The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Theme Analysis

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Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Theme Icon
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Consumption, Appetite, and Greed Theme Icon
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Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Theme Icon

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” if we listen to its narrator, is only one of many tales crowding Tarry Town and especially the neighborhood of Sleepy Hollow, “one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men.” Ichabod Crane in particular falls under the influence of these chronicles until he is unable to separate reality from his imagination. However, he is not the only one to have trouble telling fact from fiction. There is a “witching influence” that hangs over the whole of Tarry Town, one that fills it with dreams and ghost stories and is “imbibed” not only by its residents but also by anyone that tarried there for awhile. Are people in Tarry Town simply more prone to the supernatural and the imagination? Or is there, in this odd, magical place, simply less of a distinction between the natural and supernatural?

In any case, Ichabod is especially given to this sort of fantasizing. He adores listening to the Dutch wives’ stories about terrifying spirits and haunting ghosts. But unlike others, Ichabod is unable to accept the stories as just that—stories. His enjoyment turns instantly to horror and fear – in other words he accepts the intrusion of these tales into his own reality. Brom Bones takes advantage of Ichabod’s inability to separate reality from fiction, and plays on Ichabod’s wild imagination—indeed, Ichabod’s weakness is the reason Brom Bones ultimately wins the battle for Katrina Van Tassel.

Nevertheless, the story is not entirely clear on whether Ichabod’s melding of reality and imagination is solely a weakness or a fault. While he does lose Katrina, we do hear a rumor that it was only thanks to the terror of the Headless Horseman that he finally left Tarry Town and, ultimately, was able to make something of his life, becoming a successful lawyer and judge. And while the story seems to admonish against taking ghost stories too seriously, this warning takes place within a version of a ghost story itself. Supernatural tales and imaginative stories, Irving seems to say, do have their place—though perhaps only as long as we understand they’re just stories.

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Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural ThemeTracker

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Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Below you will find the important quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow related to the theme of Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural.
Main Story Quotes

The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; star shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Headless Horseman
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Irving opens his tale by describing in detail the setting of Sleepy Hollow, which is located in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York—an area that, in the 18th century, was almost entirely settled by the Dutch and their descendants. This passage is a combination of careful, objective description and fanciful storytelling, which sets the tone for the rest of the story, in which the boundaries between fact and fiction, between history and storytelling, are not always clear.

According to Knickerbocker (the narrator), this setting is ideally suited for a supernatural tale for several reasons. In some ways, he seems to suggest that the inhabitants of the town are simply more likely than the general population to swap ghost stories and to believe fantastical tales. This would situate his story within such a tradition. However, he also implies that there is indeed something in the very air or "spirit" of the setting that is supernatural—the shooting stars, and the meteors glaring across the sky. In this sense, Knickerbocker is merely a historian, chronicling the stories of a particular region. 

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It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Knickerbocker continues his suggestion (in the voice of both a storyteller and a historian) that the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow are not simply mad or naturally superstitious, but become so by "imbibing" the very air of the place. Not only does the setting make one see visions and dream strange dreams, but it invites anyone who stops there to slow down, to remove himself or herself from the regular rhythms of daily life in order to embrace new rhythms and a new standard. Setting, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, almost possesses a power of its own in its ability to affect other characters. By acknowledging its might, Knickerbocker prepares the reader for the entrance of the protagonist, Ichabod Crane, who—even though he is not native to this region—will before long begin to embrace the "witching" influence of the place to an even greater extent than many other residents.

I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remained fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

This story takes place around 1790, not long after the end of the American Revolutionary War. At the time the United States of America was just coming into being as a unified nation, and many people continued to feel greater allegiance to smaller, more contained areas, whether the "great State of New York" or even a certain town or group of descendants sharing a common heritage, such as here the Dutch. The end of the eighteenth century saw many great changes sweeping the country, but here Knickerbocker seems to prefer the old-time charm of a town where little has changed. Furthermore, linking the town's heritage to the Dutch allows Irving to give a greater scope of history to his story—the U.S. was still very young as a country, but Americans holding on to their Dutch roots would have a much longer history to look back upon.

Of course, as has already been suggested by the apparition of the Headless Horseman—headless from a Revolutionary War battle—even such a town forgotten by time as Sleepy Hollow is not exempt from historical change. Indeed, Knickerbocker seems to be stretching the historical truth in order to situate his tale within a particular frozen moment in time, where the rules of modernization and of objective history may not apply as they do, increasingly, in the rest of the land. 

His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-pound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 277
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Ichabod is not originally from Sleepy Hollow or Tarry Town, he fits in well with the "spirit" of the place, in that he adores supernatural tales and fantastical ideas—even if this propensity has been "increased" by spending time in the region. Ichabod's wild imagination is a humorous inversion of the expectations we normally have for a schoolteacher character. Interestingly, although Knickerbocker has praised the sleepy charm of the region and its inhabitants, Ichabod's imaginative mind is, here as elsewhere, usually portrayed as an example of his immaturity and his inability to embrace reality. Perhaps this stems from the fact that he wholeheartedly "digests" tales rather than enjoying them at a distance.

Indeed, Ichabod's likes and desires are often described with the language of food and consumption, from his "appetite" to his "capacious swallow." Just as he can be gluttonous in eating, so Ichabod reveals an equal gluttony in his desire for marvelous tales.

He would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than to ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, the way Knickerbocker narrates the story of Ichabod's sojourn in Sleepy Hollow has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it. Ichabod may terrify himself with the tales (that he nevertheless adores) of "ghosts, goblins" and witches, and yet a woman—that is, Katrina Van Tassel—is shown to be even more powerful in her hold over him. This equivalence reminds us both of Ichabod's hyperbolic reaction to supernatural tales and of his difficulty of distinguishing between reality and the supernatural. Against both, Knickerbocker suggests that Ichabod's attitude will be one of attempting to fight what he understands as great force with his own kind of force. He will attempt to "conquer" Katrina just as he conquers his fears, as he tends to treat her as a material object to be won more than as another person. 

As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

Ichabod is attracted to Katrina, viewing her earlier—to continue the language of gluttony—as a "tempting morsel," but here we learn that there is a more powerful motivation for Ichabod to win her over and marry her. As the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Katrina (or rather her future husband) stands to inherit not just the wealth of the farm but also the rich culinary delights that can be harvested from the fields of wheat and corn and from the fruit orchards.

This passage also exemplifies Ichabod's tendency towards wild imaginative escapades, not only in the realm of the supernatural, but also in any enterprise. Here his imagination truly gets ahead of him, galloping into a future full of entrepreneurial projects and profits, before he has made any headway in actually wooing Katrina. Ichabod's imagination will force him to be more realistic in attempting to win her over, but the force of what he imagines and the reality of his low chances of doing so will remain far apart.

Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

The guests at the Van Tassel quilting party are still exchanging historical and fantastical tales. As he has done before, Knickerbocker suggests that there is something about this region that is frozen in time, immune to the historical changes and modernizing processes that have come to characterize much of the rest of the young American nation. Here, he specifies more precisely what that means for storytelling. In other areas of the country, people come and go at such a rate that few remember what things were like even in the recent past. In Tarry Town, however, Ichabod is the rare interloper into a society that has remained in the same setting for many generations. As a result, it is much easier for local stories to be passed down from person to person. In addition, it is more possible for such tales to be confirmed by the inhabitants, since many of them may have witnessed the events of the past themselves. Such witnessing puts a veneer of authenticity on tales that might otherwise be dismissed as fiction, even if those who are telling the tales admit that they exaggerate and fictionalize elements of them. 

The story was immediately matched by a thrice marvelous adventure of Brom Bones, who made light of the galloping Hessian as an arrant jockey.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Brom Bones , Headless Horseman
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

Many of the guests at the Van Tassel party are discussing the most famous superstition of the region, that of the Headless Horseman, who was killed in the Revolutionary War and now gallops around chasing anyone who crosses his path. They have just related the story of old Brouwer, who didn't believe in ghosts until he met the Horseman one night and was chased by him, ending up being hurled into a stream.

Brom Bones, as usual, seems entirely unaffected by the frightening tales swapped by the others. He takes the opportunity to remind everyone of his own prowess as a horseman and of his inability to be conquered even by a malicious ghost. Only by the Horseman vanishing at the last minute, Brom claims, did he fail to capture and unseat him. Brom thus makes clear to Ichabod, among others, that he is not someone to be trifled with. However, his "making light" of the situation also suggests that he has escaped at least some of the bewitching influence of the region. By making fun of the Headless Horseman rather than duly expressing awe and fear of the apparition, like the others, he shows himself to be firmly anchored in reality and factual accounts of history—in other words, seemingly not a "true" citizen of Sleepy Hollow.

He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” though Ichabod, “I am safe.”

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

After leaving the party, Ichabod is confronted by a towering figure on horseback. Soon, with dread, he realizes that it is a headless body on a horse carrying its head in its saddle. The horseman pursues Ichabod through the dark paths and towards the church. Ichabod remembers this church from the story told by Brom Bones: it was there that the horseman had disappeared, so it is there that he believes he will be safe.

Ichabod thus is shown once again to embrace the tales told by fellow Sleepy Hollow inhabitants as historical truth, even though he knows that Brom Bones is prone to bragging. Although he mistrusts Brom Bones as a competitor for Katrina Van Tassel, Ichabod is credulous enough to accept his story, especially since the tale has been echoed in other versions by so many other guests at the party. These tales have become Ichabod's own reality, and he acts for his own safety in line with this reality.

In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

The day following the Van Tassel party, Ichabod Crane cannot be found anywhere, and a search party fails to turn him up. Knickerbocker describes the evidence that they do find, much of which the reader can piece together as belonging to Ichabod's escapade the night before. It is apparent that Ichabod was there, since his hat must have flown off.

The shattered pumpkin, however, is noted in the narrative without any further explanation being attached to it. It is up to the reader to recall that the headless horseman had hurled his "head" at Ichabod, who fell to the ground, and to imagine what that "head" might be. Of course, the fact that Knickerbocker refrains from interpreting the scene means that we cannot know for sure. But significantly, the story does not draw to a close with Ichabod's immaturity and wild imagination being revealed as a fraud, while fact-based reality wins out. Instead, the story leaves us with a historical, material possibility coexisting with the supernatural explanation that Ichabod would have embraced.

Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s appearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Brom Bones , Katrina Van Tassel
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

Much of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been concerned with the competition between Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane to win the hand of Katrina Van Tassel. Here, Brom Bones is shown to have won that battle, as he marries her and gains access to her father's estate and wealth. Even without facing Ichabod in direct, face-to-face battle, Brom has managed to conquer him. At the same time, it is suggested that Brom is much wilier than others, including Ichabod, believed. Brom is unable to fully hide his satisfaction at Ichabod's abandonment of the village, insinuating through his laugh and knowing looks that his own plot was at work in driving his rival away. 

The narrative thus suggests that greater knowledge might be what can do away with supernatural beliefs. Brom is able to dismiss the fear of the marvelous because he knows what really happened that night with Ichabod (perhaps), while the other inhabitants of the village must resort to other beliefs.

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

Directly after seeming to convince the reader of the true answer to the mystery of Ichabod's disappearance, Knickerbocker balances that view with another, that of the "old country wives" who were always Ichabod's preferred companions for exchanging supernatural tales. Now the cycle continues without him, as Ichabod becomes one more character in these women's arsenal, just like the many figures that have preceded him and that have served as fodder for their stories.

Once again, Knickerbocker is ambivalent on the relationship between reality and the supernatural, between imaginative tales and historical fact. On the one hand, we are told that the women are, in fact, the "best judges" of such events, implying that they are to be trusted as historical chroniclers. On the other hand, these purportedly historical facts are told around the fire, for what seems like the evening entertainment of the town. Of course, this does not mean that the wives' opinion is false—indeed, at the quilting party historical anecdotes from the war were recounted along with supernatural tales. But the effect is to once again blur the line between what counts as "truth" and what does not.

Postscript Quotes

“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures—provided we will but take a joke as we find it:
That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.
Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high preferment in the state.”

Related Characters: Storyteller (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

In the postscript, the storyteller is asked to tell the "moral" of the legend of Sleepy Hollow, and this quotation is what he comes up with. On first glance, the passage seems nearly nonsensical. It employs terms like "therefore" and "ergo" that recall the language of philosophical argument, or at least of maxims stemming from the culture of the highly educated. But the relationship between cause and effect—between failing to marry a Dutch heiress and gaining an important state position, for example—is far from clear. 

Of course, the storyteller is alluding to Ichabod Crane's own luck, following the rumor that he did end up in an important position after the luckless mishaps of his youth in Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod, the storyteller suggests, actually won the battle against Brom at the end of the day, because he was able to break out of the sleepy village frozen in time. Still, we cannot take this "moral"—that every situation of life "has its advantages and pleasures"—entirely at face value, given the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone of the storyteller's words. Indeed, this tone suggests that any effort to assign a fixed meaning or a final cause to events is bound to be at least somewhat random. Rather than draw conclusions about Ichabod's trajectory and make a pronouncement on what it means for the listeners' own reality, the storyteller evades such an "educational" purpose and instead revels in the sheer delight of storytelling.

“Faith, sir,” replied the story-teller, “as to that matter, I don’t believe one-half of it myself.”

Related Characters: Storyteller (speaker)
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

The elderly gentleman who has, along with Knickerbocker, been listening to the storyteller's tale, claims that he still has doubts about whether the story is true or not. One natural reaction would be for the storyteller to insist that the tale is, in fact, true, and to try to come up with various means to prove its veracity. But he does not even try: instead, he agrees with the gentleman.

Knickerbocker, the narrator, has been interested throughout the story in revealing the fault lines between what is considered real and what is considered supernatural—but the story ends without Knickerbocker ever stating his own views on the matter. Instead, he has various figures—Brom Bones, the country wives, and now the storyteller—express their own opinions. The storyteller's thoughts, though, are far from clear. Does he not trust whoever told him the story? What does "it" refer to—the entire tale, or just the apparently supernatural elements? Which "half," then, does he choose to believe? Rather than dismissing the imaginative elements of the story out of hand, the narrative instead chooses to end on an open note, leaving the reader to construct his or her own version—and to tweak and interpret it even more as it is passed down the generations.