There is an almost dizzying number of levels of narration and narrators in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: a) Washington Irving is the author of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. ; b) Geoffrey Crayon is the fictional author of the volume, the one responsible for collection or creating the stories and sketches; c) Diedrich Knickerbocker is the character who supposedly wrote down “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and in whose hand the postscript was “found,” presumably by Crayon; d) the legend was told to Knickerbocker by a ”pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow”; e) within the legend, the characters tell stories that they have heard or read, many of them concerning “a figure on horseback without a head.” Ichabod Crane, then, is a man who is frightened by a story within a story within a story within a story.
The narrators are not only numerous, but also unreliable. Knickerbocker claims that he has repeated the legend ”almost in the precise words in which I heard it related”—a ridiculous claim considering the length of the story, the amount of description, and the fact that he heard it only once. The “gentlemanly old fellow” makes a great pretense in the beginning of his narration of telling the truth, pointing out that he has heard an explanation for the name ‘Tarry Town,” but he will not ”vouch for the fact, but merely advert to it, for the sake of being precise and accurate.” By the end, however, he admits that the legend might be a bit extravagant, and says, “I don’t believe one half of it myself.”
The inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow are subject to fits of imagination, “they are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs,” and they enjoy gatherings at which each story-teller is encouraged ”to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinction of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.” When the men are not telling stories of how they won the war single-handedly, they are telling “tales of ghosts and apparitions,” and finding the stories delightfully frightening. As narrators, they are as unreliable as Knickerbocker and his acquaintance.
The effect of all these unreliable narrators is to distance the reader from the action and from the characters. If nothing can be believed, empathy cannot develop, and the reader forms no strong feelings about Crane, either positive or negative. As a psychological study, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” falls short, because the reader never gets close enough to the characters to look inside their minds. Cardboard characters move through a humorous situation, and although there is some trickery afoot, no one really gets hurt. This emotional distance, created by the multiple levels of narration, focuses readers’ attention on the humor, and it is the humor that has made ‘ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” an American favorite for almost two hundred years.
One of the most striking features of the story is the long passages of rich descriptive detail. The narrator opens with a long reverie on the dreaminess of the landscape, but when the story shifts its focus to Crane and his thoughts, the description becomes more vivid. When Crane walks home in the evening, for example, the narrator lists every creature that frightens him: the whip-poor-will, the treetoad, the screech-owl, the fire-flies, the beetle. When he looks over the Van Tassel barn, ”bursting forth with the treasures of the farm,” Crane’s gaze— and the reader’s— lingers over every swallow, martin, pigeon, pig, goose, duck, turkey, guinea-fowl and rooster.
When he sees a farm animal, Crane imagines it as food, and the list of farm creatures is followed immediately by a longer list of the dishes they might yield. “In his devouring mind’s eye” Crane sees the pigs roasted, the pigeons ”snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie,” the ducks “pairing cozily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce.” Inside the Van Tassel home, Crane cannot keep his eyes still as he admires the tools, the furniture, and most importantly the fruits of the earth: ”In one corner stood a huge bag of wool ready to be spun; in another, a quantity of linsey-woolsey just from the loom; ears of Indian corn, and strings of dried apples and peaches, hung in gay festoons along the wall, mingled with the gaud of red peppers.” Where other men are attracted to Katrina because of her beauty, Crane sees her only as a stepping stone to ”the treasures of jolly autumn.”
William Hedges observes that “the method of this story is to heap up images of abundance and contrast Sleepy Hollow’s amplitude with the meagreness of Ichabod Crane’s body and spirit.” Mary Weatherspoon Bowden refers to the same images of “glorious autumn days and autumn harvests, to food, food, and more food, to buxom lasses and merriment and pranks” when she concludes that the legend is “a celebration of the bounty of the United States.”
For Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States was still the land of plenty, a country of endless resources. This was a source of pride for Irving and his American readers, and a subject of fascination and wonder for his British readers, whose national wilderness had been tamed centuries before. Irving uses lush imagery precisely for its lushness, to demonstrate and celebrate the endless resources of a new, unproven nation.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Washington Irving, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.