Washington Irving

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In "Sleepy Hollow", how do structural aspects change our interpretation of the story?

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In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," framing the story as a fairy-tale prepares the reader to accept a fantastical trickster tale. Further, the narrative device of a first-person speaker who is strongly opinionated in favor of the red-blooded, masculinized Brom Bones over the effete, feminized, and nervously bookish Ichabod Crane sways the audience to favor Bones's all-American pragmatism.

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"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is structured as a frame story—the narrator stands back and imbeds this particular tale in a larger narrative structure, in which he positions himself as an outsider to the village of Sleepy Hollow, telling his story to illustrate the thinking of this town. He emphasizes the "otherness" of this village, giving the story a fairy-tale quality. Sleepy Hollow is a place, he says, under a "dreamy influence," a "bewitched" and "enchanted region" particularly attuned to the supernatural and superstitious. The village has the timeless quality of a fairy tale, for its "population, manners, and customs remain fixed." All of this introductory matter prepares the reader to expect and accept a fantastical story.

The first-person narrator's tongue-in-cheek quality (his tendency to dryly state the opposite of what he really thinks) injects humor into the tale, but most importantly, his point-of-view, which is highly opinionated, guides our view of the main characters. Particularly, the narrator dislikes Ichabod Crane and strongly approves of Brom Bones. This makes the story not only a classic trickster tale with a fairy-tale quality but a parable that ends with a message about the superiority of American pragmatism—aligned with muscular, red-blooded masculinity—over effete, feminized European-style book learning. As readers delve into the text, the narrative structure strongly sways them to side with Brom Bones against Crane. Crane is described as the looking like:

the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a corn-field.

He beats the school children mercilessly while sweetly ingratiating himself to their mothers, is superstitious, bookish, scheming, cold-hearted and effeminate. Brom, in contrast, who represents the American spirit is:

broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance ... [with] more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and, with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom.

Irving uses a fairy-tale framing structure and the archetype of Brom as trickster to promote an American mythology privileging rugged masculinity and practical knowledge over effete European book learning.

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