I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access; while others have a thousand avenues, and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great triumph of skill to gain the former, but a still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for a man must battle for his fortress at every door and window. He who wins a thousand common hearts, is therefore entitled to some renown; but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette, is indeed a hero.
This passage demonstrates the differences between what today are called high-maintenance and low-maintenance women. This idea sets up women as something of a commodity, and high-maintenance women (coquettes) sometimes willingly play the part. As the narrator suggests, the coquette sometimes plays hard to get in order to make the man prove that he is truly a hero, but other coquettes are stereotypically inconsistent and irrational such that the suitor must be on the top of his game--and extremely attentive--in order to woo the coquette's heart.
Katrina Van Tassel, the only important female character, is commoditized as a young, pretty, and rich coquette, and that is about as much description as the reader gets, although her future possessions, or future husband’s possessions, are rapturously described in detail. The metaphors and language here are of battle and ownership, making clear that the narrator perceives that women are understood as puzzles to unravel or prizes in a male game of tug-of-war. They must be “captured,” and a man must “maintain possession” and “battle for his fortress.”
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. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarce had time to finish their first nap, and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have traveled away from the neighborhood, so that when they turn out of a night to walk the rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long established Dutch communities.
This passage emphasizes the characteristic youth and continual flux of most American neighborhoods. Although Knickerbocker is noting that this means that there are few ghost stories in American villages, what he really means by ghosts are traditions, engrained cultures, histories, or feelings of continuity between past and present. A ghost does exactly that—ties the past, the history of a place, to its present. But if there is not enough time for there to truly have been a past, and if people keep moving, and if thus the past is quickly forgotten or never known, there can be no continuity and thus no ghosts. This, to the classically conservative and very historically aware Crayon and Knickerbocker, is a terrible loss.
Knickerbocker and Crayon both work to some extent to remedy this disconnection through their acts of storytelling. Although the pasts they deal with may be fictionalized, they are still connecting a generation that was to a generation that is, telling stories set in the previous time. They are keeping the ghosts in play, focusing on their metaphorical value. American literature at the time was functioning without much of an independent history or tradition of storytelling, which provided great narrative freedom but also threatened to prevent the formation of a American narrative tradition in all but the places where people are more stable in their habits and geographic movement.
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 burthened 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. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a waggon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where!
This passage makes very obvious the source of Ichabod’s feelings for Katrina. It was already abundantly clear that his love for her was rooted in his material wants, but it seemed that he loved her farm too. This passage, however, shows that Ichabod’s love for the farm itself is not a love of the land, but just pure greed—in his fantasy he sells the farm for money and might move on to another state. It is thus the farm’s worth that is so attractive to him. This makes him, in the conservative mind of Knickerbocker, even worse, for he cares nothing for the fact that the Van Tassels are one of the few old and rooted families in this country characterized by the rootless.
This passage also emphasizes just how powerful Ichabod’s imagination and ability to fantasize are. He does not need reality, for “his busy fancy already realized his hopes.” He has already won Katrina, and he sees himself with a large family and all the money from selling the farm. It is this ability to go so far in his imagination that prevents Ichabod from having much success in the real world—he is not quite grounded enough in reality, despite his learning and his singing, and he thus does not act as he must to get what he wants (if he even could become a strong enough challenger to Brom) and truly win Katrina's heart.
Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tete-a-tete with the heiress; fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chopfallen—Oh these women! these women! Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks?—Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival?—Heaven only knows, not I!
This passage emphasizes the unreliability of the story. This scene is crucial—it is essentially the resolution of the love triangle that drives the tale forward—yet the narrator says he has no idea what happened and can only speculate. His speculation is based on Ichabod’s attitude as he leaves, which presumably was not witnessed by anyone, so the tale is either made up, based on a reasonable conjecture from Katrina's telling of the story to others, or traceable back to Crane himself, surely not a reliable narrator of his own story.
Similarly, the scene that follows is described in great detail, even going so far as to include what Ichabod was thinking about. Thus, in admitting here, of all places, that he does not know what happened, he throws the reliability of everything into doubt. We end up questioning whether it matters which part of the story is more reliably told.
It seems that Irving is using the old narrator's trick of leaving the most poignant scenes up to the imagination in order to increase their power. In addition, more prudish nineteenth-century readers would understand that such a private moment, which might have included a physical indiscretion, was inappropriate to put into words on paper.
This passage is also important in that show's Katrina's agency. Katrina, who has been seen essentially as a prize that Brom Bones and Ichabod are fighting over, demonstrates that she has the real choice in the matter. She evidently has chosen Brom, and it is possible that she is in on the practical joke or "sham," given that Brom all too easily leaves the field and that Katrina was giving Ichabod many signals that he should stay late. Reading her act even more powerfully, as the narrator suggests, Katrina might even have played her own expert game to make sure that Ichabod got the final NO that would make him go away and leave the field open for Brom.
The mysterious event caused much speculation at the Church on the following Sunday. Knots of gazers and gossips were collected in the church yard, at the bridge, and at the spot where the hat and pumpkin had been found. The stories of Brouwer, of Bones, and a whole budget of others, were called to mind; and when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, they shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him, the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead.
This passage emphasizes the self-interest characterizing the townspeople. Though none of the characters is basically evil, neither is anyone truly good. Nobody in the town seems to worry much about a man who was never really a town insider anyway. Once the most romantic story about the disappearance is accepted--the story that just confirms people's preconceived superstitions--nobody worries about Ichabod again. Of course, they would have cared more if he had owed anybody any money. Instead, the possessions he left behind are disposed of or liquidated. His reappearance would not benefit others that much, and a new teacher can be found.
This passage also emphasizes a way that legends and stories are built. Here the setting, together with stories that have been told in the past, reminds the townspeople of the Headless Horseman, so they quickly and easily choose that phenomenon as the most likely explanation for Ichabod’s disappearance. They plainly ignore the physical evidence, the mysterious pumpkin. The better story is the more legendary and romantic one, and that is good enough for the people.
This neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war—it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and been infested with refugees, cow boys, and all kinds of border chivalry. Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each story teller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.
This passage touches on the danger or, from another perspective, the opportunity involved in storytelling. With the passage of time, historical truth becomes more malleable, since fewer and fewer people can truly remember it, and it is easy to embellish the story. Enough time has passed in Sleepy Hollow that the people can alter their own histories to make the stories better. While this phenomenon may seem repugnant to the historian, from a literary point of view the more interesting story is the better one and provides greater pleasure.
The important distinction here is between story and history. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” borders between them, being a largely unreliable history that is still closer to the truth than any of the accounts of it told in the town. The men in this passage, for their part, are not writing down their stories for posterity, but simply telling the best parts and dressing them up in order to promote themselves and to give their listeners the chance to hear a good story. In this case, truth becomes flexible, because it is the story that is paramount.
The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood, being considered a kind of idle gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson.
In this passage, Knickerbocker is cutting into Ichabod’s feeling of self-importance in this tiny little village. He is “vastly superior” in matters of taste, accomplishments, and education—but a few lines later, it becomes clear that this expansive learning actually consists of little more than having “read several books quite through.” This emphasizes the power of presentation, of convincingly telling your own story—Ichabod’s minor superiority in education allows him to pretend that it is a great superiority.
This allows him to gain some standing among the women of the neighborhood, which is essential and quite impressive, for he really has almost nothing to offer to a wife. At the same time, it is disappointing that he might actually be inferior only to the parson in his learning. His education is actually quite miniscule, he has very little drive, and he seems content to live off of others. He consumes and consumes incessantly, and what he produces cannot be commoditized (song and teaching).
There was something extremely provoking in this obstinately pacific system; it left Brom no alternative but to draw upon the funds of rustic waggery in his disposition, and to play off boorish practical jokes upon his rival.
Sleepy Hollow is a civil society, not a martial one, where Brom would be able to prevail easily against Ichabod, the weaker party. This peaceful or "pacific" society puts Brom in the position of having to succeed by hook or by crook, playing mostly within the rules and not creating too much public disorder. His practial jokes do cause minor problems that today would be seen as something like harassment, and they probably succeed, despite being boorish, in raising his profile against Ichabod in the mind of Katrina.
This passage also is importantly foreshadowing of the final practical joke on Ichabod: dressing up as the Headless Horseman and scaring Ichabod out of the town.
In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the neighborhood ... It was a matter of no little vanity to him, on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson. Certain it is, his voice resounded far above all the rest of the congregation; and there are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the mill-pond, on a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane. Thus, by divers little make-shifts in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated “by hook and by crook,” the worthy pedagogue got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it.
This satirical look at Ichabod Crane's sense of self-importance should not be taken literally. This passage is mostly about Crane's pride in singing, which the narrator makes fun of by suggesting that the hoor or crook of his nose is what makes him sing so well. If Crane is second to the parson in learning, at least he can outdo the parson through the power of his signing (carrying the palm is an ancient symbol of victory). As for most people not understanding "the labor of headwork," this is also an ironic swipe at the complaints of those people who do not do physical labor but think that their intellectual pursuits are so terribly difficult.
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.
This ironic passage reveals that the narrator attributes superstitions in large measure to 'old wives' tales.' The old women like to think that they are the best interpreters of events, but they are wrong. It is true that they might have the best opportunity to see the longer patterns of local history, but they interpret each new event in the easiest way, the way that reinforces their superstitions. As for everyone else, the supernatural version of the story is fun to tell, so it doesn't much matter what really happened. The story of Ichabod Crane has become a myth or legend that helps the town enjoy itself and understand itself. It is a traditional story for the community.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think the background of the novel is steeped in traditions of agriculture, Judeo Christian ethic, and superstition yet there are shades of modernity. Sleepy Hollow is an old town inhabited mostly by descendants of its original settlers....
Let's face it, the wave of men immigrating to the New World at the beginning of the 19th Century weren't crossing the ocean with the intent of settling for a life they could have lived at home. Those men traveled here to better their lives and...