The fascinating descriptions of The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow & Rip Van Winkle

English: Lesson 80

Were the detailed descriptions of the people around the two main characters equally important in the two stories?

Washington Irving wrote the two famous American stories the Legend of the Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. These two fairytale-like stories have charmed people since they were first published in 1819 and continue to do so, and I can account for the stories fascinating quality, since I am not a big fan of the supernatural ghost stories, but found Irving’s description of these simple but enchanting characters utterly charming.

The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow was my favourite of the two. The wonderful description of a quiet little town in the middle of a walnut tree-shaded valley and the dutch inhabitants instantly grab the reader’s attention. The story itself is very simple, and anyone who tells a quick synopsis of the story would say at the end, “I know that sounds rather boring, but the book is written so well you just have to read it!” And that is true. Irving had the remarkable ability to give such a detailed description of the landscape, culture, and people, that the story almost seems real. The reader’s head is filled with perfect pictures of what the place of Sleepy Hollow looks like and what the characters are like. How Ichabod Crane, the central figure of the story, stands and walks, Katrina Van Tassel, the flirtatious beauty, dances between her many suitors, her father, Old Baltus Van Tassel, and his abundance of goods and wealth, and of course the burly, roaring, roystering blade of a young man, Brom Van Brunt. All these characters are inherently simple, stereotypes if you will, but the detailed descriptions of every character gives the story a culture that is fascinating and captures your imagination.

“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. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars 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” (Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, pg 13).

The story of Rip Van Winkle also gives an enchanting description of a Dutch community where a simple, henpecked husband resides. Irving again writes detailed descriptions of the community, of Rip Van Winkle’s intolerable wife, the village children, the dogs, Nicholas Vedder; a patriarch of the village, and the neighbouring farmers. All the characters spring to life in the reader’s head and you are transported to a different place with an aura of magic. This story, like Sleepy Hollow, is again filled with simple people with no character development and a simple plot, but Irving gives such specific details about everything that the reader does not notice.

On the whole, these two stories by Washington Irving are extremely simple. But, Irving’s ability to give perfect descriptions to each person, place, and thing, transports the reader into the very centre of the story. Although the two stories settings do not take place in a different world, there is a fairytale-like atmosphere that charms each reader and is what makes these stories live on through the generations.

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