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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Washington Irving

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In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," how does the setting in paragraph seven reflect American change?

Quick answer:

The tone is clearly ironic throughout the passage. Washington Irving describes the place as "with all possible laud" because it stays "fixed" and unaltered by progress in the New World. He gives examples of how this is so, for example, the fact that "population, manners, and customs remain fixed." The implication of his tone is that he does not view these as good things but rather as stagnant and unchanging.

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Throughout "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving's tone is that of the urbane, well-traveled sophisticate describing simple people in a rural backwater. He is critical of their attitudes and values, which he seems to find, appropriately enough, both sleepy and hollow.

In paragraph 7, he begins by saying that he mentions the place "with all possible laud," a clear sign that he is being ironic as when he later purports to extol Ichabod's erudition. He says that the reason for his praise is that this is one of the few places where "population, manners, and customs remain fixed."

This, however, is not a compliment. America was changing fast both in the early-nineteenth century when the story was published and, perhaps even more momentously, in the late-eighteenth century, when it is set. Washington speaks impressively of the "great torrent of migration and improvement" sweeping the country while Sleepy Hollow remains mired in superstition and ignorance.

The combination of stasis and ignorant superstition in Sleepy Hollow is particularly ironic given that two of the biggest changes in the late-eighteenth century involved the improvement of transport networks and connection between communities and the foundation of new colleges. The image Irving chooses is a striking one. He says of places such as Sleepy Hollow:

They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.

This is to say that such communities resemble nothing so much as a foul pool of stagnant water. The torrent rushes on. It is fresh and vibrant, the water is good to drink, and it connects one place with another. Sleepy Hollow, by contrast is a bubbling pool of impurity, staying still or turning inwards upon itself, remaining impervious to the great events of the the new Republic that pass it by.

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A key to understanding how paragraph seven comments on American change is to look specifically at the many contradictions present in the comparisons between Sleepy Hollow and the rest of the country. These contradictions are presented immediately at the beginning of paragraph seven, and they are continued by Irving’s use of a water metaphor as the paragraph develops. When compared to the overall events of the story, they show that even though the narrator likes Sleepy Hollow, the village nevertheless suffers from not changing with the rest of the country.

It seems that the paragraph begins by initially asserting praise for the village of Sleepy Hollow. The narrator says, “I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud ...” Yet why would he praise a place that in earlier paragraphs he alleges is haunted and possibly even cursed? This contradiction reveals that Irving’s praise of Sleepy Hollow’s lack of progress is perhaps satirical. This idea is supported by another contradiction as he claims that Sleepy Hollow’s “population, manners, and customs, remained fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.” The word used to describe the rest of the country is “improvement,” a positive quality that is immediately contradicted by describing these improvements as “incessant,” a word that is not directly negative but usually retains a negative connotation. Using this contradiction, Irving suggests that the American progress happening elsewhere is good, an “improvement,” but his narrator speaks of it with a negative attitude -- much like that of villagers who are resistant to change.

Irving then uses a simile to emphasize the difference between villages like Sleepy Hollow and the rest of America: “They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream … undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.” This description initially makes it sound like Sleepy Hollow is a peaceful place, one to be admired, which makes it seem that Irving contradicts himself. Does he like this village or not? Is it better than the “rapid stream” -- the rapidly changing America -- or not? Since Irving uses a water metaphor, we need to consider the behavior of water to answer these questions. While it is true that water pools “undisturbed” by the main stream are essentially peaceful, those still waters are also areas where algae, bacteria, and insects like to breed. In other words, the water that does not move -- the village that does not change and grow -- grows stagnant and complacent, breeding harmful elements even if it is peaceful, much as the village breeds superstition and fear even if it seems quaint and quiet compared to the rush of progress.

The paragraph ends by Irving’s narrator telling us that it has been a long time since he “trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow …” a peaceful and nostalgic image that is complicated when he then says  “yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.” Though he seems to look back on the place with fondness, he is certain that the people there have been “vegetating” and “sheltered,” both qualities that are generally considered to be negative. Irving shows that nostalgia creates fondness, yet he nevertheless reinforces that change is needed for growth, continuing the paragraph’s theme of American change as necessary for progress and advancement.

The setting in paragraph seven, then, is a commentary on American progress that establishes a basis for the rest of the story. By showing that Sleepy Hollow and places like it are resistant to change, Irving shows that they sometimes suffer a lack of education that breeds superstition and fear, as happens in the story’s main plot. At the same time, though, one can argue that because of his nostalgic presentation, Irving also laments the lack of imagination that sometimes is a consequence of progress and more realistic living. In this way, Irving foresaw what continues to be a major theme of American literature in general: finding a balance between progress and history, future and past.

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