Critical Analysis of the Legend of the Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

December 26, 2023 By Isabelle Sophie Martinet

Washington Irving weaves tons and tons of spider webs before he comes to the main plot of the story. I would like to analyze the story from the point of view of Romance, Gothic Fiction, Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Feminism.

As a romance, the story revolves around the protagonist Ichabold Crane’s efforts to woo Katrina. Ichabold Crane comes to the village to be a school master. Katrina a buxom lass has many admirers and the story sets the conflict between Brom Bones, the rustic lad and Ichabold who is also her admirer. The romance follows a typical medieval pattern of courtly love. The men try their best to make amorous advances to Katrina. Katrina finds it enticing to be wooed by many men. This kind of romantic paradigm is indentified by the Philosopher Kristeva as belonging to melancholia that is a longing for something that cannot be obtained. In this game of romance women are silenced and romance acts as a pursuing ritualistic game for the men. Are women objects to be court worshipped and obtained by subservient gestures? Is the ideal of romance changing to women taking a more active role? Are women, poetic hearts to be adornments? Are gender roles shifting and becoming more feminine in today’s romance? The questions are easy to frame but the answers are difficult to conjecture.

The story is modeled along the lines of Gothic fiction and the village is haunted with many ghostly tales. The most prominent of them is the legend of the headless horseman who visits the village nocturnally and returns to his grave before sunrise. The legend of the headless horseman becomes the crux for the plot of the story as we later on understand in the end that after a party at Katrina’s house, while Ichabold Crane is riding on the horse, he is accosted by a headless horseman and loses control of his horse and when the head is thrown at him, he becomes a complete disarray. We can only imagine that the author has woven the plot as a ploy made by Ichabold’s rival Brom Bones who is Katrina’s admirer to oust him from the village. The author has created a plot that is weak, yet leaving a lot of room for fictional imagination. Post modern genre of fiction has sounded the death knell for the Gothic. New age readers can read through the plot as a fictional construct and Gothic plots in the postmodern era are boring. Reality is not the fantastic but the aesthetic in modern fictional terms. Ridicule, irony and self reflection are the devices through which post modern writer explores his or her work.

From a Marxian perspective, the story portrays the life of the elite bourgeoisie, who are rich but rustic and not very educated. It’s an irony that they don’t pay much of an importance to the education of their children. This is revealed in the shoddy construction of the school which is really a shack. Negritude is also portrayed in the story with the class of consciousness of disdain. The story shows the evolution of rural America and fits the paradigm of class consciousness that’s snobbish, elite and yet muddled in waters of being unsophisticated. The cultural beliefs and values of Rural America are primitive and deeply tainted with super-naturalism and myths. The protagonist of the play, Ichabold is the only character who resembles the proletariat. But then again the author clouds him with superstitious beliefs. Women are limited to the role of congenial housewives or as objects for men to set their charms on.

Psychoanalytically speaking, the story revolves around haunting specters, Christianity and the paganism of witch craft. The people of the village are riddled with the panoply of a confused jargon of having staunch Christian beliefs and yet being ardent admirers of witchcraft. This salmagundi is an amalgamated cauldron of irrationality. One finds it difficult to digest these myths in the postmodern era. It also reveals the author’s confusion of an emotional dialectic between hard held Christian beliefs and paganism. At an archetypal level the dualism of the cosmos with good and evil emerge as silhouettes that waddle the mind in perforations of substantiation. Devil and God become allegorical attributes of a mind that is bewildered with arcane riddles. The author’s unconscious is manifested with a consciousness that mingles myth and superstition with reality.

Looking at the story from a feminist point of view we can say that Men are phallic fathers searching for the Oedipal feminine. Women are either submissive, doting housewives or coquettish damsels ready to be enticed by men. Yes, Katrina is an authoritarian feminist when it comes to romance. She enjoys charming all the men out to entice her. But Katrina’s role is limited to a gender stereotype and lacking in autonomy and democracy. The phallic language of the text by making stereotypes of the masculine and the feminine needs to be strongly questioned through the lens of feminist deconstruction. Gender and language vibrate with a magnet that’s a Utopian Phallic Father.