drawing of the headless horseman holding a pumpkin and riding a horse through the woods

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Washington Irving
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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Themes

The main themes in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are myth and folklore, city and country, and morality.

  • Myth and folklore: The telling of tales plays a prominent role in the haunted town of Sleepy Hollow, and the story itself is written in the form of a local legend.
  • City and country: The conflict between city and country is exemplified by Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, who compete for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel.
  • Morality and wealth: Ichabod’s morality is questionable, as he pursues Katrina largely because he wants to inherit her wealth, while Brom’s feelings for Katrina appear authentic.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

Myth and Folklore

Sleepy Hollow is described as a haunted town. The region is, as the name suggests, sleepy and full of mysterious energy. One of the cornerstones of the hollow and its inhabitants is storytelling. Though Ichabod is new to the region, he participates in the discussion of ghostly events just like everyone else. Even newcomers, the narrator says, succumb to the bewitching nature of Sleepy Hollow. Townspeople new and old see apparitions and can feel the “sleepiness” there.

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The ghost stories are so prominent that the hollow even has a favorite, a specter who is considered the “dominant spirit.” This is the Headless Horseman, who commands all the mystical power in the air. Many evenings are spent around warm fires, cooking seasonal sweets and exchanging spooky stories. The lore is so embedded in the town that even skeptics and the most ardent disbelievers claim to have encountered the ghoulish horseman on a night ride. Ichabod also brings in his own stories, telling the townspeople of the witch hysteria in Salem as recorded by Cotton Mather.

When Ichabod disappears after his alleged encounter with the Headless Horseman, speculation follows. The townspeople suspect he was carted off by supernatural means. While he once took part in the old wives’ tales he so enjoyed, now he has become one. The postscript to the story reflects that the narrator is retelling Ichabod’s tale as he has heard it from someone else—it is a story of a story. This is particularly fitting, as telling stories is so important in Sleepy Hollow.

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Latest answer posted January 2, 2016, 3:37 pm (UTC)

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City and Country

In the Dutch valleys like Sleepy Hollow, there is a central conflict between life in the towns and cities that are becoming increasingly industrialized and the more traditional life on the farm. Sleepy Hollow is not against accepting new neighbors. Even still, the storied history of its Dutch inhabitants leaves quite a legacy.

As a newcomer to Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod attempts to reconcile this conflict. His role as a schoolmaster could certainly be seen as representing the city, or modernity. He is conscious of his role in the town. Though many of the members of the community who live in the rural area do not send their children to Ichabod’s school, viewing it as a financial burden, Ichabod still seeks to leave a good impression on them. He finds different ways to be both “agreeable and useful.” He helps them with their children or with light farm work, thus establishing himself in the country as well as the town.

The conflict between city and country is personified in Ichabod and Brom Bones, respectively. Ichabod is fascinated by the countryside and how he could benefit from it. Brom Bones, on the other hand, is a countryman who understands the lay of the land. Their skill sets are quite different. Brom is strong and accustomed to physical labor. Ichabod has musical talents and is educated, representing the outsider background he comes from. Both seek to marry Katrina, but Brom is ultimately the winner in this endeavor. The narrator implies that Sleepy Hollow is a dreamy place untouched by time—even when Ichabod disappears, the bounty of the area’s farmland and history lives on.

Morality and Wealth

Ichabod’s morals throughout the story are, at times, questionable. He seeks to marry Katrina Van Tassel primarily because of her wealth and status. He expresses disdain for his lack of station and fantasizes about what it would be like to be selective of the company he keeps. Ichabod scoffs at the idea of Hans Van Ripper, even though the old man lent him the horse he rode to the Van Tassels’ home. He dreams of abandoning his schoolhouse for the elevated rank enjoyed by the rich. Though Ichabod came to Sleepy Hollow to teach, he appears ready to surrender his profession in a heartbeat should he inherit wealth. Brom Bones provides an interesting counterpart to Ichabod’s desires. While the narrator does not have access to Brom’s exact motives, it is clear that Brom is the more “traditional” choice for Katrina. He is genuinely smitten with her and prepared to duel for her favor, like a knight in shining armor. Brom’s wishes are simple and appear to be relatively tame compared to Ichabod’s. Though Brom’s threats to physically subdue Ichabod are less than ideal, he appears to have pure intentions toward Katrina rather than a mere fascination with her wealth. His morality is clearer than Ichabod’s.

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