Study Guide

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Man and the Natural World

By Washington Irving

Man and the Natural World

Then, as he wended his way, by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination. (1.16)

Ichabod is a scaredy cat, but what exactly is he afraid of? Supernatural beasts or plain old natural phenomena?

From hence the low murmur of his pupils' voices, conning over their lessons, might be heard in a drowsy summer's day, like the hum of a beehive; interrupted now and then by the authoritative voice of the master, in the tone of menace or command; or, peradventure, by the appalling sound of the birch, as he urged some tardy loiterer along the flowery path of knowledge. (1.9)

We often see animals taking on human features in literature (if you want to get fancy, that's called anthropomorphism), but here the students become a garden filled with buzzing bees (zoomorphism at its best!).

A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose. (1.1)

We knew we recognized that river. Last time we saw it, it was called Lethe and was making people forget stuff in Ovid's Metamorphoses. So now the natural is the supernatural?

Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom. (1.7)

Get it? Vegetating? Because the people are just like the nature around them? Irving is giving us some pretty important information—that is, that Sleepy Hollow never changes—but he always manages to keep it interesting.

[…] and the blue-jay, that noisy coxcomb, in his gay light-blue coat and white underclothes; screaming and chattering, nodding and bobbing and bowing, and pretending to be on good terms with every songster of the grove. (1.37)

For a town where nothing happens, the animals sure seem to have busy social lives. At times they seem more human than the humans.

He had, in fact, been a favorite steed of his master's, the choleric Van Ripper, who was a furious rider, and had infused, very probably, some of his own spirit into the animal; for, old and broken-down as he looked, there was more of the lurking devil in him than in any young filly in the country. (1.34)

Humans and nature are so connected that the animals get some of their owners' spirit. Kind of like Shmoop and our labradoodle. Van Ripper probably only grows sour apple trees and crab grass, too.

The small birds were taking their farewell banquets. In the fullness of their revelry, they fluttered, chirping and frolicking, from bush to bush, and tree to tree, capricious from the very profusion and variety around them. (1.36)

What's the difference between Ichabod and these birds? No, this isn't a cheesy joke—we're really asking!

The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him, the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. (1.58)

This, dear Shmoopers, is what tweed-jacket sporting Shmoop calls a pathetic fallacy. No, not that kind of pathetic—sympathetic. The scenery is sad because Ichabod got dumped, when just a little while ago, the exact same scenery was beautiful.