The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Main Story Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The story opens with a note that it has been found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, the story’s narrator.
Irving uses this framing device—in which he is just presenting a narrative found within the papers of someone else—to give his story a claim to legitimacy and historical veracity.
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Knickerbocker describes the setting of the story, Greensburgh or Tarry Town—a small port town next to the river that “ancient” Dutch sailors called the Tappan Zee.
Given that the Dutch had only been in North America for a few hundred years, the word “ancient” exaggerates the truth while also giving the story a ring of the legendary, and, by extension, claiming a history for the new nation of the United States that could support a cultural and literary tradition.
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The name of Tarry Town derives from the fact that the husbands of the women in the surrounding country tend to linger or “tarry” at its tavern.
In the story, names tend to stand in for themes and characteristics—here, the town as a place that time forgot.
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Two miles from this village is a valley nestled between hills, which Knickerbocker calls one of the quietest places in the world. He remembers wandering into it while shooting squirrels, and notes that he would happily choose this valley to retreat from the world’s noise and distraction.
Knickerbocker does not often insert his own opinions and perspective into the story; here, it has the effect of further fleshing out the setting, as well as setting the stage for the contrast between an idyllic, peaceful village and its supernatural hauntings.
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The place is called Sleepy Hollow because of the calm, even dreamy atmosphere that infuses the entire valley. Its inhabitants are descended from early Dutch settlers, and people suspect that an old German doctor or else an Indian chief might have cast a spell over the place. The residents of Sleepy Hollow tend to be superstitious and are prone to see visions and hear voices.
Again, the name “Sleepy Hollow” describes the town as well as Knickerbocker’s own descriptions, though more succinctly. The “witching influence” is portrayed as mysterious and even primordial, lending the setting a greater sense of natural history.
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Sleepy Hollow’s inhabitants love telling ghost stories about their region. One of the most pervasive tales is that of the Headless Horseman, who rides by on horseback through the night—supposedly it is the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was shot off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. The “authentic historians” of the town claim that the ghost rides out each night in search of his head, to join it with his body that is buried in the churchyard, and returns to the churchyard before dawn.
This is the first major example of reality, history, and the supernatural melding into one. The Revolutionary War certainly caused a great deal of death and destruction, but the “authentic historians” also chronicle entirely imaginative affairs. Telling stories, of course, is one way for the villagers to come to terms with the turmoil of the war.
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It’s not only the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow who tend to see the Headless Horseman riding by at night, but also anyone who stays in the valley for awhile, and comes to breathe in the bewitching, dreamy atmosphere until he too sees such visions.
Irving’s construction of a ghost story leads to some ambiguities—it isn’t always clear if Sleepy Hollow is more susceptible to actual ghosts and apparitions, or if the whole village, as a sleepy little town, is more prone to such imaginings.
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This valley is exempt from the changes and developments taking place elsewhere in New York; instead, the people and its customs remain the same. The narrator can easily imagine returning to Sleepy Hollow, where he hasn’t been for years, to find the same families living in the same way as before.
The notion of Sleepy Hollow as a town that history passes by recalls Irving’s other famous story, “Rip Van Winkle,” but it’s also paradoxical—as the ghosts and spirits reveal, the town was influenced and even traumatized by the war.
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In a “remote period of American history,” or thirty years ago, a young man named Ichabod Crane, from Connecticut, spent some time “tarrying” in Sleepy Hollow as a schoolteacher. Ichabod is tall and thin with long limbs and a small, flat head. He wears his clothes loose and looks like a scarecrow.
Again, Irving’s language is used (often humorously) to create a sense of history where little exists: the “remote history” of the United States is just 30 years ago. Ichabod’s physical qualities are indicative of his dreamy, absentminded character—he seems to have fallen into his position without quite knowing why or how.
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Ichabod’s one-room wooden schoolhouse, located at the foot of a hill next to a brook, is hardly decadent: holes in the walls are plugged with pages from old copybooks. The hum of the students’ voices contrasts with Ichabod’s authoritative commands and the sounds of a whip used on the slower children. Though he keeps in mind the maxim of “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” he takes it to mean that children should not be spoiled—and therefore neither should the rod. But Ichabod reserves the whip for the stronger, tough-skinned, sulky students, while he spares the weaker, smaller children.
The prose in this section is witty, clever, and reveals Irving’s stylistic skill. The narrator seems to be representing the reader with the full gamut of Ichabod’s personality—he’s authoritative but distracted, strict but ultimately fair. Ichabod may not know what he’s doing “tarrying” in Tarry Town, but he has successfully appropriated, and embraced, the social role of schoolteacher.
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Ichabod also plays with some of the older boys after school or accompanies the smaller ones home. It is in his best interest to be on good terms with the families of his students, who can be suspicious of book-learning and tend to consider schoolteachers as “drones.” Besides, Ichabod has a massive appetite, and as his income isn’t enough to satisfy him, he rotates among the farmers’ families, who lodge and feed him for a week at a time in exchange for some light labor and errands. So that the families don’t consider the schoolteacher too much of a burden—especially as he fills their children’s minds with abstract learning and removes them from their farms, where they could work—he charms the mothers by playing with the young children, and is ingratiating with the parents rather than domineering as he is in the classroom.
In the early American republic, going to school was far from a given. Since most of the children would eventually be meant to work on and inherit their parents’ farms, it’s not surprising that there’s a tension between “book-learning” one hand and practical knowledge and getting children to work as field hands and help support their families as soon as possible on the other. Ichabod is acutely aware of this tension. He knows how to change his behavior based on the situation in which he finds himself—conscious that social relations are often a battle requiring strategy like any other. And it’s in his best interest to do so, since he can be sure to get a good meal out of it.
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Ichabod also teaches singing and leads the Sunday chorus at church. He believes himself to be quite talented, and takes pride in this role—indeed, as Knickerbocker notes, some quiet Sunday mornings you can still hear the echoes of Ichabod’s resounding voice in the chapel.
Given Irving’s constant but subtle irony, we might suspect that Ichabod’s voice is not as spectacular as he believes it to be.
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Most people think Ichabod has an easy, tranquil life. The women in the town admire his taste and education, which he takes advantage of in order to guzzle down the treats they lay before him, or to pass Sundays gathering grapes for them or wandering with them around the millpond. He takes gossip with him along with his few belongings from house to house, and the women in particular admire how he’s finished “several books” and knows Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft” by heart.
Here’s another situation in which Ichabod adapts his behavior to his audience, knowing which aspects of his character to stress and which to hide in order to gain the most out of his acquaintances. Cotton Mather and his book will come up multiple times in the story, symbolizing both Ichabod’s abstract knowledge and his overly imaginative spirit.
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Ichabod, in fact, may be clever and manipulative but also believes strongly in magic and witchcraft. He has an enormous “appetite” for “digesting” marvelous stories, a quality that his time in the region only exaggerates. He often spends his evenings after school “swallowing” Cotton Mather’s stories until it’s too dark to read. Afterwards, as he returns to his lodgings, the stories so affect him that he is frightened by any birdcall, rustling in the forest, or twinkle of a firefly. He tries to distract and calm himself by singing psalms.
The quotes in this section reflect the fact that Irving himself often employs the language of appetite and consumption even when talking about things other than food. Indeed, Ichabod’s appetite for meals and for stories is portrayed as one and the same, emblematic of his greedy nature. His ability to “swallow” stories whole also helps to explain why he’s unable to rid himself of them afterward and continues to be afraid.
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Ichabod also enjoys spending evenings with the elderly Dutch housewives, who enchant him with ghost stories and tall tales that take Sleepy Hollow and the fields, brooks, and haunted houses throughout it as their setting. The Headless Horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, is one of them. Ichabod joins in with stories taken from Cotton Mather or from his past in Connecticut.
Along with (and despite) his less admirable characteristics, Ichabod is clearly likable. As a newcomer, his likability gives him an entrance into the village folklore, which the reader has already learned about from the narrator earlier in the story.
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All these exchanges delight Ichabod, but he pays for it with absolute terror as he walks home from the gatherings. He mistakes bushes for ghosts, his own steps for those of a specter behind him, and a gust of wind for the Headless Horseman following him. But by morning, daylight cures him of all his fears.
Ichabod, unlike the Dutch wives, cannot simply tell stories and then go on living as if nothing had changed; for him, ghost stories become a part of reality rather than a break from it.
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Indeed, during the day Ichabod finds himself confronted with a more terrifying being than ghosts and witches: a woman, or more precisely Katrina Van Tassel, the only daughter of a wealthy Dutch farmer, whom Ichabod meets through his chorus lessons. Katrina is plump and lovely, and a bit of a flirt—she shows off her looks with golden jewelry and a shortened petticoat.
This (humorous) comparison of Katrina to ghosts and witches foreshadows just how much trouble Ichabod’s admiration of Katrina will get him into. The description of Katrina portrays her largely as another of Ichabod’s material desires, as something to be consumed—and ultimately as something to fight for.
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Ichabod deems Katrina “so tempting a morsel” as to warrant his attention—particularly once he visits her at the farm of her father, Baltus Van Tassel. The farm, situated along the Hudson, is sheltered by an elm tree next to a bubbling spring and brook. Its barn bursts with the farm’s goods, from pigeons and pigs to geese, ducks, guinea fowls, and the master cock. As Ichabod looks on, he imagines each of the animals as part of a winter’s feast, presented at the table with gravy and accompaniments. He is even more impressed by the meadows of wheat, rye, and corn, as well as the fruit orchards.
Several paragraphs are taken up with this description, as seen through the eyes of Ichabod. Such detail regarding the farm’s abundance underlines Ichabod’s massive appetite—he’s not simply greedy for the trappings of wealth but for the consumption that goes along with it (somewhat understandably, given his humble status as a schoolteacher in rotating lodgings). Getting his hands on that farm would change his life, shoot him upward in society, and fill his belly for the rest of his life.
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Such abundance attracts Ichabod to Katrina even more. He quickly imagines growing rich from the farm, reinvesting the gains, and setting off for the West in a wagon with all his riches packed in, as well as Katrina and all their children mounted on top.
Mixed with Ichabod’s enormous appetite is his wild imagination, allowing him to picture himself married and settled down before his courtship has really started.
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Ichabod’s heart is definitively “conquered” once he enters the farmhouse, with its early Dutch style of an open porch and hall bedecked with pewter, fruits, and elaborate decorations.
Abundance, here, is grafted onto the language of war, as the narrator begins to intimate that Ichabod will have to fight to achieve it.
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Though Ichabod has fixed his sights on Katrina, he is now faced with difficulties—those more complicated than the giants, dragons, and enemies of knights errant in stories, who never seem to struggle much to surmount these hurdles and win the heart of the lady. Katrina cannot be so easily won over, first since she is capricious, and second since Ichabod is only one of many admirers.
Here we have an explicit comparison between Ichabod’s courtship of Katrina and the travels of a knight errant—another example of a fictional story seeming more attainable, more “real,” than reality. It also connects Ichabod to another knight-errant who’s imagination overpowers him: Don Quixote.
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His most daunting opponent is Abraham Van Brunt, a strong, broad-shouldered, powerful young man nicknamed Brom Bones. Brom Bones is known for being a skillful horseman and an excellent racer, fighter, and prankster, though he is more mischievous than evil and wanders the countryside with his several sidekicks in search of fun and battles. People in the village are generally amused and admiring of Brom Bones, and tend to think of him whenever there’s a practical joke or brawl in the vicinity.
Another example of names serving as a powerful descriptor of characters or places. Brom Bones doesn’t exactly map onto the knight errant comparison—he’s mischievous rather than being a truly evil enemy. Brom’s reputation in the village backs up this characterization, and sets the bar higher for Ichabod to attempt to battle him. The surname “Bones” also connects Brom to the supernatural, but in a humorous way.
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Brom Bones is also in pursuit of Katrina, which discourages other candidates, who withdraw in despair. But Ichabod, who is cheerfully persistent against pressure, decides not to openly wage war against Brom Bones but rather quietly continue his own courtship.
War is not always waged out in the open, but often takes place through more subtle, strategic moves. However, Ichabod’s choice to continue shows at least a bit of delusion compared to the other candidates.
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Katrina’s parents allow both rivals to continue: Baltus Van Tassel tends to spoil his daughter, and his wife considers that she can take care of herself.
The stage is set and any obstacles to a potential battle, such as Katrina’s parents, are swept aside.
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Knickerbocker claims not to know how women’s hearts function: some are won over easily, while others are variable and require constant struggle to vanquish. Brom Bones seems not to be able to exclusively conquer Katrina’s coquettish heart. He comes less and less to her farmhouse, and begins to desire open combat with Ichabod. The schoolteacher, however, knows he would never win a duel against Brom Bones, and avoids him. Brom Bones has to resort to playing practical jokes on him, like plugging the chimney of his singing school so it fills with smoke, or ridiculing him while Katrina is present. However, nothing seems to work definitively.
Here, again, Knickerbocker inserts himself into the narrative to earnestly question the motives and actions of the characters—fitting with the conceit that he’s a real person considering a true story. In the initial battles between Ichabod and Brom, the result seems to remain a draw—even if Brom Bones has the upper hand in terms of dreaming up practical jokes to play.
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One afternoon in autumn, Ichabod is sitting in the front of his classroom swinging around his birch whip, while his students scribble dutifully or whisper to each other in hushed tones. A black man atop a ragged-looking colt arrives at the door of the school, with an invitation for Ichabod to attend a quilting frolic to be held at the Van Tassel farm that evening. The messenger rushes away, evidently feeling his mission to be critical.
In contrast to the earlier scene, here Ichabod is comfortably at the top of a different social hierarchy. His confidence at the schoolhouse is only increased by the invitation he receives to the quilting frolic, which confirms that he has at least succeeded in becoming one of the candidates to Katrina’s hand.
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Suddenly, the classroom’s atmosphere grows rowdy: Ichabod rushes the students through their lessons and has everyone leave their inkstands and books wherever they like. He lets them leave an hour early so that he can spend an extra thirty minutes preparing for the party and putting on his only suit. Looking like a knight errant, he mounts the horse he’s borrowed from an old, grumpy man named Hans Van Ripper.
With the possibility of the abundance of Van Tassel’s farm replacing his meager income as a schoolteacher, Ichabod brushes aside his current duties—again, perhaps being overly imaginative about his ability to win over Katrina’s heart.
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Since Knickerbocker wants to tell a true “romantic story,” he pauses to describe the scene: an elderly, ragged, one-eyed plow-horse named Gunpowder that nevertheless retains some of its youthful spirit, and Ichabod’s gangly figure with his elbows stuck out and arms flapping as he rides.
Irving, of course, helped to found the genre of American Romanticism, which believed in the primacy of the imagination above purely rational thought, the importance of personal freedom, and the authenticity of nature. But this description is more of a parody of romanticist prose, as Irving pokes fun at the battle into which Ichabod is riding.
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It is a beautiful autumn day, with chirping birds fluttering around the brilliantly colored trees of the forest, from the blackbird to the woodpecker, cedar bird, and blue jay, each with its own coat and idiosyncrasies. Ichabod looks upon these treasures as if they were a feast to be devoured—especially the apples, Indian corn, yellow pumpkins, and buckwheat fields. These remind him of the abundance awaiting him if he manages to marry Katrina.
By creating such an idyllic scene, the story sets up a future contrast between this peaceful afternoon and the same journey home later that night. Ichabod, once again, can’t help but consider nature not in its passive beauty but in terms of what it can offer him—particularly if he can win the battle for Katrina.
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As Ichabod crosses the Hudson, a “sloop” or sailing boat is bobbing in the distance, and through a trick of the sky’s reflection looks like it’s suspended in the air.
These kinds of details are typical of American Romanticism, a genre Irving is helping to forge through every description in his story.
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By the evening, Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel castle, already packed with the most well-to-do farmers and their wives and children, clothed in traditional dress (though a few of the daughters boast a slightly modern addition like a ribbon or straw hat). Brom Bones stands out from the crowd with his horse Daredevil, a mischievous creature like himself.
The description of the guests’ clothing underlines Tarry Town’s status as a place devoid of history—though the ribbons suggest that even Tarry Town cannot fully escape changing times and traditions.
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When Ichabod enters the home, his eyes rest not on the beautiful women but rather on the tea-table heaped with Dutch delicacies like doughnuts, sweet cakes, ginger cakes, and all sorts of pies. Knickerbocker has no time to enumerate them all, though Ichabod gorges himself on all these treats, laughing to himself as he imagines being the master of all this abundance. When he is lord of the estate, he thinks, he would no longer associate with the likes of Hans Van Ripper and other impoverished schoolteachers.
By now we should expect that Ichabod would make a beeline for the dessert table. The traditional Dutch food on offer adds another touch of tradition and age to the story. Ichabod’s gloating thoughts, meanwhile, reflect his sense of social competition and his acute desire to climb the social ranks.
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After the feast comes the dance. This delights Ichabod, who takes almost as much pride in his dancing as in his singing. Outside, there are black people—presumably uninvited, perhaps servants or slaves—crowding at the windows to peer in, and they are amazed at the sight. Ichabod is thrilled to have Katrina as his dancing partner. Brom Bones sulks jealously in the corner.
This is the first moment at which it seems that Ichabod is finally gaining the upper hand against Brom Bones. The description of the black people outside, however, reminds us that beyond Ichabod’s social strivings, there were far clearer and more serious social hierarchies at the time—these black people were likely slaves.
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Afterward, some of the older guests gather around Ichabod to gossip and tell war stories—this neighborhood, indeed, was an important site during the Revolutionary War. The war is far enough in the past that each person can exaggerate and slightly fictionalize his story. Doffue Martling, for instance, claims to have nearly destroyed a British ship singlehandedly, and others similarly claim to be the heroes of their own stories.
Though Tarry Town seems not to have changed in years, the war certainly impacted the lives of its inhabitants. As major events recede into history, however, it becomes easier to build up stories and traditions around them—even if these tales blur the line between history and storytelling.
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After the war stories come the tales of ghosts and specters, which also are typical of the region, and are able to last longer since the population has remained stable for so long. After all, ghosts are more likely to haunt places where they’re acquainted with the inhabitants, such as in the long-established Dutch villages like these. And since this neighborhood is so close to Sleepy Hollow, the dreamy, haunted atmosphere has contaminated the settlement.
Given the blurred line between history and stories, it is unsurprising that war stories yield easily to ghost stories—especially since many of these tall tales draw on the historical war for their characters and plots. The supernatural is closer to reality in this village, particularly for Ichabod but to some extent for everyone.
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Some of the guests who are residents of Sleepy Hollow tell about the kidnapping of Major André, the woman in white who haunts Raven Rock, and, above all, the Headless Horseman who has been recently spotted tethering his horse to churchyard graves. The church is isolated, located between a forest and the Hudson River, with a road leading to a stream and a wooden bridge overhung by thick trees and brush. This is one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman.
Many of these ghosts, once again, were either real historical figures or have some kind of relationship to the Revolutionary War. The description of the church reveals how suitable it is for stories of haunting and ghostliness, since it is isolated, dark, and gloomy.
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The guests tell of old Brouwer, who didn’t believe in ghosts until he met the Horseman on his way back from Sleepy Hollow. They raced each other on horseback until reaching the bridge, at which point the Horseman turned into a skeleton and hurled Brouwer into the stream. Brom Bones, in turn, claims that he also raced the Horseman once for a bottle of punch, and that he and Daredevil would have won if the Horseman hadn’t vanished at the last minute. And Ichabod adds his own stories taken from Cotton Mather and his nightly walks around Sleepy Hollow.
In the topsy-turvy world of Sleepy Hollow, those who are too anchored in reality will ultimately be punished by the supernatural. Brom Bones’s addition to the story are obviously boastful tall tales, but they underline his eagerness to seek out competition wherever he can find it. Looked back on from later in the story, Brom’s tales here will also suggest that perhaps he was laying the foundation for another of his pranks. Ichabod, for his part, believes too earnestly in the reality of the ghost stories to make up his own tales. He takes his tales from his book.
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The party comes to a close, and Ichabod lingers, confident in his imminent success, in order to speak to Katrina. Knickerbocker does not know what happened at this meeting, but believes something went wrong, since Ichabod soon exits the castle looking crestfallen. Instead of gazing upon the abundant fields and orchards, he mounts his steed and heads off.
Again, Knickerbocker is not quite an omniscient narrator—there are things he doesn’t know, which paradoxically makes us more willing to accept his narrative as realistic. Instead he reads between the lines—something must have gone wrong if Ichabod is no longer enraptured by the abundance around him. The suggestion is that Katrina has rejected him, that he now knows he has no chance with her.
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It is late at night by this point, and it is silent enough that Ichabod can hear a watchdog barking from far off across the Hudson, as well as an occasional cricket or bullfrog. Suddenly, he recalls all the ghost stories and tall tales recounted at the party, and realizes that he is approaching the scene of many of them. In front of him is a massive tulip tree with large, gnarled branches, not far from where Major André had been kidnapped.
Sleepy Hollow’s picturesque isolation makes it attractive during the day, but an ideal setting for hauntings at night. Ichabod doesn’t need much more encouragement than that for his imagination to begin imbuing the nature around him with all kinds of supernatural qualities and creating his own reality out of them.
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Ichabod rides closer to the tree. He starts to believe that every sound is the sign of a spirit, though he passes the tree safely. But two hundred yards later, he approaches Wiley’s Swamp, where a few logs make a bridge over a small stream and huge trees cover the ground in darkness. It was precisely here where André had been captured, and the stream is known to be haunted. Ichabod, his heart pounding in fear, attempts to race over the bridge, but Gunpowder rears up and runs side to side before pausing just before the bridge. Ichabod hears a splash beside him. Within the shadows, he sees an enormous towering shape.
As we reach the climax, events begin to pile atop each other and the cadence of the prose grows quicker and more dramatic. Even as Ichabod is frightening himself into desperation, he draws on real historical events like Major André’s to justify his fear. By the time the massive figure rises out of the shadows, we are almost unsurprised, so well has Ichabod (and Irving) built up a foreboding of disaster.
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Terrified, Ichabod stammers, “Who are you?” but is not answered. He closes his eyes and starts to sing a psalm. At that moment the monstrous object begins to move, and reveals itself to be a massive horseman on a black horse. Gunpowder finally breaks into a trot and the horseman trots along behind him. Ichabod immediately thinks of Brom Bones’ story about racing the Headless Horseman, but when he quickens his pace, his follower does as well. As they race up a hill, Ichabod, horrified, realizes that the horseman is headless, and carries his head upon his saddle. The two sprint along the road, until Gunpowder misses the path to Sleepy Hollow and instead dashes downhill to the left towards the famous bridge and church.
Already, we see that Ichabod is not only frightened by the figure on a horseback, but by what that figure represents—particularly, here, the role it played in the story told by Brom Bones. While to the reader, Brom’s tale was obviously mere embellishment and bragging, Ichabod holds no such certainty. Given the framework through which he sees reality, he has almost no choice but to assume that the round object held by the horseman is his head—indeed, the narration encourages us to think so too.
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As the race continues, Ichabod’s saddle slips from under him—an expensive one, and he immediately thinks of how angry Van Ripper, who owns the saddle, will be—but he manages to cling to Gunpowder and avoid falling off, though barely.
Even while in a race for his life, Ichabod is fearful at having lost the saddle. We already know he prefers to avoid confrontation, so it’s easy to imagine how terrified he might feel about returning to the grumpy Van Ripper having lost the man’s saddle.
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Ichabod sees the church in front of him, and thinks that if he can reach the bridge the ghost will disappear, as it did for Brom Bones, and he’ll be safe. Gunpowder leaps onto the bridge, and Ichabod reaches the other side, but as he looks back he sees the figure hurl his head at him. Ichabod fails to dodge it and it crashes into his own head. He falls from his horse and the rider gallops by.
Again, Ichabod interprets his own reality in terms of the stories he’s heard, especially that of Brom Bones. In this case, though, the head is no longer simply an eerie, ghostly apparition but an object of battle wielded by the horseman against Ichabod.
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The next morning Gunpowder is found without its saddle or rider. Ichabod does not show up for meals or at school, and a search party sets out, soon finding the saddle in the dirt by the church. Nearby are found tracks of horses’ hoofs in the road that are traced to the bridge. On the bank of the stream under it, the searchers find Ichabod’s hat resting next to a shattered pumpkin.
Until this moment, we’ve experienced the climax solely through the eyes of Ichabod. Now, the perspective becomes a more distanced, objective point of view. Knickerbocker doesn’t explain the meaning of the shattered pumpkin—as readers more rational than Ichabod, we’re supposed to put the pieces together ourselves: that it is a pumpkin that hits Ichabod and not a head suggests the Horseman was no ghost, and the chase a prank. So: Brom Bones is a prankster and told the story about the Horseman being in this part of the forest. It seems very likely that Brom is pretending to be the Headless Horseman.
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Hans Van Ripper is appointed to go through Ichabod’s possessions—which includes only several pieces of clothing, a razor, and a book of psalm-tunes. After also finding Cotton Mather’s “History of New England Witchcraft”, an almanac, and a book of fortune-telling among Ichabod’s possessions, Van Ripper decides it’s not worth sending his children to school any longer. At church, the attendees gossip about the event, and conclude that Ichabod must have been carried off by the Headless Horseman. Since he didn’t have family or any debt, people soon forget about him.
Ichabod’s pride in his intellectualism and singing chops is now portrayed as somewhat silly rather than as objects of admiration. Van Ripper’s attitude about school stems from the ambiguous position of Cotton Mather’s book, as both a repository of “book-knowledge” and of irrational supernatural tales. Ripper seems to think: if intellectual people believe in this nonsense, then I don’t want my kids wasting their time with school. Nevertheless, the other villagers easily assimilate this new element into the traditional town ghost stories.
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Several years later, an old farmer returns from New York with the news that Ichabod is still alive: he had left the village partly in fear of Van Ripper’s reaction to losing his saddle, and partly from embarrassment at being rejected by Katrina. He had continued teaching and also embarked upon the study of the law, before becoming a politician, journalist, and finally a justice of the “Ten Pound Court.”
Here, Knickerbocker introduces another element of uncertainty, with a competing conclusion of the tale. Ichabod left town not merely out of fear of the horseman, but more out of the more pragmatic fears of having lost Ripper’s saddle and the social embarrassment of having lost the battle for Katrina. Moreover, this conclusion suggests that in leaving the sleepy town of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod himself became less dreamy, less focused on lucking into wealth and abundance through marriage, and instead diligently made a successful career for himself. In this conclusion, Ichabod’s path seems to mirror that of the United States, which at the time of the story’s publication was transitioning from a small-town agrarian society to one dominated increasingly by commerce, one where “striving” was valued and could make a career, one in which hard-headed reality was prized over fuzzy-headed beliefs in ghost stories.
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Brom Bones married Katrina shortly after Ichabod’s disappearance. He tends to put on a knowing look anytime someone tells the story, especially laughing when the pumpkin is mentioned.
Another hint that Ichabod’s perspective on what happened that fateful night is not the perspective the reader should adopt.
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The old country wives, though, who Knickerbocker claims are generally the most knowledgeable in the village, insist that Ichabod was carried away by the Horseman. The story becomes a favorite one in the neighborhood, and since the bridge is feared more than ever, the road to the church is altered. The school is moved elsewhere and the old schoolhouse deserted. It is said to be haunted by Ichabod. The plowboy, when wandering home on a summer evening, sometimes imagines he hears Ichabod’s voice from afar singing a psalm tune.
By ending with the opinions of the old Dutch wives, Irving can be sure that his tale will “count” as a ghost story—even if he’s introduced alternatives to the haunted, supernatural narrative. And even if the tale of the horseman isn’t “true,” it’s become solidly incorporated into the tradition and legacy of the town—and, by extension, of the budding American nation.
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