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Themes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Power and Truth of Local Folklore: In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving is interested in where folklore comes from and how local legends evolve over time. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow, the land is charged with a number of ghost tales, most notably that of the “Galloping Hessian.” As Ichabod’s own adventures in Sleepy Hollow come to a close, we witness how those adventures become transformed into a new local legend, thanks to the old women of the Dutch settlement.

Might vs. Intellect; Old vs. New Order: Ichabod Crane clashes with the local Dutch farmers in a number of ways. As a schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane represents the force of the intellect, whereas the Dutch farmers, exemplified by Brom Bones, represent physical might and brawn. As a yankee, Ichabod Crane wants to bring new ideas and attitudes into the fold; the Dutch farmers strive to preserve their Old-World traditions, many of which date back countless generations.

Marriage for Love vs. Marriage for Money: Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt compete for the affections of Katrina Van Tassel, for both desire the young woman’s hand in marriage. The two men represent two age-old amorous motivations: marriage for money and marriage for love. Ichabod Crane views Katrina Van Tassel as an entry into a realm of agricultural riches; the Van Tassel lands are vast and fruitful. Brom Van Brunt, on the other hand, seems to desire Katrina for her own character. In the end, authenticity wins out.

Themes Examples in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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"his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Notice how Crane cares very little for Katrina—he is instead most interested in her money and what he can do with it. Crane’s attraction to Katrina is selfish rather than born of actual affection, which Irving will contrast with Brom Bone’s genuine care for her well-being.

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"has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

In the intriguing final paragraph, Diedrich Knickerbocker offers a final analysis of the story that favors superstition and legend over rationality. Knickerbocker concedes to the interpretation of the “old country wives,” according to whom Ichabod Crane fled due to supernatural forces. Most fascinating of all is that Crane himself comes populate the other spirits and ghosts of the hollow. His story turns into a supernatural tale of its own, which tells us something about how fact turns into fiction and, in turn, into legend.

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"Old farmers, a spare leathern- faced race, in homespun coats and breeches, blue stockings, huge shoes, and magnificent pewter buckles...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

The “old farmers” at the Van Tassel dance represent the old guard, the Dutch farmers who have settled and farmed the lands of the Hudson River Valley for several generations. They are in many ways the opposite of Ichabod Crane: steeped in proud traditions, grounded in the land, and sturdy in their physical presence.

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"The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

In this passage, readers get a sense of the views Knickerbocker and Crane hold of their position in society. Appropriately, the scholarly Knickerbocker believes that Crane and other men of intellect are revered in rural areas for their education and active minds. They view themselves as superior to the working men of the area, making them better matches for local women—at least in their minds.

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"and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Because most of Crane’s work is mental rather than physical, the hard-working Dutch farmers don’t quite comprehend the full extent of his effort. This conflict between intellectual pursuits and physical labor will continue to be complicated throughout the story.

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"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.

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