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Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:05 Adaptations
  • 1:05 Characters
  • 3:24 Plot
  • 4:38 Analysis
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Everyone loves a scary story now and then. Learn how Washington Irving's famous story, ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,'' uses imagination and the supernatural to make it a Romantic piece of American literature that is still adapted by television today.

Sleepy Hollow Adaptations

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the few early American short stories that is still widely read today.

Most people are probably familiar with the story through the movie and television renditions of the story, the earliest of which was in 1922, a version called The Headless Horseman starring Will Rogers as the main character, Ichabod Crane. In 1949, Disney created its own version, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad with Bing Crosby narrating. This version, with its excellent use of visual symbolism, is fairly accurate, minus its lengthy chase scene.

In 1999, Tim Burton's account of Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp, takes a different, darker approach with more head-chopping and less whimsical storytelling. Even some TV shows, like Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark, Wishbone and Charmed, have taken the basics of the story and adapted it into their own, up-to-date storylines.

Many adaptations of the headless horseman story have been created over the years.
1999 Sleepy Hollow Adaptation

Characters

Irving's characters drive the story and are most memorable because of his detail in describing each. He says of Ichabod Crane (the main character), 'He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew.'

According to Irving, Ichabod looks like a goofy, old scarecrow who has escaped the cornfield. He is a schoolteacher, and like many teachers today, he doesn't make too much money. As a result, the ladies of the town take care to feed him in the evenings, during which he is happy to listen to their tales about supernatural events in the settlement. Ichabod is said to have carried a copy of Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft, which he firmly believes. And so, it's no surprise that he is superstitious and believes all of the stories the ladies tell. In addition to teaching, Ichabod is also the town's singing-master. It is through this occupation that he meets Katrina Van Tassel and falls in love. Or, at least he does once he sees her father's farm.

Katrina is eighteen, beautiful and has a rich farmer for a father. She is called a coquette, which means she's a flirt. Most of the men in the village are taken with Katrina but are afraid to pursue her thanks to Brom Bones.

Abraham Van Brunt, known better as Brom Bones, is 'a burly, roaring, roistering blade' with a 'Herculean frame'. Basically, he is physically intimidating. He is doing his best to court Katrina by scaring off any other suitors. Ichabod, knowing he cannot physically challenge Brom, uses his advantages as Katrina's singing-master to thwart Brom's attempts to keep him away from her.

Now, while the Headless Horseman isn't exactly a character in the story, his presence is necessary, so we need to know who he is (or was). According to the legend, he is a Hessian soldier whose head was blown off by a cannonball during the American Revolution. He now haunts the old, Dutch cemetery by the bridge, and it is this legend that terrifies Ichabod the most.

Plot

So, Irving's legend takes place around 1790 (which isn't long after the Revolutionary war) in Tarrytown, New York in the small village of Sleepy Hollow, which is a Dutch settlement. The story begins with an extremely flamboyant description of the countryside and Ichabod himself. It's here we learn that Ichabod is new to the area, a bit superstitious and actively pursuing Katrina. We also learn that he's not the only one; Brom Bones is also after her hand and is doing his best pranks to keep Ichabod away.

The story comes to its climax after a party at the Van Tassel's where Ichabod gets his panties all in a wad listening to a bunch of different ghost stories - including that of the headless horseman. On his way home that night, he is followed by a stranger. Irving describes the scene by saying, 'but his horror was still more increased, on observing that the head which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle.'

Ichabod Crane encountered a headless figure on his way home.
Icabod Followed by Horseman

The following morning, all that can be found of Ichabod is his hat and a broken pumpkin. The ending is left to interpretation, but Irving gives us just enough insight to let us see that it was Brom who frightened away the schoolmaster in order to solidify his chances with Katrina.

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