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Legend of Sleepy Hollow Formalist Essay

By tangles101 Jan 27, 2014 2852 Words
Elizabeth Gardner
English 11 period 6.
January 23, 2014
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
Formalist Criticism

In reading over Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," my attention has been caught that both of these stories have been given a title that refers to the setting where the action takes place: Irving's boring town, Poe's depressing mansion. I also noticed that both stories make a specific use of the settings, to affect both the reader and the characters within the tale, but in two totally different ways. Irving's Sleepy Hollow is a real place, a specific location given by the narrator in the tale's opening paragraphs, almost as if tracing the route on a map - eastern shore of the Hudson river, by the Tappan Zee, two miles from a small port called Tarrytown (pg.1). Irving's details give the story a firm grounding in reality. In contrast, Poe is creating a landscape of the imagination, and the directions in his opening paragraph are much more vague: "a singularly dreary tract of country" (311), no place-names given. From the outset we are given to understand that Poe is not trying to describe a specific place at all, and no need for accuracy; every detail is given for effect. so this is a major difference: Irving's story is set in the real world, while Poe's may not be. In each of these stories, the atmosphere is not just a convenient backdrop; it is a vital component of the plot, a supporting character. Irving's Sleepy Hollow is named, on two levels: Firstly, this is a place where things move slowly, remain unchanged and timeless while the world continues to advance. Secondly, and more importantly, there is a dreamlike quality to the town: 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 marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. (3)

The narrator goes on to say that the effect of this influence "is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time" (3). The influence is strongest on our protagonist, Ichabod Crane: "His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region" (pg.6). Mr.Crane enjoyed hearing or telling a good ghost story, his own drawn from Cotton Mather's tales - "in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed" (pg.7) - but the narrator continues to remind us that even the local predilection for fantastical stories is "doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land" (962). Then there are moments within the story that make the place, despite its strong grounding in geography, seem almost fantasy itself:

“The sun gradually wheeled his broad disk down in the west. The wide bosom of the Tappan Zee lay motionless and glassy, excepting that here and there a gentle undulation waved and prolonged the blue shadow of the distant mountain. A few amber clouds floated in the sky, without a breath of air to move them. The horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark gray and purple of their rocky sides. A sloop was loitering in the distance, dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast; and as the reflection of the sky gleamed along the still water, it seemed as if the vessel was suspended in the air.” (960) If we take a look at these sentences: “... amber clouds floated in the sky..” and “... breathe of air to make them move..” or “... into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven..” you can see that Irving uses similes in most of his story. If Irvings is lost in a dream, then Poe’s landscape is trapped inside of a nightmare. Through the narrator's eyes, we are not allowed to see a poetic romance surrounding the darkened House of Usher. The scene causes a quick depression and a sense of unwantedness. Its pretty cool that the narrator compares the impression to “ the after-dream of the reveller upon opium” rather than to a nightmare (1508). The narrator feels that he has awakened to a dreary “real world” made more desolate by contrast to the beauty of the dream. The atmosphere of the House, like in Sleepy Hollow, has a big influence on all who reside there- not limited to the native inhabitants. “ I felt that i breathed an atmosphere of sorrow,” says the narrator; “An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all”(315). According to the dieing owner of the House, Roderick Usher, the influence is more profound than one might guess: “... there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s… This opinion in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea has assumed a more daring character … connected with the grey stones of the home of his forefathers…. Its evidence was to be seen, he said, in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what i now saw him- what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none. (1515-1516) If Poe is trying to describe his characters by their environment, then theres nothing metaphorical about the atmosphere in this story; its effect on Usher is is called “ Dramatic Literal”. As I can see that it is quite likely that Washington Irving, writing only twenty years earlier than poe, has a similar concept in mind when he describes the atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow. In Poe's story, though , the influence is much more pervasive and not nearly as benign; while in the atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow is mildly soporific, and the House of Usher is Toxic, or perhaps the surroundings are vampiric rather than poisonous. Like “atmospheric vampirism” with the dead vegetation around the house… its kinda like a “psychic sponge” draining Rodericks Vitality. In some degree I agree with the critics who believe that we are meant to take Ushers beliefs seriously. In Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” the Houses atmosphere is poisoning him, or draining him, in truth- and not in his own sick little world. I do find it quite puzzling why no one has offered the countering idea: The sickness is in the family, and even though the generations, the people who lived in the House of Usher have indeed poisoned the house and the grounds of the house. But this was in the early 1800s so it was natural to think that the grounds or house was poising man. I think that we are meant to think that it works both ways: The house poisons the people, who in turn poison the house, in a recursive style. To question the source of the infection would be to reach beyond the story; Poe does not supply any hints as to the nature of the Usher family curse, and points out that the property and the family name have merged together. This seemed to include, in the mind of the peasantry who used to, both the family and the family mansion. Whether the source is in the family or in the mansion itself is moot. So now they are now intertwined and continue to affect each other. In any case, it seems clear to me that within Poe’s “ The Fall of the House of Usher” , the supernatural content of the atmosphere is real- But in Irving’s “ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the atmosphere conjures up the belief in the supernatural world, the ghost and such seem to be fictional. This brings us to the next question: what is the author's purpose in writing this story? Irving is being gently comical; he makes a point in telling the reader ( in the postscript) that the tale isn’t meant to be believed: “ Faith, sir,’ replied the story-teller,’ as to that matter, I don’t believe on half of it myself” (25) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn’t really supposed to scare us. We are supposed to be amused by how mr. Crane can be scared so easily and also by the easiness of both Crane and the locals to be deceived: “ The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire” (968) Before you can ask me why I am so convinced that The legend of Sleepy Hollow despite the so called spooky forest or the grim horseback chase. You have to realize that the story was not meant to be “SCARY” or “FRIGHTENING”, its simple: No one dies. Nobody even gets hurt. Cranes own fate, by far the worst, is just that he scares himself into a panic, and then scoots butt outta town out of humiliation. If you don’t believe me take a look at one of the story’s more fearsome passages: It was the very witching time of night…. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead of hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from his faithful companion of man…. All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover,approaching the very where many of the scenes of ghost stories had been laid. In the center of the road stood an enormous tulip- tree, which toward like a giant above all other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air.It was connected with the tragical story of the unfortunate Andre, who had been taken prisoner hard by; and was universally known by the name of Major Andre’s tree…. As Ichabod…. approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree has been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan- his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze… (20) This so called terror is all in cranes head. Ichabod Crane is frightening himself with the thoughts of “ghost and goblins,” and he's setting himself up for Brom Bones Headless Horseman Prank. If anything Irving is trying to teach us something about gullibility and being too easily frightened by tales, rather than playing along with the game. Again in contrast to Irving, Poe is dark and morbid; he deliberately keeps the reader uncertain of what is really happening until the dreadful climax and the flight of the narrator “ from that chamber, and from that mansion” (1521). The Fall of the House of Usher is a Gothic Horror Story meant to deeply scare the reader, to leave us with a sense of having narrowly escaped some dreadful doom - as the narrator has. Irving is trying to entertain, to make us laugh, and; Poe is blatantly trying to terrify. When Irving's main character is scared, we're meant to laugh, or perhaps to feel a kind of pity for the man. When Poe's main character is scared, we're meant to take our cue from him and get scared ourselves. Why does Irving need his setting? For the sake of the satire, he needed a place where the ending could be ambiguous, and therefore a place where people might believe in ghosts or might not. He needed the townspeople (except Brom Bones) to be unsure themselves. Like Irving, Poe needs a setting that will draw the main character to thoughts of the otherworldly; unlike Irving, his main character (the narrator) begins as a skeptic: “What was it - I paused to think - what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? ...I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.... ...[T]here grew in my mind a strange fancy - a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung ... a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued. Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building... “(1509-10) Ichabod Crane could have used a healthy serving of this man's skepticism; in the real world it might have done some good. A family curse manifesting as a mystic vapour? craziness. sadly for our narrator, he is not in the real world - he is in a Gothic fantasy, and here his skepticism will come very close to getting him killed, as he ignores one otherworldly hint after another: I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavoured to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room - of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. (1518) The sad thing is, he's still trying to deny that anything strange is going on right through the unearthly storm - "'These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon - or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement; - the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame....'" (1519) - almost until the very moment that Lady Madeline bursts into the room and bears her brother down to his self-fulfilled prediction of death by fear. He struggles against the atmosphere's power to terrify for as long as he can, but in the end the fear overcame him and he runs away- and this is what saves his life. In Irving's story, it is Crane's credulousness that proves his downfall; in Poe's, the narrator is almost lost because he refuses to believe. In his stubborn skepticism, one could easily imagine him sinking to his death in the black tarn along with the shattered House. I believe that unlike Irving, Poe is not trying to make any point about how someone should act; perhaps the moral of Sleepy Hollow is "Don't believe everything you read", but it would be crazy to suggest that the moral of House of Usher is "Don't bury your relatives before they're dead". If Poe is making a point at all, it may be that the attempt to rationalize fear will not conquer it, and will certainly not conquer whatever it is one fears.

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