Whereas Washington Irving's folk tales are characterized by a wry humor with touches of mystery and sentimentality, Nathaniel Hawthorne's narratives possess a darkly meditative and uncertain tone, often accompanied by didacticism, and sentimentality. And, yet, these authors frequently treat the same themes of hypocrisy, the foibles of human nature, and the rejection of strict religious intellect. In such tales as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip van Winkle," Irving humorously inverts the frighteningly Gothic tale with its haunted locale and superstitions and creates an allegory with characters who represent certain traits of human nature. In "The Devil and Tom Walker," for instance, Old Scratch represents evil while Tom Walker stands for religious hypocrisy as he is really an unscrupulous usurer. In his treatment of human nature, Hawthorne does not usually employ allegory, although his short story "The Minister's Black Veil" is called "A Parable." Still, Hawthorne's parable is much more didactic than Irving's ironic depictions.
Their depiction of character varies as well. Irving, who served as a mentor for subsequent Romantic writers, created comical personnages characterized by a strong sense of individualism. Hawthorne's characters, too, are often fiercely individual, but are treated in a much more serious fashion. Consider, for example, a character such as Ichabod Crane, a gangling bachelor who finagles his way into the home of the Van Tassels where there are bountiful meals served by the "delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel," whom he desires to wed so he will be comfortable in life. Indeed, Irving's description of the ridiculous Crane is in sharp contrast to many of Hawthorne's characters, especially such sinister ones as Rappacini and Roger Chillingworth:
Ichabod...rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearl up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers'; he carried his whip perpendicularly in his hand, like a sceptre, and, as his horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of a pair of wings.
Certainly, Ichabod's hypocrisy and individualism is treated with a much lighter tone than that of the religiously duplicitous Arthur Dimmesdale and the fiercely individualistic Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, or the Reverend Mr. Hooper of "The Minister's Black Veil." Dimmesdale, for instance, suffers from, rather than delighting in, his hypocrisy, tortured in his very soul until he resorts to self-flagellation to assuage with physical pain his spiritual torture. His sin rankles in his heart, ruining his health even though he attempts confession to his congregation. And, unlike Ichabod Crane and Rip van Winkle, who express their individualism by going to other places, Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne remain in their community. Scorned by many, Hester, nonetheless, achieves respect as she becomes the "Angel" who tends the sick and dying, refusing to succumb to the censure of the scarlet A as a mere adultress. Her actions teach Hawthorne's moral to "Be true! Be true!" and admit to one's sins. For, the moralistic Hawthorne employs characterization in his desire to expiate the sins of his Puritan forefathers while Irving's characterization humorously points to folksy idiosyncrasies, while yet establishing a pride in America's history and such beautiful settings as the Katskill Mountains of "Rip van Winkle."