ones, of course. Brom wants to be a proper knight and win the hand of Lady Katrina, but Ichabod won't fight him fair and square, so he has to find other less chivalrous ways to win.
And Ichabod… well, take all those things that we said about romances, and reverse them. He is a knight of sorts, but he's definitely not strong or chivalrous. He goes on a quest for money (marrying Katrina for her inheritance) and he fights a monster (the Headless Horseman), but there's no chivalry, he doesn't beat the monster, and he sure doesn't get the girl.
Basically, Irving gives us the worst possible knight we could ever imagine. He turns the whole genre inside out and upside down. Why? For the laughs.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow": five little words, including a couple throwaways. Seems like it doesn't have much to say, but Irving sure knows how to pack a punch.
Let's start with legend. By calling the story a legend, Irving places it in history with other great legends, like Atlantis, the Fountain of Youth, or the Legends of the Fall. People have spent their whole lives searching for these places, but they never seem to find them. With his title, Irving adds Sleepy Hollow to this list—well except that, nowadays, we can find it with a quick Google Maps search.
Next up: Sleepy. The sleepiness of the title refers to both a very specific mythological place (check out "Setting" to find out where—cliffhanger!) and to the behavior of the people in the town. It's a sleepy, little town where nothing much happens and people spend their time dreaming.
Finally, there's the Hollow. Not that kind of hollow (though Ichabod's head just might be). The term Hollow is used to describe towns in the Appalachian states. That means we know right off the bat that this is an American story taking place on the East Coast.
Okay, now we know what it means, but why is this the title? Because "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a story about a place. It's not about Ichabod, it's about Sleepy Hollow. And Irving wants us to know that before we even turn the first page.
Whodunit? Actually, wait. Whodunwhat? What exactly happens at the end of this story? The way we see it, there are two possibilities:
Here's a thought, though. Maybe it doesn't really matter what happened. Maybe this ambiguous ending is supposed to make us question the whole notion of the supernatural. The fact that we're even wondering if it was the Headless Horseman (we mean, really, there was a pumpkin on the ground!) means that we're just as irrational as the residents of Sleepy Hollow.
And now on to the very end. We're talking last line:
"Faith, sir," replied the story-teller, "as to that matter, I don't believe one-half of it myself." (2.7)
The discussion in the postscript between the old man storyteller and the skeptic casts even more doubt on the story. The skeptic, like us, is trying to get the story straight, but all the narrator does is make everything even more confusing. Thanks, narrator. Not.
The whole postscript takes us out of the dreamy world of Sleepy Hollow and puts us on the (theoretically) real island of Manhattan. In this new realistic setting, we are more willing to accept that maybe there is some truth to the story. But then the last line shoots us down. Or does it? What about the half that the narrator might believe? Ah! What are we supposed to think?
Guess what, Shmoopers? Joke's on us. We're betting this is exactly what Irving had in mind.
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.
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.
"A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
For ever flushing round a summer sky."
—James Thomson, "The Castle of Indolence"
The epigraph, a selection from a poem by James Thomson, has some major Gothic street cred. The poem influenced many Gothic writers and was even alluded to in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), a novel by Ann Radcliffe that is pretty much the Gothic novel. Irving had been doing his homework.
Of course, Irving makes good use of the poem, too, by allowing it to set the tone for the whole story. If we didn't know better, we'd think Thomson was describing Sleepy Hollow in these verses. That is, before Ichabod Crane busts onto the scene and messes everything up.
This is a short story, and short = easy, right? Sorry to burst your bubble, but that's not the case here. When it comes to "Sleepy Hollow," you just might get tripped up slogging your way through Irving's flowery prose and 19th-century vocabulary. Seriously, what is a ferule? And how do these sentences keep going for a whole page?
We're not talking about a Shakespeare level, what-on-earth-is-going-on-in-this-whole-section sort of confusion. And we're not talking about a Ulysses style why-don't-you-believe-in-periods-Joyce craziness. Still, it's not an easy ride.
But hey, it's fun. Part of the charm of reading Gothic literature is all the dense description that really makes you feel like you're sitting in a damp, dark mansion with your pet crow and a candlestick at your side. Irving spills a lot of ink on these descriptions, and believe us—you'll be glad you stuck around for the ride.
A simply constructed sentence we rarely do see in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." (Sound weird? Try reading the story.)
The pages of this story are littered with commas, semicolons, dashes, and colons. Some sentences go on for ten lines or more, and the description of Baltus's farm has one sentence that is 149 words long. (Count the number of words in this sentence, and you'll get an idea of what that means.)
Ready for an example? Here goes:
He had, however, a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature; he was in form and spirit like a supple-jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away—jerk! he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever. (1.28)
Yikes. The only punctuation this sentence doesn't have is a question mark. Does Irving need to use such a complicated sentence just to tell us that Ichabod will bounce back from pressure? No. Is it more fun this way? Maybe. This style is pretty common for works written in Irving's time, but nowadays it gives the story an old-timey feel.
If you ever need directions to the closest Starbucks, ask Irving. This guy is the king of description. We know every nook and cranny of the Van Tassel abode, and could probably describe Ichabod to the police if we had to (which, let's be honest, we might). Wondering what a beautiful fall day looks like in Sleepy Hollow? Irving's here to help:
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet.
Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble-field. (1.36)
Hey, you asked. And Irving answered.
In this example, our author uses sight and sound to paint a canvas of a nice autumn day in the countryside. It's just like being in the forest, minus the pollen, the dirt, and the threat of being mauled by a grizzly. Some people might find that Irving's descriptions slow down the story and detract from what little action there is. To them we say, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Ready for a good spook? Gather around and bring your scariest flashlights. It's story time.
It may shock you to hear this, but Irving didn't come up with the Headless Horseman. (Gasp!) In fact, the Headless Horseman is such an old myth, we're not even sure anyone invented it. It just is.
We're pretty sure Washington Irving took his cue from the German side of things. Gottfried August Bürger's The Wild Huntsman and folktales by Karl Musäus have supernatural horse chases just like the one between Ichabod and our headless friend, down to the bridge and all. Coincidence? We think not.
So Irving did a bit of copying. But this is where it gets interesting. Irving decided to make his headless horseman a Hessian. In addition to creating some amusing alliteration, Irving gave the Horseman a real history for the first time.
Who exactly were the Hessians? They were German soldiers (German story, German guy… seeing a trend?) who were hired to work for the British during the American Revolution. There were a heck of a lot of them and the guys were trained to fight while the American rebels were, well, not. Put together their numbers and their training and you have a pretty good reason to be scared of these guys—even when they're alive.
Instead of using the magical, spooky creature that was popular in folklore, Washington Irving turns the Horseman into the ghost of a guy who fought in a very real war. Roots the whole thing in history a bit more, don't you think? And wait, is Irving getting political?
Shmoop isn't afraid of ghosts (most of the time), but the same can't be said for the people of Sleepy Hollow. We don't know if they were ghoul-obsessed before the war, but we think it's safe to say that all the hub-bub increased because of it. These people are obviously traumatized. (And as we know, Sleepy Hollow is not a fan of change, so they're not likely to get over it any time soon [1.7].)
And what's the perfect symbol to embody their trauma? A headless Hessian horseman, of course. These people are Dutch, after all, so they probably knew the horseman myth. Plus, Hessians often rode horses, and a cannonball could take off your head—it's a no-brainer to put the two together. It seems like the townspeople of Sleepy Hollow have collectively dreamed up the very thing that attacked them just a short while ago.
One last thing. Hessians were kind of like mercenaries, and mercenaries are thought to be very greedy people—sometimes we even use the word to describe just that. Is it possible that the Horseman is a manifestation of the green-eyed devil? Imagine that. The greediest guy in Sleepy Hollow is attacked by greed itself. We wouldn't put it past old Irving—he probably thought this was the best joke ever told.
Think about Cookie Monster. Now think about Ichabod. Okay, back to Cookie Monster. And…Ichabod. Are they blending together yet? That's because Cookie Monster's ever-hungry black hole of a mouth isn't too different from Ichabod's. Ichabod is almost always shoving his face full of food; and when he's not, he's at least salivating at the thought of it.
We know that this guy loves to eat; he's "a huge feeder" and has "the dilating powers of an anaconda" (1.11). But food isn't the only thing that he consumes. He has an "appetite for the marvelous" or the supernatural and "[n]o tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow" (1.16). His metaphorical mouth also feeds on the "sweet thoughts and 'sugared suppositions'" of riches and power (1.39). We could keep going, but you get the picture.
Ichabod's never-ending hunger shows us just how greedy he really is. And it also makes us think that even if he got what he was after (Baltus's wealth), he still wouldn't be satisfied.
The few times Ichabod isn't stuffing his face or waiting to stuff it, he's singing. And this guy sure is proud of his singing, even though Irving hints that it might be more like a dog whining than the song of a nightingale. But the people of Sleepy Hollow are impressed enough, and he gets to be their choirmaster.
That's all pretty normal, we guess. But did you notice that Ichabod seems to sing at very specific times? Yep, when he's scared. Irving writes, "His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought, or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes" (1.16). Somehow, singing seems to make everything better. But on the night the Headless Horseman appears, Ichabod can't sing (1.64). No!
What does it all mean? No, really, we're asking. Here are some ideas we've had, but tell us if you think we missed something:
What do you think?
Ichabod is a smarty-pants. At least the people in Sleepy Hollow think so. We are seriously starting to doubt that he has read anything besides that old copy of Cotton Mather's History of Witchcraft that he carries around with him, because that is all he talks about. On the other hand, he owns a book! Several of them, actually! Back then, that was like having a bunch of iGadgets the day they come out. It meant that you were fancy people.
But being a teacher in Sleepy Hollow isn't all it's cracked up to be. Parents find it hard to see why they should pay such a hefty fee for schooling, and they think that teachers are just "drones" (1.12). And in the end, Hans Van Ripper burns Ichabod's books and takes his kids out of school because he thinks it just causes trouble (1.70).
The reaction that Sleepy Hollow residents have to Ichabod and his books is the same reaction that they have to any science or any other "facts" that come into the town. Sure it's interesting at first, but in the end it's no good. In that way, Ichabod and his books might be symbols for truth and reason.
What the townspeople are saying is, "We don't want your reason, thanks. Our system works just fine without it." So they reject the man who says Ichabod is alive, ignore Brom's laughter, and assume that the Headless Horseman took their schoolteacher away. These are people who believe in the supernatural and are stubborn about it, to boot.
You might want to sit down for this one. Ready? Okay.
The story of Ichabod Crane was written by a fake guy, listening to a fake old man, found by the fake author of The Sketch Book.
Confused yet? We'll break it down:
By the time the story of Sleepy Hollow gets to us, it has gone through a lot of he-said-she-said, and it's something like an urban legend. With so many layers of removal, it's tough to believe anything that is happening.
Want some icing with that cake? Because the story is told in third person objective point of view (i.e., he/she did this/that and I/we have no opinion about the matter), we're even more distanced from the story. Instead of getting invested in the characters like we would in a really good soap opera, we feel more like an objective observer reading a crime report. Except that we're cracking up.
In addition to the laughing, there's still one problem. Normally, this kind of narration would give us lots of facts to work with. Not the case here. Our narrator doesn't even know what's going on half the time. For example, he doesn't know what Katrina says to Ichabod before he runs off:
What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong. (1.57)
Come on, Knickerbocker!
What's the effect of all this? We have a hard time figuring out the truth. Mission accomplished, Irving.
We know—this story is hilarious. Then how can it be a tragedy? Hear us out. Irving makes fun of nearly every literary style and genre that he uses, and his use of tragedy is no different. Even though all of the parts of a tragedy are there, Irving changes them around so those in the know will be laughing out loud. Time for you to be in the know.
In a normal tragedy, our protagonist would be a pretty awesome guy or lady. They'd be good looking, smart, moral, probably rich, probably royal, everyone likes 'em… the whole shebang. Ichabod, not so much. He is dirt poor, laughably ugly, greedy, mean, and sniveling. He's basically the opposite of your typical tragic hero.
In this stage of the tragedy plot, the hero is missing something and makes a plan to get it. What is Ichabod missing? Money. He needs money to keep stuffing food in his face, and it's just dawned on him that marrying rich is a good way to keep him knee-deep in Dutch pastries for the rest of his life. So his goal is set: he wants to marry Katrina Van Tassel.
A tragic hero normally has some fatal flaw that leads them down the dark road to destruction. In Ichabod's case, it's not tough to spot. This guy loves to eat, and he wants all of your cool stuff for himself. Greed, not love, leads Ichabod toward Katrina.
Surprisingly, his shtick seems to work. Katrina has eyes for Ichabod, and she ignores her other, more handsome and popular boyfriends. So far, this greed thing is going pretty well for Ichabod.
Things don't stay dreamlike for long. Ichabod refuses to fight Brom for the girl, so Brom decides to make Ichabod's life a living hell. Ichabod doesn't even know that Brom is the one causing trouble; he just knows that things aren't going quite as planned.
Ichabod's greed has finally caught up to him. The player gets played by his lady, who was just using him to make Brom jealous. When her plan works, she dumps the zero and gets with the hero (or villain?). Looks like his greed blinded him to the game that Katrina was playing.
To top it off, Ichabod has to go home alone. We all know he's scared of the dark, and he starts to imagine ghosts and ghouls lurking in the forest. Everything is starting to fall apart, and there's nothing Ichabod can do to make it better.
Now things have really taken a turn for the worse. The Headless Horseman chases after Ichabod and knocks him off of his seat. And that, folks, is the last time we ever see Ichabod. Either the Horseman killed him, or he ran away. Either way, the Ichabod we know is destroyed.
Tragedies often have a catharsis (Greek-speak for a release of emotion or tension) and reveal at the end—and "Sleepy Hollow" is no different. We don't know about you, but this is what we were waiting for. We kind of felt like Ichabod had it coming when the Horseman came after him. The townspeople seem to be okay with his death/disappearance, too. The reveal part comes when we learn that it was Brom, the town prankster, all along… right?
Ichabod Crane is the schoolteacher in Sleepy Hollow, a town where not much ever happens. Oh, except for ghost stories. The people in this town are obsessed with ghosts—and so is Ichabod. This is pretty much all we need to know before the story gets going.
Speaking of obsessions, Ichabod is addicted to eating. When he realizes that he can gain access to unlimited refills by marrying Katrina, the hunt is on. The only problem is that another guy already had his eye on this lady, and now he wants to kill Ichabod. Oops. This is the oldest conflict of all time: romantic rivals. It can't get more classic. Consider the action risen.
Ichabod gets invited to a party at Katrina's house and it is hoppin'. Unfortunately, it doesn't end so well for Ichabod, because his lady dumps him at the end of it. On the sad, long ride home he gets chased by the Headless Horseman and falls off of his horse. Change, excitement, a chase—great formula for a climax.
After Ichabod disappears, no one even cares. They move on, get another teacher, and burn his books. In the end, he becomes just another ghost story. Oh well. We find out what happened to Ichabod and who gets the girl, so all the strings are tied up in this falling action. Right?
The Postscript ends with a conversation between two men that goes roughly like this:
Guy 1: "What was the moral of the story?"
Guy 2: "There wasn't one."
Guy 1: "So the story wasn't true?"
Guy 2: "Of course it wasn't."
Maybe this isn't happily ever after, but it's something.
Everything is all well and good in the earthly paradise of Sleepy Hollow. We meet our (not-so-heroic) protagonist, and everything seems to be going fine. At least until a girl appears. Now Ichabod has to fight for her love. By this time, we know all about our little town, so it's time to bring on the drama.
And drama you will have. Turns out this lady has a strong and popular boyfriend who now wants to kill Ichabod. Then Ichabod promptly gets dumped and a ghost starts chasing him around. Gulp.
Okay, drama over. We learn that Ichabod has run away and seems to be living the good life amongst not-crazy people. The popular guy gets the popular girl. Everything goes back to normal. Oh, and of course, the whole thing was made up.