The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Comparison of the American Ideal in Short Story and Film

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The American ideal is a concept which was necessary in building the United States of America at the time of the American revolution. It states that if one works hard and is a good person, they will achieve success. This idea was only reinforced with the signing of the Declaration of Independence which states, “all men are created equal”. At this point in history it allowed families in the states to be motivated to provide for themselves while proving themselves as nationalists. However, even the most loyal Americans still needed an extra enticement to follow this ideal. The American Identity was this incentive. America, similar to the Old World, needed a mythology to prove that they were singular from the rest of the world so that they would act under their ideal for the long term. Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving grasps at the idea of surviving in America is tremulous and Americans must keep utterly convicted to the American ideal in order to survive. The story takes place in the small town Sleepy Hollow and tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a lanky, greedy teacher who originates from Connecticut. He is seen as a consumer who rarely works and is irrelevant in the lives of those who actually work to survive. He also believes heavily in the superstitions of the elder ladies in the town. Essentially, in Irving’s works, Ichabod is seen as the enemy to the American Ideal. The fiction continues to dwell deeper into the fears of Ichabod and he is eventually chased out of town by the Headless Horseman, an old wive’s tale of a Hessian trooper who died during the American Revolution, who haunts the area surrounding Sleepy Hollow. Tim Burton in his cinematic version of Legend of Sleepy Hollow uses the same plot, characters, and geography, but with a darker atmosphere. He also deviates in his view of the purpose American identity and use of Ichabod. Instead of using his film to represent the classic American ideal, he represents his own. That which represents how a person should act in a more modern sense. Unlike Irving, Burton uses Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) to represent his American ideal rather than the opposite of it. Burton’s Ichabod is a detective from New York who although bases his life off science, is still aware of the more mystical and religious. Ichabod Crane is used by Irving and Burton to demonstrate their view of the American identity. The Ichabods contrast each other through their ability to accept different opinions and realities, their gender ideologies, and in comparison of their ability to persist through tasks.

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Irving and Burton’s Ichabods have different levels of ignorance that affects their ability to portray their respective ideals. Irving’s Ichabod, for example, does not know what he needs to do in order to achieve success. Due to his migration from Connecticut, where he has lived his entire life, Irving’s Ichabod does not have the required worldly experience to be able to evaluate other characters intentions and does not possess his own ability to change his own opinions. “He was a native of Connecticut... And sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters” (Irving 5). Ichabod is compared to the woodmen, who are seen as useful in the eyes of Irving and his ideal, and is named as a teacher. While the profession of teaching itself allows for worldly experience to be gained through knowledge, schoolmasters are seen in the eyes of Irving as: “mere drones” (Irving 7). This means that they don’t do much work that is seen as appropriate according to the ideals and timeline. Irving’s Ichabod also rarely lived on his own and, “boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers whose children he instructed” (Irving 7). His reliance on others also prevents him from gaining any worldly knowledge by providing him with the comfort of the provisions of others and is never exposed to living on his one. This proves that Ichabod in the short story is not determined to learn from others. This personality does not apply well to the hardworking survivalist ideal that Irving wishes to portray. However, Burton’s Ichabod comes from New York and therefore has experience from another, more populated land. With population comes a higher density of people of different cultures and experiences which can be shared with Burton’s Ichabod. As well, Burton’s Ichabod, when compared to Irving’s Ichabod, worked a policeman and detective. This profession allows Burton’s Ichabod to be faced with more trials and tribulations than Irving’s Ichabod, making him more cultured as a person and therefore able to make decisions using different points of view. As we see as the film progresses he has had quite a horrific past. His father was a priest that condemned his mother as a witch and placed her in an iron maiden. This unfortunate story allows him to be relatable and shows how he would be able to adapt to tough situations.Although he strongly believes in the sciences, he is aware of witchcraft and is able to make decisions while being informed of this, but not controlled by it. As we see when he enters the witches cave within the woods, he puts his full trust by entering her lair as she may have some information on how to defeat the Headless Horseman. Comparing this to Irving’s Ichabod, he is entirely superstitious and controlled this unfortunate characteristic. This allows him to be exiled by his fear of the Headless Horseman, never again returning to Sleepy Hollow. Burton’s Ichabod is able to make a more cultured approach to tasks and is able to work through them with this attribute. The contrast between Irving and Burton’s Ichabod regarding their ability to make decisions and allows them to prove themselves as candidates either going against or demonstrating their respective ideals, respectively.

The diversity between the two Ichabods show regarding their ideas of women and how they desire them. Irving’s Ichabod seeks to be with them, not because he enjoys their personality, but because of what they have to offer to him. “Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer... to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round” (Irving 10). This description of Katrina Van Tassel, mentioned as the daughter of Baltus Van Tassel and the most beautiful girl in Sleepy Hollow, seems to be through the greedy eyes of Irving’s Ichabod. There is no description of her actual characteristics, only what Irving’s Ichabod sees, which is a beautiful prize for him to own. Not only does he only see her as an object, but his desires exist only because of her father’s lands. He knows that if he were to marry Katrina, he would inherit the farm and be able to sell it: “how they [Baltus Van Tassel’s lands] might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness” (Irving 12). It is this greed and desire that verifies how Irving’s Ichabod sees women, Katrina especially, as an object for him to gain personal wealth from, not to love and enjoy time with. Burton’s Ichabod desires the opposite of Irving’s. Instead of falling in love with the riches Katrina implores, he falls in love with her character. Upon meeting each other they share a kiss while Katrina is blindfolded, this instantly sparks desire between the two characters. Besides this, Burton’s Katrina shares many similarities to the film’s Ichabod’s mother. Ichabod’s mother and Burton’s Katrina are both witches and seemingly kind, caring women. When speaking of his mother Ichabod reveals these same characteristics, knowing that she possessed them even though she was condemned as a witch. The similarities between them are enough for Burton’s Ichabod to fall truly in love with Burton’s Katrina. The difference in how the Ichabods see women determines how well they demonstrate their specific ideals. Irving’s Ichabod treats them as objects and therefore with no respect, going against the morally adept aspect of his ideals. Burton’s Ichabod adores his Katrina because of her personality and characteristics following in line with a modern belief of respect and adoration between genders.

When comparing the two Ichabod’s the amount of dedication they put into their work is a sole reflection of their character and shows how they compare to their ideals. Irving’s Ichabod, although at the beginning of the story rarely works, becomes even more distracted when given the possibility of constructing a relationship with the story’s Katrina. After being introduced to Katrina and after preventing Brom, the town hero and a perfect example of Irving’s American ideals, from successfully courting her, Irving’s Ichabod successfully begins the first steps of potentially marrying the story’s Katrina. This causes Irving’s Ichabod to falter in his work and begin daydreaming. “On a fine autumnal afternoon, Ichabod, in pensive mood, sat enthroned on the lofty stool from whence he usually watched all the concerns of his literary realm” (Irving 16). Even though there is not much for him to consider, the slightest idea of having all the fortunes of the Van Tassel farm excites the greedy Ichabod enough to abandon his duty of teaching the young minds of Sleepy Hollow. On the other hand, Burton’s Ichabod demonstrates exemplary focus and is even willing to risk his own life so the task at hand may be completed. When introduced to Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod is tasked with solving the mystery of multiple murders that occur on the outskirts of the town. He believes that it is simply a classic serial killer case and begins his detective work. However, the rumours of the Headless Horseman that patrols the town in seek of revenge are true. After seeing the Horseman for the first time when on the outside of town Ichabod is nearly killed. Although he is bedridden with injuries and fear, he does not give up. As soon as he can he begins to research reasons why the Hessian trooper is among the living. He faces many trials and encounters the Horseman a multitude of times, each one nearly ending in his death. Despite this, he persists in his work and succeeds, unlike Irving’s Ichabod who daydreams of the possibility that he may be handed over success. Burton’s Ichabod sends the Horseman and Burton’s Katrina’s stepmother, a witch who is responsible for summoning the Horseman in an attempt to usurp the lands and riches of the Van Tassels, back to the realms of Hell. The difference in the determination and willingness to work divides the two Ichabods and decides how they are symbols for their respective ideals. Irving’s Ichabod daydreams and does not work hard, and therefore fails at his goals by working against Irving’s American ideal. Burton’s Ichabod, on the contrary, is persistent and achieves his goals. This works in according to both Irving’s and Burton’s ideals, by working hard he becomes a better person and achieves success.

Washington Irving and Tim Burton created their own versions of Legend of Sleepy Hollow to demonstrate their ideals. Irving’s ideal states that if you work hard you will achieve success. Burton, living in a different period in time, has adapted the ideal to fit a more modern sense. That being that people should act appropriate in modern times by being respectful as well as hardworking. They both use Ichabod Crane to demonstrate how not to exist, and how to exist according to their ideals, respectively. The Ichabods establish this by showing their ability of acceptance, their gender ideologies, and their work ethic. By creating their stories of Legend of Sleepy Hollow Irving and Burton successfully established a muse for their American identity to persist through time. Similar to the stories of the old ladies in Sleepy Hollow, stories and morals only last as long as the people who believe in them repeat them to those who are not aware of them.

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