American literature before the war of 1812 was stoic, religious, and never really dealt with stories in literature. This is believed to have been because of the steel grip Puritans and other religious groups had over what was published. After the war, Englands grip, as well as its dominating religious holds, were loosened and America was more free than it had been in 1776. The freedom came when stories, poems and novels were being written and shared with the public. This time of literature is the American Renaissance.
The American renaissance was in the mid 1800s and was a release from all the tight, religious literature that was being produced before. Not only were the American people free to make their own histories and stories, but legends began to be born as well. One of the most famous of these legends is Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
Washington Irving (1783-1859) was named after the man he wrote a 5 volume biography for: George Washington. He was always a writer and was first published in 1802 when he wrote satirical essays for his brother’s paper much like Benjamin Franklin. He was the first American writer whose books and stories were loved on both sides of the ocean and was one of the only writers to support himself entirely by his writing at the time. Irving liked to write about darker things and historical transformation; hence his famous work from The Sketchbook “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
The three themes that stand out most in Irving’s work are: imagination, supernatural reality, and the boundless selfishness of the characters in his little Dutch community. Without Ichabod Crane’s fantastic imagination there would be no ground for this story. His obsession with the paranormal and fascination with witches are the base for practically everything that happens in the story including his attempts to win Katrina Van Tassel and the spoils to be gained (yeah, he was a gold digger!). Ichabod’s imagination is to be expected since he is the focal character of the plot, but the townspeople also show a great interest in stories of ghosts and goblins, which leads to the telling of the legend of the Hollow's own supernatural haunt: the Headless Horseman. The theme of selfishness in the story is the only one that stands apart from the spooky themes as it has nothing to do with the ghostly reality that Irving’s work is based on. Ichabod is selfish in that he covets Katrina’s inheritance and the towns people are unconcerned with Ichabod’s disappearance in the end simply because he does not owe anyone a debt. Yay, for economic mind-sets!
The story of “Sleepy Hollow”, for those of you who may have never actually read the story, is simple; a superstitious school teacher desires the hand (and estate) of the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel. She is also pursued by Brom, the village’s seemingly only handsome young man (time to skip town, Katrina), who is something of a trickster. The backdrop for the story is the frightening image of the headless Hessian who not only haunts the Hollow but searches every night for his head. Anyone else search for your head every day? Just me? Alrighty then, moving on.
The theme of imagination is really only dominant in Ichabod though the love of supernatural stories of all the townspeople is written throughout the story, however it does not interfere with the lives of the people. Ichabod is like a child trapped in his own supernatural world, which eventually results in his ruin. It is from the townspeople that the reader first hears the legend of the horseman from. The hollow is described in great detail of being a place where everyone is dreamlike and has a witching aura. Irving writes (in the voice of his narrator) that even visitors to Sleepy Hollow are, in a little time, influenced by the dreamy air. The people are subject to having trances and hearing music and voices! As a reader, it can be assumed that this means everyone who lives there and visits becomes entranced somehow. Perhaps there is a bit of magic in the air and that is what accounts for the sightings of the ghostly horseman? But that would be taking the supernatural as reality. Either way, the people of Sleepy Hollow see things that cannot be there outside of a supernatural reality. But with them it is a simple matter of flights of fantasy. Ichabod, on the other hand, lives and breaths his supernatural world. But I can't judge him too much for that. After all, I live in a fantasy world! But I don't get killed by my characters. Not yet.
The first example given of the school master’s supernatural paranoia is when Irving describes how Ichabod has set up traps and defenses about his school house; stakes at the windows, locked doors, and wires twisted around handles so they cannot be opened. This introduction to his paranoia is key to the rest of the story as it intermingles dangerously with his supernatural beliefs.
A second part of Ichabod’s illusionary life is his pride. He takes great pride in disciplining his students and teaching them, but is also proud of the fact that should a weaker student come along who he could not bear to whip, he simply gives them a lecture. It is obvious that he holds his teaching methods in the highest respect. Outside his school house, he takes pride in showing off in public. He is deemed smart among the hollow’s community because he is the only book learned one in the area, but really he just carries around a copy of Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft”. Well, what we can say? He's a fanboy. It is this praise of his knowledge that leads him to be boisterous among the women and his delusion that he thinks he has a chance with any one female he chooses, but this is proved dreadfully incorrect when he tries and fails with Katrina. May I never be this teacher...
It is hard to say if Ichabod is in love with Katrina, her lands, or his illusion that his knowledge will get him what he wants. From what one can read in the story, it may become quite obvious that it is the last two that give Ichabod his ridiculous courage to pursue Katrina. When he goes to call on Katrina, the narrator (as a writer, I'm desperate to wonder who it is) states that Ichabod's “mouth watered, as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare”. Ew. He's hungry for land, I guess. Then the narrator describes a wonderful feast in the Van Tassel home, which Ichabod now sees as his lordly home. He sees a “whole family of children” and “himself bestriding a prancing mare” on these grounds. When Ichabod actually enters the house, he doesn’t see it as a visit, but rather as if he is entering his own home and his “only study was how to gain the affection of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel”. See? Gold digger. What is it with big houses and lavish furnishings, people?
When a person is so far into their own reality, others around them can easily be tempted into unkind pranks and schemes against the dreaming person. As common as that situation is and as smart as Ichabod thinks he is, he should have seen the schemes that were playing out before him starting with the invitation he received during his class to come to the Van Tassel gathering in the first place. It’s easy for Katrina and Brom to plot against him for the remainder of the story without him knowing because he's actually quite stupid and delusional. By the end, when Ichabod vanishes, it can be surmised that Brom made him leave on Katrina’s bidding. Ichabod never knew that she had no interest in him.
Ichabod is so happy to be invited to the ranch that he lets class go early and enters his dream world. He goes home, dresses well and even buys a horse to appear “before his mistress in the true style of a cavalier”. Ichabod’s imagination then starts to leak out of his world as he tries to pull it into genuine reality. He wants to show Katrina and everyone at the ranch, just how great he is. A glimpse of the reality can be seen though when the narrator describes the ride to the Van Tassel home: “He rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle”. Remembering Ichabod’s long, thin description from before, the image becomes absurd as this delusional man is imagined in the mind’s eye. Ichabod’s reality and real reality do not seem to be able to coincide. It's at this point that a modern reader would scoff, look at the great rented horse, and ask if he's overcompensating for something. Well, yes. But it's not what you think. It's that he thinks he smart and he's just not. Don't those people annoy you?
The best part of the focal character’s imagination comes out in the theme of the supernatural in the story. In the beginning of the story, Sleepy Hollow is already described as a very dreamy place. The people tell stories of ghosts and all seem to honestly believe in the Horseman. Tales of encounters are the most talked about at the fire side and at social gatherings. Later, the narrator says Ichabod would be social with the older women in the hollow, not only for his own prideful advancement as previously mentioned, but because they would tell him stories of witches and magic and he would read to them from Cotton Mather in return. Throughout the story, Ichabod can be seen constantly feeding his supernatural desires and imagination. Brom plots against him to make him into the fool when he blocks up the chimney in the school house one day and silly Ichabod thinks that witches have cursed his school.
Brom’s plan to win Katrina is finally revealed to the listener when Ichabod is on his way home from the party. He waited behind to speak with his desired but the narrator, claiming he doesn’t know why, says that Ichabod left in somewhat dampened spirits. One theory assumes that Ichabod’s supernatural imagination is heightened by this depression. The scene set, the witching hour, and he’s passing the “very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been lain” when the Horseman charges Ichabod down and chases him for the next two pages. Perhaps if the school master had not been such a superstitious and paranoid individual living in a supernatural world, he could have turned and faced the farce. It was not really the Horseman because later the narrator tells that whenever the story of the missing school teacher is brought up, Brom grins and even chuckles a little to himself about the incident. With Brom’s past of tricks on Ichabod, it is not hard to realize what Ichabod could not see through his false reality.
The theme of selfishness is not as easily seen as imagination or supernatural reality, but is laced throughout the story and is a fun to talk about considering our modern times. How many selfless people do you know? Probably you know more selfish people who interrupt you when you talk and text while your speaking. In Irving's story, it can be seen with Ichabod and his lustful thoughts of the land and wealth he wishes to gain from his union with Katrina. Even his pride is a form of selfishness as he thinks he is the only smart person in Sleepy Hollow. His world would be turned upside down if someone out smarted him: Like Brom for example!
Katrina is selfish in that she schemes to have Brom scare Ichabod to make him leave and win the heart of the young man at the same time. Because everyone loves a scheming rich girl. A theory for the story is that Katrina used both Brom and Ichabod. She used Ichabod to enrage Brom thus leading him to making Ichabod leave. She wanted to be with Brom but for some reason could not simply tell Ichabod to stop pursuing her. She desires Brom to like her, though he already does, so she’s mean to Ichabod with false advances and catering to his talk after the party. She wanted the situation in her control and wanted toy with a man’s emotions: “Could the girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks?” the narrator asks us. The narrator implies here that she has more than one trick to play much like her man Brom.
The people of Sleepy Hollow are not so obviously selfish but they provide the theme at the end of the story. No one cares that the schoolmaster has vanished very mysteriously. When it is discovered that he doesn’t owe any debts, no one thinks on him again except the old women in the Sleepy Hollow who tell his story as just another ghostly haunting of the Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.