Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

Washington Irving's story is set during the French Revolution and narrated by an unnamed "old gentleman" with a "haunted head." The story is told from a limited third-person point of view.

The elderly gentleman maintains that the story of the German student is true, but he also quotes as his...

(The entire section contains 1026 words.)

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Washington Irving's story is set during the French Revolution and narrated by an unnamed "old gentleman" with a "haunted head." The story is told from a limited third-person point of view.

The elderly gentleman maintains that the story of the German student is true, but he also quotes as his source the student himself. The latter is said to have died in a "madhouse." So, we are led to question the veracity of the story and the reliability of the narrator.

The woman herself, who later manifests as a grim corpse, is a symbol of both the French Revolution and the principles it supposedly espoused. On its face, the revolution centered on the lofty themes of "liberte, egalite, fraternite." However, in practice, the proletarian-led revolt was bloody, violent, and devoid of actual justice.

Wholesale slaughter held sway, with the guillotine claiming hundreds of victims daily. It was said that a dozen of the condemned could be guillotined in 13 minutes. The instrument of terror and death was first said to have been located in front of the Place de l'hôtel de Ville. The Hotel de Ville is mentioned in Irving's story. The guillotine was later moved to another part of Paris.

The principle of "reason" was also central to the revolution. The French proletariat and their leaders had already rejected the Church and all its dogma. In their place, the leaders of the revolution propped up the "Goddess of Reason." This is alluded to in the story.

It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; every thing was under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason.” Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honourable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.

History tells us that the French people rejected not only the corruption in the Church but also the Judeo-Christian principles that formed the basis of French culture prior to the Revolution. In the ravishing beauty of the "pale and disconsolate" woman, we see the appeal of "liberte, egalite, and fraternite." We also see the cherishing appeal of Reason. However, the reality proved far more disquieting: the decapitated head rolling across the floor symbolizes the paranoia and horror of a revolution marred by sadistic acts of violence.

Irving uses this disturbing imagery to highlight the discrepancy between principle and reality.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

The most striking aspect of the story is its use of narrator. The chief speaker is the “old gentleman with the haunted head,” who tells the story to a group of other men. Among them is the “inquisitive gentleman” who questions the truth of the story after the narrator has finished. The narrator then replies that he heard it from the most reliable source, Wolfgang himself. Thus, Irving gives the reader several possible explanations for the events in the story and also imparts a fascinating ambiguity to the tale.

The reader may, for example, simply accept the student’s story as a true example of demonic possession: The woman was indeed a reanimated corpse sent specifically to ensnare Wolfgang’s soul. Given the student’s already established precarious mental state, however, the reader might address even more disturbing possibilities. Was the woman ever truly alive in Wolfgang’s presence? Because he has necrophilic tendencies, could he have appropriated a corpse and imagined it alive? The fact that the portress at his hotel sees Wolfgang and the woman arrive might bring this reading into question. Is it then possible that Wolfgang himself murders the woman after he brings her to his apartment? Perhaps, but the police officer identifies the woman as one executed previously on the guillotine, so once again this rational answer seems unlikely.

The reader, however, must remember that the source of all this information appears to have been Wolfgang himself, a madman incarcerated in an insane asylum. The narrator says that the student is the best authority, but how reliable can Wolfgang be? Moreover, what does the reader make of the narrator himself: the “gentleman with the haunted head”? What relationship is there between this man and Wolfgang? Why was he in the asylum in the first place? Why is he “haunted”? Should not the reader, like the “inquisitive gentleman,” wonder at the events he relates?

“Adventure of the German Student,” then, is a deceptively complex story, suggesting a great deal more than Irving chooses to make clear. It is the forerunner of the psychological horror story that Edgar Allan Poe would perfect in such works as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” stories in which the mental state of the narrator is often as intriguing as the events he relates. Although Irving uses traditional folklore in this story, he employs it to reveal his awareness of terrors that hide inside every man.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Bowden, Edwin T. Washington Irving Bibliography. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hiller, Alice. “’An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving’s Entree and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 275-293.

McFarland, Philip. Sojourners. New York: Atheneum, 1979.

Murray, Laura J. “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)colonization in the Early Republic.” American Literary History 8 (Summer, 1996): 205-231.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.

Piacentino, Ed. “’Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving’s Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal 30 (Fall, 1997): 27-42.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935.

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