American Literature Week 16 Irving

Prompt: “Were the detailed descriptions of the people around the two main characters equally important in the two stories?”

Washington Irving had a brilliant way with world building. He was able to create one of a kind atmospheres, where magic seemed hidden in the foliage and superstition permeated the environment like a constant shroud. The characters in his stories lived within this atmosphere, and in their own ways added to the subtle yet haunting worlds Irving built.

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the lead is a highly superstitious, rather proper but also somewhat odd schoolkeeper. Ichabod Crane’s description is given in length, and his physical oddities combined with his proclivity to be spooked by supernatural events makes him very memorable. He is the perfect victim to eventually run into the headless horseman. The other characters in the story are simple yet charming, and they set the stage for Ichabod to eventually run into the hollows topless terror. There is Katrina Van Tassel, beautiful heiress to Baltus Van Tassel’s fortune. Ichabod pursues her, both for her beauty and her wealth. Brom Bones is the third main lead, a rival to Ichabod who also looks to court Katrina.

Ichabod attends one of Baltus’s parties hoping to woo Katrina, during which Brom fills his head with stories of the headless horseman. This leads to the infamous trip home, where the tension slowly builds as Ichabod imagines ghouls all around him. The tension climaxes when he actually does run into the headless horseman, who chases him through the woods and across a covered bridge. With nothing but his hat left to be found by morning, its left to the readers to decide for themselves what happened to the old schoolmaster.

In Rip Van Winkle the characters are also simple and charming, setting a similar tone. There is Rip Van Winkle himself, a playful and somewhat lethargic man who doesn’t much like work but gets along well with the children and dogs of the village. He’s kind of a bard type. His wife is critical and henpecking, nagging him on his work yet to be done and eventually driving him out of the house and up to the mountains. There are other townsfolk in the story, but most of the characters are there to set up the energy of the town. There’s Nicholas Vedder for example, the owner of the inn. He doesn’t talk much, but enjoys sitting and smoking his pipe.

After his wifes critiques push him from the house Rip makes his way into the mountains for a relaxing afternoon. Once again the atmosphere of the woods surrounding the town is heavy with the supernatural. While hiking Rip meets some Fae, who he helps and spends the night dancing with. When he awakes twenty years have past. He returns to his village to find most folks have passed away and the tone of the town has shifted. Its much busier now, and people are more quick to argument. Van Winkle is left as one of the only ones who remembers how the town once was, and as the only one who knows what happened to him the night he went away.

Washington Irvings characters are simple, but along with the setting they help create the atmosphere of his stories. This atmosphere is one of warm village life. But at the boundaries supernatural elements hang heavy in the air, waiting for their chance to meet one of our characters and potentially change their lives.

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