What are elements of Dark Romanticism in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?  

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" exhibits the following elements of Dark Romanticism:

  • Idealization of rural life and of the wilderness
  • Interest in the supernatural
  • Conflicts between good and evil
  • Dark irrational side of nature

While "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has these elements of the darker side of Romanticism, they are employed with humor and irony as Irving pokes fun of these conventions, especially the supernatural.

  • Idealization of rural life and the wilderness

In the exposition of his story, Irving as narrator describes the marvelous setting on the eastern shore of the Hudson River as a quiet village near a little valley among high hills with a small brook. However, he uses some adjectives ironically as they suggest that the place is not as idealistic as initially described. For example, Irving writes of the "listless repose of the place" and the "peculiar character of its inhabitants." Then again, Irving returns to praise: 

I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud; for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York....

  • Interest in the supernatural

--In his description of Ichabod Crane, the narrator mentions that the schoolmaster finds "fearful pleasure" in passing winter evening with the old Dutch wives, who sat at their spinning wheels and told tales of goblins and ghosts, haunted places of all kinds, and the "galloping Hessian of the Hollow." Then, with humor, Irving has his narrator describe Crane's fears as his imagination perceives the "phantoms of his mind" in the "trembling ray of light streaming across fields" and a shrub covered with snow which takes on the look of a "sheeted spectre." Of course, the main supernatural element is that of the Headless Horseman that pursues Ichabod Crane. 

--After Crane's departure from the community, it is rumored that he "was spirited away by supernatural means." The deserted schoolhouse is reportedly haunted by the "ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue."

  • Conflicts between good and evil

While the conflict between Ichabod Crane as the protagonist and Brom Bones, who disguises himself as the Headless Horseman and runs Crane out of town seems to be the conflict of good and evil, Irving blurs the lines between these spiritual elements and injects humor by actually contrasting Yankee opportunism with Dutch diligence.

  • Dark side of nature

--Although Ichabod is the pedagogue of the community, a respectable position, he is actually cruel to some of the children as he inflicts much physical pain on them with the punishment of a birch branch. However, there is humor added in Irving's description of Crane's discipline:

He administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burden off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong....[and] he never inflicted a chastisement without following it with the assurance, so consolatory to the smarting urchin, that "he would remember it, and thank him for it the longest day he had to live."

Here again there is irony, though, as Ichabod appears as a martinet, rather than a teacher. Also, after school, he becomes the companion and playmate of the larger boys whom he has earlier beaten.

--The character of Brom Bones is dark: He prefers "vicious animals" and rides a dangerous horse named Daredevil. Further, he disguises himself as the Headless Horseman and terrorizes Ichabod Crane as on his way home from the Van Tassel mansion he beholds "some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler." Crane is so terrified that he kicks old Gunpowder, who has enough of "the devil" left in him that he sprints across the bridge and flees with Ichabod hanging on desperately.

Washington Irving's tale is one that contains much irony since the elements of Dark Romanticism--the beauty of the natural world, the supernatural, and the conflicts between good and evil--are humorously presented.

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