Literary Devices in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Layers of Narration: One of the most striking technical aspects of “The legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the layering of the narrative. At the highest level we have the writer Washington Irving, who places his stories under the name of “Geoffrey Crayon,” the fictional man responsible for compiling the Sketch Book. Within “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in particular, the narrator is a man named Diedrich Knickerbocker, who tells the story of Ichabod Crane as reported to him by an unnamed man in New York. These multivalent layers of storytelling remove any possibility of a reliable narrator, all the while reinforcing our sense of how legends come into being through long chains of told and retold tales.

Literary Devices Examples in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow 9

"A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose;..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Sleepy Hollow’s atmosphere is one of rest and languid relaxation. The sounds invoked in this passage support its idyllic portrayal—they are natural yet soothing, inviting any listener to rest rather than spur them to action. The imagery is that of an Edenic, romantic-era landscape painting, with a simple valley divided by a brook and populated only by quail and woodpecker.

"(Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.) ..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

This parenthetical aside introduces the narrator: a fictional Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose stories are collected and presented by Geoffrey Crayon, a fictional stand-in for Washington Irving. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Knickerbocker’s narrative is drawn from the tales of another storyteller. Therefore, we can say that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a story with multiple layers of narration. This chain of telling and retelling represents the way legends develop by word of mouth over long periods of time.

"He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Compare this description of Brom Bones to that of Ichabod Crane. Whereas Ichabod is skinny and bookish, Brom is sturdy, strong, and mischievous. Crane is an educated transplant from Connecticut, a “Yankee”; Brom is a native of Dutch descent. They are opposites of one another, representing new ideals—intellect and learning—clashing with old values—strength and hardiness. The characters are foils to one another.

"tulip-tree..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

The tulip-tree is a symbol for where the supernatural arises in the reality of the story. The tree is personified as a giant human and carries with it the grim tale of Major André. The tree is an important milestone in the story, for it signals a transition into the realm of the supernatural, as if the tree itself were a kind of portal.

"Oh, these women! these women!..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

In this exclamation, the narrator Diedrich Knickerbocker injects some of his own opinions. While Knickerbocker is not entirely sympathetic to Crane, observing the humor in the schoolteacher’s amorous failings, he does betray a trace of personal experience in the matter of courting women.

"Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each storyteller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

In a humorous aside, Diedrich Knickerbocker informs us that the tales told by the old farmers at the dance are tall tales, dressed up to make the teller more heroic. This disclaimer both feels true to the nature of such storytelling and also places the subsequent ghost stories in a context of folklore rather than fact. Furthermore, by having his fictional narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, relate to us another fictional narrator’s thoughts on tall tales, Washington Irving layers his own stories in folklore and legend.

"The horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid- heaven. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark gray and purple of their rocky sides...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

This delicate description of the sun’s setting over the Hudson Valley seems to evoke Ichabod Crane’s state of inner serenity and hopefulness as he approaches the festivities. This an example of the pathetic fallacy, a literary device by which a character’s inner emotions are described through descriptions of an external landscape.

"They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set some number of years following the American Revolutionary War. Immigrants from Europe continued to settle across the US, though the New York area was primarily dominated by the Dutch. Some “Yankee” settlers—those from areas south of New York—began to venture toward Dutch territory at this time, leading to tension between the rustic farmers and the change represented by Yankee immigrants. Like a calm eddy along the bank of a rapid stream, Sleepy Hollow is fairly undisturbed by these developments.

"—CASTLE OF INDOLENCE...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Invoking a quote from another source, such as the poem “Castle of Indolence,” is what’s known as an epigraph. Epigraphs are intended to suggest the theme of the work that follows. In this case, “Castle of Indolence” by British poet James Thomson is a lengthy Spenserian allegorical poem. The lines quoted here are most applicable to the setting of Sleepy Hollow, which is a town of idleness and dreamlike atmosphere.