"The end is where we start from."

-T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Place, Mood, and Character in Washington Irving's Ghostly Tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, first published in 1820, is the quintessential American ghost story. I read it every Autumn before Hallowe'en, and I am always impressed by Irving's abilities. Irving was a great tale-teller with a gifted imagination, and a talent for vivid, drawn-out descriptions. The Headless Horseman actually appears in the story only briefly. The rest of the time, Irving carefully develops a strong sense of place, mood, and character, three elements necessary for a successful ghostly tale. For instance, in helping the reader experience Sleepy Hollow, a real place quite familiar to him, Irving writes:

"Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity...From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere."

Irving's description of Sleepy Hollow even includes the natural sounds of the place. The reader is drawn into the story and, ultimately, experiences a pleasurable sense of participation in the terrors that ensue due to the realistic and detailed sense of place created in advance by the author.

Mood is also critical to the success of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Once the reader is successfully carried away by the author to the place where the tale is set, he must feel the emotions proper to the tale, and, for a ghost story, creating a mood of foreboding and terror is key. Thus, for example, Irving, master of the genre, sets the proper atmosphere for his American classic by writing a terrifying description of the dark ride home endured by the hero of the tale, Ichabod Crane:

"It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farmhouse away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed."

Character development is also important to Irving. Good storytellers triumph when they create realistic tales that readers can inhabit. Irving's descriptions of his characters are bright, colorful, and hold the reader's attention. Introducing Crane, he writes:

"The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."

Later, Irving goes beyond physical descriptions of his hero to tell us more about his personality: Crane is a lover of spectral tales, but he pays dearly for his indulgences in them:

Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!

But if there was a pleasure in all this, while snugly cuddling in the chimney corner of a chamber that was all of a ruddy glow from the crackling wood fire, and where, of course, no spectre dared to show its face, it was dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walk homewards. What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!"

Washington Irving, in his paragon of the American ghostly tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," carefully crafts his story using thoughtful and painstaking descriptions of place, mood, and character, which allow the reader to be spirited away (as, perhaps, Ichabod Crane was spirited away by the Headless Horseman) into the pleasure of a well-written ghostly tale, well-suited for reading on an Autumn night by a crackling fire, while outside the wind and rain do their worst.