The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Themes
The main themes of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are the city versus the country, creativity and imagination, and the meaning of marriage.
- City versus country: Crane embodies the hapless city-dweller who cannot fit into the down-to-earth culture of the Hudson Valley Dutch farmers.
- Creativity and imagination: The power of imaginative storytelling emerges in the background of local superstition and Geoffrey Crayon’s layer of meta-narration.
- The meaning of marriage is explored in the contrast between Crane’s and Brom Bones’s courtships of Katrina, the former being financial and the latter authentic.
City versus Country
One of the great themes of American literature and American folklore is the clash between the city and the country, between civilization and the wilderness. As the theme is played out in literature around the world, it carries one of two interpretations: either the city is seen as beautiful, civilized, rich, clean and safe, and the country is ugly, dirty and dangerous, or else the city is dirty and dangerous, populated by swindlers who love nothing better than tricking the kind, gentle people from the beautiful country. American folklore from the nineteenth century tends to favor the second view. Settlers were proud of their wilderness, and excited by it, and their stories celebrated the skills and qualities one needed to survive on the frontier. The heroes from this period—Daniel Boone, Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, the Swamp Angel—are rugged, strong and clever. When supposedly educated city slickers venture into the countryside, they are outsmarted by these heroes every time.
Ichabod Crane, a native of Connecticut, is a typical scholar who wishes he were an outdoorsman. Irving points out that there are two types of men who come out of Connecticut, ‘‘pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest,’’ who become ''frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters.’’ Crane is not completely out of place in the forest—he is able to help with the ''lighter labors'' on the farm— but thinks of himself and is considered by others ''a kind of idle gentleman-like personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains.’’ On Sunday afternoons, while he strolls about with the young ladies of the village, ''the more bashful country bumpkins h[a]ng sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.’’
Brom Bones, Crane's most formidable competitor for the hand of Katrina, is as unlike Crane as he could be, ‘‘burly, roaring, roistering.’’ Where Crane is ''esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition,'' Brom is ''the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood.’’ Crane is ‘‘tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders,’’ while Brom is ‘‘broadshouldered'' and has a ''Herculean frame.'' Crane courts Katrina ''in a quiet and gently insinuating manner,'' while Brom's ‘‘amorous toyings’’ are ‘‘something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear.''
Irving sets up a confrontation between these two opposites, and any reader of American folklore knows how it will turn out. Crane's education is no match for Brom's native wit, his scrawny body and awkward riding are no match for Brom's strength and skill, and the woman chooses the rough and strong man over the refined and delicate one. Neither man is particularly unlikable, but in America, a young country with frontier to be tamed, the values of the country win out over those of the city.
Creativity and Imagination
‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ is a story about stories and story-tellers, and a lesson in keeping the line clear between fiction and reality. The title is significant. Irving identifies this as a legend, a type of story that may be loosely based on truth but is clearly fiction, that...
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