On this day in 1783, the writer Washington Irving was born. I’m embarrassed to admit that last year, I wrote, “All my life, I’ve been disappointed with ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ It just doesn’t make any sense. What exactly am I supposed to get from it? I don’t suppose it matters.” That was based upon having read it when I was a kid. As was typical for me especially then, I didn’t understand it. And I went on not understanding. It had occurred to me that if I read it again, it might make more sense. But it was only in the last year that I finally did it.
The story is actually quite clear. In fact, you might even say that it is offensively clear. The story goes out of its way to highlight the fact that Ichabod Crane is highly superstitious. So when Brom Bones seeing that Ichabod is making a bit of progress in wooing the rich Katrina Van Tassel, he sets to work bringing the “headless horseman” legend to life, causing Ichabod to flee for this life. It is a clever little story, filled with sly wit. I think it could rather easily be updated and I’m surprised that it isn’t done more often.
What makes the story difficult for me is that the characters are not well developed. Ichabod is just horrible. There is really nothing to like about him. He’s a misanthrope who’s too weak to even verbalize it. His interest in Katrina is only because of her money and status. He is less likable than Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me. As a hero, he leaves everything to be desired.
Brom, on the other hand, leaves everything to be desired as the villain. He’s just too perfect. Everyone loves Brom. It would be totally unbearable if it weren’t for the fact that we all know that kind of guy. And unlike what Irving says, he really is mean and he abuses pretty much everyone. But clearly, if someone has to win in the conflict between the two men, we would prefer Brom because Ichabod simply has no positive personality traits.
And then there is Katrina. What can we say about her? Nothing. Because Irving said nothing. Really. In 12,000 words, she might get a hundred. She is wealthy and she is pretty. And given that she is wealthy and nubile, of course she is pretty. Regardless, even if she were ugly, Ichabod and Brom would want to marry her because she is the most advantageous marriage in that area.
So there you go. A clever plot and well written. But lousy characters, at least for a modern audience. But you can definitely see why the story is still read.
Happy birthday Washington Irving!