The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Unreliability of Stories and the Supernatural

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Washington Irving – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)

At the time, in the decades following the Revolutionary War, the United States was in the process of constructing a national identity. Many Americans felt that the young nation lacked a cultural identity, as well as a national mythology and folklore.

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.

  • America's first ghost story – Headless horseman was the new nation's first ghost.

  • This story reveals Irving's love for and use of folklore

  • ICHABOC CRANE becomes the butt of local humour and the natural victim for BROM BRONES' JOKES.

Veracity in storytelling:

The narrator gives us reasons to doubt everything. We become critical readers, unlike Crane, who believes the ghost stories he reads.

The power of imagination:

Ichabod is rather comedic and foolish protagonist. He enjoys reading stories of ghosts, his imagination is so powerful and he has great fights every time he walks home after dark. The littlest things frighten him. He think the supernatural things are real. He tries to WOO KATRINA, but he does not take BROM seriously. ICHABOD'S POWERFUL IMAGINATION RENDERS HIM IMPOTENT IN REALITY.

Lack of class structure in AMERICA:

Katrina is desired by almost every yung man, being the rich farmer's daughter. In Europe, her lack of title would have limited those who would be interest in her to others of similar status, but in America, her richness is enough.

Abundance of resources in America: Lands, farms, animals, possessions and food.

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.


Ichabod Crane in particular falls under the influence of these chronicles until he is unable to separate reality from his imagination. However, he is not the only one to have trouble telling fact from fiction. There is a 'witching influence' that hangs over the whole of Tarry Town, one that fills it with dreams and ghost stories and is 'imbibed' not only by its residents but also by anyone that tarried there for awhile. Are people in Tarry Town simply more prone to the supernatural and the imagination? Or is there, in this odd, magical place, simply less of a distinction between the natural and supernatural? In any case, Ichabod is especially given to this sort of fantasizing. He adores listening to the Dutch wives’ stories about terrifying spirits and haunting ghosts. But unlike others, Ichabod is unable to accept the stories as just that—stories. His enjoyment turns instantly to horror and fear – in other words he accepts the intrusion of these tales into his own reality. Brom Bones takes advantage of Ichabod’s inability to separate reality from fiction, and plays on Ichabod’s wild imagination—indeed, Ichabod’s weakness is the reason Brom Bones ultimately wins the battle for Katrina Van Tassel. Nevertheless, the story is not entirely clear on whether Ichabod’s melding of reality and imagination is solely a weakness or a fault. While he does lose Katrina, we do hear a rumor that it was only thanks to the terror of the Headless Horseman that he finally left Tarry Town and, ultimately, was able to make something of his life, becoming a successful lawyer and judge. And while the story seems to admonish against taking ghost stories too seriously, this warning takes place within a version of a ghost story itself. Supernatural tales and imaginative stories, Irving seems to say, do have their place—though perhaps only as long as we understand they’re just stories.


The plot of 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is largely concerned with a battle—one for the heart of Katrina Van Tassel. Or rather, perhaps, a war, made up of various battles and conflicts between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones. This imagery is not an accident: Irving’s story takes place in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, around 1790. This language of war and battle would have made sense to a reader in a newly born nation fresh from the battlefield—a nation which was attempting to forge its own, internal hierarchies. The battle for Katrina takes place on various planes: Brom Bones plays practical jokes on Ichabod, for instance, while Ichabod’s attempts to win over Katrina are compared to the conquests of a knight errant going off into battle. Implicit in their competition is a tension between the physical and the intellectual spheres, between Brom’s brute strength and 'manliness' and Ichabod’s role as a schoolteacher. Even within Ichabod’s sphere, there is a contrast between his magisterial reigning over the classroom and his need to ingratiate himself to the families that host and feed him.

Indeed, Irving is acutely aware of the ways in which social maneuvering is its own kind of battle, with the prizes being power and wealth rather than territory or political independence. In the early United States, though there were certainly social and economic hierarchies, there was also greater mobility and interaction between classes—both Brom Bones and Ichabod are invited to the same quilting frolic, and both are permitted to court Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy family. In the newly egalitarian society of the United Sates, paradoxically, battles such as that for the conquest of Katrina only become more dramatic, since greater heights now seem attainable and within the characters’ reach.


One of the first things we learn about Ichabod Crane is that he is a 'huge feeder,' with 'the dilating powers of an anaconda.' His massive appetite leads him from neighbor to neighbor, supplementing the food he can afford on a teacher’s income—but it also leads him into courtship and, ultimately, into danger. Ichabod is initially attracted to Katrina because of the abundance of her father’s farm, which is described down to the last mouth-watering detail. Indeed, Irving’s very prose is full and lush, seeming to goad the reader into the kind of greed Ichabod embodies. Even Katrina is described as being a 'tempting […] morsel.' Her characterization as an object to be consumed relies on stereotypes of women prevalent at the time, to be sure, but it also refers back to Ichabod’s obsession with consumption.

Ichabod’s appetite goes beyond food and women: it extends to the realm of tall tales and ghost stories, which he 'swallows' eagerly—though with his own version of a stomachache afterwards, when he has consumed so much that he becomes terrified by the 'ghosts' lying in wait for him on the return home. Ultimately, Irving’s description of Ichabod’s greed and appetite can be situated within a broader social context. In the early post-revolutionary United States, much of the country still remained to be explored (and claimed). The nation still seemed to be a vast repository of natural resources and abundance only waiting to be consumed. Irving’s depiction of Ichabod serves as an implicit rebuke to this kind of thinking. While economic consumption (and competition) were necessary to a society on the cusp of modernity, Ichabod’s exaggerated appetite shows the drawbacks of never-ending consumption as dangerous and unhealthy.

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