In Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the conflict between Enlightenment and Romantic ideals is narrativized. Irving’s story is an exploration of the conflict between these two schools of thought. Irving uses his setting, his characters, and his “moral” (or lack thereof) to critique the Enlightenment. At first reading, “Sleepy Hollow” may seem no more than a dreamy folk tale. But when read in the context of the emerging resistance to Enlightenment thinking, it reveals itself to be a striking denunciation of the ideals of the Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by the reign of reason. Enlightenment thinkers believed in the supremacy of reason above all other human faculties, and in the perfectibility of man and therefore society. Scientific understanding and the pursuit of knowledge were key pursuits in this time. Materialism was emphasized as an overt rejection of the superstition of the Middle Ages. The ideals of the Enlightenment were rationality, objectivism, and the “enlightened” society based on pragmatism.
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving uses all of the tools at his disposal as a storyteller to illustrate his criticism of Enlightenment ideals. First of all, he creates an atmosphere and a setting where reason is at a loss. Also, he uses the character of Ichabod Crane to embody Enlightenment principles, and then has this character become a figure of ridicule. Additionally, Irving uses his conclusion to poke fun at the Enlightenment idea of literature as being necessarily didactic. All of these elements come together to provide a thorough indictment of the Enlightenment.
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...e. He then has the storyteller himself question the veracity of the story with his final line, “’I don’t believe one-half of it myself,’” which scorns not just the importance of a moral, but again questions the importance of truth and verifiability.
While Irving may poke fun at the idea of a simplistic moral, a clear maxim that one can easily digest, he nevertheless infuses his work with a message. If any “moral” could be taken from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” it is that there are some places where reason cannot guide us. The possibility of a place where reason and rationality are no longer useful is a direct and sharp critique of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Through his “tools of the trade” as a storyteller, Irving effectively denounces the limits of Enlightenment thinking, and opens the door for the possibilities of Romanticism and the Gothic.
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