Katrina Van Tassel: Character Analysis & Overview

Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

This lesson offers a brief summary of Washington Irving's ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' and a character analysis of Katrina Van Tassel. You'll also learn about how she relates to the two main characters of the story.

What Happens in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?

Today, it is nearly impossible to separate the short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, from a mental image of the Headless Horseman. Since it was published in 1820, it has been reimagined for movies, television, and the stage many times. The focus of these remakes have often been on Ichabod's conflict with the Headless Horseman.

In the original short story by Washington Irving, however, the Headless Horseman (or the Hessian Soldier) is secondary in the plot to the love triangle between Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones. In fact, a careful reading of the story indicates that the Headless Horseman may not actually exist at all.

Ichabod Crane is the schoolmaster in the small Dutch settlement of Sleepy Hollow. Katrina Van Tassel is the object of his affection. Because she is coquettish (insincere in her affections towards members of the opposite sex), Ichabod must contend with the other men who are after her affections. Luckily for Ichabod, he only has to contend with one other fellow. Unluckily for Ichabod, that one other fellow is the ''burly, roaring, roystering blade'' known as Brom Bones. There would definitely be more suitors to contend with if Brom had not thrown his hat into the ring: ''his advances were signals for rival candidates to retire, who felt no inclination to cross a lion in his amours.''

Focusing on the rivalry between Ichabod and Brom over their mutual admiration of Katrina, the narrator tells us:

''It left Brom no alternative but to draw upon the funds of rustic waggery in his disposition, and to play off boorish practical jokes upon his rival. Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones, and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domains; smoked out his singing school, by stopping up the chimney; broke into the school-house at night, in spite of its formidable fastenings of withe and window stakes, and turned every thing topsy-turvy: so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there.''

This passage is important for three reasons. All of which have to do with foreshadowing (carefully placed exposition that arms the reader with knowledge that will be important later). First, it shows the reader the fierceness of the rivalry between Brom and Ichabod. Second, it shows that Brom carries out his aggression toward Ichabod through passive-aggressive pranks rather than direct assaults. Third, it shows Ichabod's propensity to blame the supernatural (in this case witches) for events of natural cause. All of these are important to fully understanding the ending of the story.

When Ichabod attends a party at the Van Tassel's home, he and Katrina have a falling-out. The narrator characterizes the falling-out by saying:

''Oh these women! these women! Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks?--Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival?--Heaven only knows, not I!''

Ichabod leaves the party and journeys through Sleepy Hollow on his horse, Gunpowder. He encounters a large shadowy figure on the bridge (where Brom had earlier claimed to have encountered the Headless Horseman). The 'spectre' toys with Ichabod for a small amount of time and eventually whacks him in the head. After that, nothing is found of Ichabod Crane except his hat and a smashed pumpkin.

The ending of the story is left ambiguous to a degree, but it can be inferred that one of two things happened: Ichabod was taken by the Headless Horseman or the 'spectre' that Ichabod saw was not supernatural at all. It was just another one of Brom's practical jokes meant to scare Ichabod out of Sleepy Hollow.

The narrator states that the ''old country wives... maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means.''

But the narrator also states that:

''Brom Bones too, who shortly after his rival's disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.''

The narrator also informs the reader of the following clue that, given its specific and detailed nature, strongly suggests Ichabod is alive and well:

''an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood, partly through fear of the goblin and Hans Van Ripper, and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress; that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time, had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.''

Given the nature of Brom's character, the foreshadowing of his pranks, and the narrator's clues at the end, it is more reasonable for the reader to believe that Brom scared Ichabod away from town than to believe the gossip of 'old country wives.'

The Role of Katrina Van Tassel

Katrina Van Tassel is a flat character. In literature, a flat character is one who does not have a complex personality. Rather, she can be summed up in a few words. The narrator uses the word 'coquette' several times to describe Katrina. In fact, everything the reader learns about Katrina is told by the narrator. She doesn't say or do anything throughout the course of the story that allows the reader to infer anything about her beyond the narrator's descriptions.

The narrator's most in-depth description of Katrina appears when she is introduced to the reader:

''She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam, the tempting stomacher of the olden time; and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.''

The importance of Katrina's role in the story is not her character or personality at all. Irving uses her (1) as a device to complicate the plot and (2) as a device to explore the much more complex character of Ichabod Crane.

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