Washington Irving, considered the father and creator of the American short story, writes symbolically of American society through his characters and themes. He is credited with bringing short stories into the Dark Romantic movement. Irving uses elements of Dark Romantic writing to point out the flaws of humanity in most of his early works, particularly in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Devil and Tom Walker”. These works display immoral traits to show dark sides of characters, a trope of the Dark Romanticism movement. They focus on the evil aspects of everyday life and people, in addition to highlighting the flaws of society. Irving was one of the only Dark Romantic authors who used stories to expose societal flaws so that they might be fixed. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the motifs of greed and loveless marriage feature prominently within the mode satire of satire,
The motif of greed presents itself in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” specifically in Ichabod Crane’s yearning for Katrina Van Tassel. Crane desires to be with her not because of true love or fate, but purely because of his greed and her fortune. “Ichabod Crane had a soft and foolish heart towards the sex; and it is not to be wondered at, that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes; especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion” (7). Crane was not drawn to her romantically until he visited her and saw what she possessed. After seeing the size and beauty of Katrina’s home, Crane assumes that she comes from a wealthy family. He envisions this kind of life for himself. “As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this . . . his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains” (Bily 150). Crane’s selfish desire for wealth becomes his obsession for Katrina. In Irving’s eyes, greed is a characteristic that is morally wrong, and the act of marrying someone only for their wealth or social status is evil. He uses Crane’s character to symbolize greedy Americans, placing him within the Dark Romantic movement.
Irving also uses greed to portray the faults found in the characters in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Tom Walker, the gluttonous and selfish husband will do anything to save himself. When the devil, also known as Old Scratch, approaches Tom with a proposition that would increase Tom’s wealth, he initially declines: “If she got the money he would try to get a share of it, and if the devil took away his helpmate—well, there were things that he had made his mind to endure, when he had to… showing that he wanted to save soul and money both… was not a man to stick at trifles when money was in view” (1; 1). When the devil first makes the offer to Tom, he declines it because he would have to share his profits with his wife. He cares more about his own wealth and life than that of his wife. This evil desire eventually leads to her gruesome murder. When the devil takes away Tom’s wife, Tom is not upset but instead rather excited that he has acquired money from the deal. He realizes that with his wife not around, he no longer has to share the profits. James Lynch, a writer with the New York Folklore Quarterly explains: “Greed is one of the most important [motifs] of “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Tom is approached by Old Scratch and offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams” (Lynch 58). Furthermore, Irving chooses to use this greed and lack of sadness at losing his wife to negatively portray the couple’s greed-filled relationship. Not only does greed cause harmful and appalling things to happen, but it proves that it can destroy relationships. Greed, a negative characteristic of life, directly contributes to the Dark Romantic qualities that Irving shows through the story. Irving uses the story and the motif of greed to show the faults and evil things that come as a result of greed, therefore relating it to the concept of Dark Romanticism.
Irving also relates greed to the Dark Romantic movement by his use of the motif of loveless marriage. This motif is present in many of his stories because he uses it to depict Americans and the shortcomings of their marriages. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving uses the relationship between Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel to show the evil side of a marriage without true love. Their relationship is not one of love, but rather one of material wants and selfish reasons. “Ichabod Crane had a soft and foolish heart towards the sex; and it is not to be wondered at, that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes; more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion” (21). Crane did not marry Katrina because of his abundant love that he has for her, but instead because she is a very wealthy person who comes from a very privileged family. Also, Katrina never mentions how much she loves Ichabod. This shows the lack of love between them. “Ichabod is quickly taken in by her flirtatious charms, but it is when he first visits her father’s abundant farm that he considers himself truly in love with her, or at least her likely inheritance” (Nelson 151). Once again, it is shown that Crane could not care less about love for Katrina. He only cares for what she has; it is not true love, there is no love within the relationship. Irving uses this motif to highlight the flaws in marriages between Americans. Essentially, Irving uses this as a symbol to help to point out how morally wrong a loveless marriage is so that it can be changed. He does this to help highlight the flawed marriages of Americans.
The same motif is used to show how deceitful the marriage is in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Irving uses the relationship between Tom Walker and his wife to show how a lack of true love in a relationship will ultimately destroy the marriage. The marriage comes to an end after the apparent passing of Tom’s wife. “Tom was a hard-minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil” (1). Tom Walker has no love for his wife of many years. In their marriage, love is a low priority. Love is not the true reason of their relationship. Their marriage is one of dishonesty, greed, and selfishness. As found in Irving’s other stories, characters connected to each other within marriage have no compassion for the other person, ultimately showing the lack of love in the marriage. “Irving criticized marriage by showing how Tom Walker was perfectly fine after his wife was apparently dead; he had no remorse or sadness towards her passing” (Plummer 209). When the death of a spouse or loved one occurs in a loving relationship, the other person is devastated. After the passing of his wife, Tom does not mourn over her death. Irving uses a loveless marriage to show how this kind of relationship is detrimental for society. This has a direct correlation to American society when marriage is not based on love. When people are involved in a loveless marriage, the relationship will erode the marriage vow and lower society’s views and expectations of marriage.
Irving incorporates satire into his works in order to depict the flaws of Americans and how we live. He uses satire and ridicule to essentially make a mockery of Americans and what they do. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving uses humor to show the negative effects of the relationships in the story and how awful they can become. Through satire he expresses his beliefs on the flaws of many aspects of American life. In the story, Ichabod Crane is so obsessed with Katrina that whatever she does, he likes: “…soft anticipation stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel” (3). Irving’s use of satire and humor points out the thin line in human society between fiction and non-fiction. Crane is so fixated on Katrina Van Tassel that all he can do is watch her and be preoccupied with her and everything she does. Irving does this in order to convey to people that not everything is true and good. This is an important message that Irving passes along to people through the story. “This is a story about storytelling and the limits of the imagination, and Irving carefully constructs his satire to focus on the dangers of believing in stories too much and the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. He does this through Ichabod Crane, who is presented as a man who does not understand the limits of imagination. He is obsessed by his dreams of marrying Katrina Van Tassel” (Bily 152). Crane does not have limits to his imagination or on what is real and what is not. He dreams about marrying Katrina and that he will do whatever to make that possible. In the story, there is no mention of Katrina’s will to marry him. This is directly displaying Irving’s satire in relation to a common event found in American society and life. Many times, people have fantasies about marrying others and what they would do in order to do so, but they often do not come true. Irving is conveying this message in his story to show the effects of that belief. Irving’s point of using satire is to blur what is reality and what is not, which can ultimately leave us exposed, just as Crane was in the story. Irving uses satire while showing what the effects of believing untrue things are. People are hurt when they do this, ultimately showing how satire can be an element of Dark Romantic writing.
Satire is a Dark Romantic element that is also found in “The Devil and Tom Walker,” and marriage is the subject most satirized. Irving uses the marriage between Tom and his wife to show how terrible relationships can be and the effects they can have on other people. In the story, people see their relationship and immediately are thankful that they are not married: “the lonely wayfarer shrunk within himself at the horrid clamour and clapper clawing; eyed the den of discord askance, and hurried on his way, rejoicing, if a bachelor, in his celibacy” (1). Irving uses this satire as a mockery of American marriage and what people think of it when it does not work out. When people see a fight within a relationship, they understand how awful the relationship truly is and how they are thankful that they are not in such an appalling relationship. Another thing that is satirized in the story is when Tom turns to religion for a new start and then he becomes an arrogant man who is critical of everyone. Irving does this to show the irony of the situation of turning to faith and what is right and then doing the wrong things as a result. “In addition, Irving satirizes the way Tom turns to religion and became extremely critical of his neighbors, despite the fact that his own soul was damned…Irving manages to satirize several element of his own society while telling the kind of story many people were already familiar with” (Piedmont-Marton 212). Irving uses satire as a humorous element of writing in order to show flaws and the problems in American society.
Overall, Irving, as a Dark Romantic author, focuses on the negative side of humanity by incorporating flawed characteristics in his characters in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Irving uses greed to display the effect it has on everyday life and how it can hurt people and relationships in both stories. The motif of greed helps to position Irving as a Dark Romantic author because it shows the evil side of humanity and life. The motif of loveless marriage shows the harmful relationships in which his characters are involved. The motif shows how Irving uses faulty and harmful marriages in order to help correct those found in American society. Additionally, he uses satire to show how believing in things that are not real can ultimately hurt people.
Abel, Darrel. “The Rise of a National Literature,” American Literature: Colonial and Early National Writing. New York: Barron’s Educational Studies, 1963.
Bily, Cynthia, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802- 1832, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
Irving, Washington. The Devil and Tom Walker. Worcester (Massachusetts): Putnam, Davis and, 1896. Print.
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York: of Wonder, 1990. Print.
Lynch, James. “The Devil in the Writings of Irving, Hawthorne and Poe,” in the New York Folklore Quarterly, Volume VIII, 1952.
Nelson, Michael, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Piedmont-Marton, Elisabeth, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Plummer, Laura, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
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