The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Themes

  • Washington Irving built the plot of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" around the theme of superstition. As a Yankee new to Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod is terrified of the stories about the Headless Horseman. When the Headless Horseman finally does appear, Irving suggests that it's merely Brom Bones in disguise. This makes Ichabod seem even more gullible.
  • Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones represent two sides in a conflict between the old order and the new. Sleepy Hollow is populated by Dutch farmers set in the old ways. Ichabod is new in town and doesn't understand their customs. The Headless Horseman's pursuit of Ichabod symbolizes the power the old order has over outsiders.
  • Irving explores the theme of marriage through the character of Katrina Van Tassel. As the daughter of a wealthy farmer, she's coveted by the men around her, particularly Ichabod, who only wants her for her money. Brom Bones, on the other hand, loves Katrina for who she is. This suggests that the two primary reasons for marriage are love and money. 


(Short Stories for Students)

City versus Country
One of the great themes of American literature and American folklore is the clash between the city and the...

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In a postscript appended to the story in the handwriting of Diedrich Knickerbocker (Washington Irving’s gentle burlesque on old Dutch New Yorkers and the fictive annotator of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820, in which this tale was published), the Dutchman records his having heard this story from an old, “dry-looking” gentleman described as possessing features strikingly like those of Ichabod Crane. When pressed for a moral, the storyteller replies: “[H]e that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.” This, indeed, sums up a recurring theme in Irving’s sketches: the results of the culture clash between industrious and poor but to some degree unscrupulous Yankees and the hardheaded and prosperous but also wily Dutch.

Neither the Dutch nor the Yankee newcomers possess a clear moral superiority. Here, for example, Ichabod has only a slightly better education than the Dutch children he teaches, and he would marry Katrina not from love but for her father’s wealth. Similarly, Brom recognizes the threat to his interests and in his own rough way thwarts his Yankee opponent. Because Katrina does not appear especially attractive or faithful, Brom’s motives hardly seem purer than those of Ichabod.