The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Irving and The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne

Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne as a Result in Romanticism

American literature of the 19th century is full of romantics and optimism. The period between the English war and the Civil war was known for its extravagant youth who found inspiration in Romanticism and neglected realism of the past. As a result, American writers of the period presented life and history differently from the writers of the past and tried desperately to create something new. Washington Irving participated in the creation of the American myth as the writer felt the need to formulate own traditions and legends of the growing American culture. Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” became not only a fundamental folktale, but an inevitable part of the American heritage. The leitmotiv of the story is the belief that “all human beings are supposed to be inherently good” (Dincer 221) despite appearing bad. Another outstanding work of Romanticism, “The Scarlet Letter”, reflects Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comparatively pessimistic point of view on the life of his Puritan ancestors. Despite the fact that The Scarlet Letter and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are thematically different in general, they both, however, communicate the themes of hypocrisy, superstition and supernatural.

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In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne touches upon the themes of sin, revenge and mercy. The writer illustrates a society in which the inhabitants live according to strict moral principles, and punish and isolate those who live a sinful life. In Puritan society, everything that can bring pleasure was considered to be a sin, while only suffering was viewed as something noble. The sin of Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale recalls with the sin of first man and woman since it brought them suffering and alienation. At the same time, both of them begin to understand the world around them; they start noticing the flaws and hypocrisy of the system. At the same time, the Puritans have a strange feeling of mercy to the sinners. To Puritans, a sin has to be punished harshly and in public. They hate sin, however, these people ought to love a sinner due to their religion. When Hester’s husband asks someone in the crowd about his wife’s crime, the stranger replies that Massachusetts magistracy softened her sentence from death penalty. They did so because “this woman is youthful and fair, and doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall,” and therefore, “in their great mercy and tenderness of heart they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory” (Hawthorne 95). However, the community wants Prynne to feel guilt for the rest of her life and even longer with a letter A on her tombstone. Thus, the paradox arises when even Hester’s husband considers it to be right for her to become “a living sermon against sin” (Hawthorne 95), while Christianity requires people to forgive the sinners. On the contrary, he changes his name, loses the remains of humanity within him and spends seven years obsessed with making Dimmesdale confess his sin. In fact, Hester’s sin of passion cannot be compared to the sin of her husband – the betrayal of Dimmesdale, plotting to destroy him and his actual death as it is a conscious cold-blooded murder. Thus, the writer points out the speculations of the Puritans regarding the meanings of sin, compassion and forgiveness as well as their hypocrisy.

The theme of justice is another crucial theme of Hawthorne’s novel. The writer questions the right of an individual to judge anyone else through “self-constituted judges” (Hawthorne 79) at the market place, being it wives, mothers and wives just like Hester. The “goodwives” (Hawthorne 77) discuss what they would do if they were given a right to make decision on public punishments. One of the women states that magistrates are “merciful overmuch” and “at the very least … should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead” (Hawthorne 78). The other one, however, offers more radical solution, “this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it?” (Hawthorne 79). Is there a human being who has never made mistakes or had no sins? Any of these judges could be on Hester’s place due to incapability to fit in offensively strict norms and rules. Thus, the author illustrates not only the absurdity of the fact that community judges one for his or her personal life, but the ridiculousness of the whole situation most explicitly, since instead of being solidary or caring of each other, women only contribute to domination of patriarchy.

Similarly to Hawthorne, Irving touches upon the theme of hypocrisy, as well as the themes of selfishness and greed. Most of the characters of the short story are selfish and greedy. Ichabod considers Katrina to be charming not only because she is beautiful, but because she is rich. He pragmatically decides that he must get her with all her father’s animals, a big farmhouse and vast farmland while not caring about her heart. At the same time, Ichabod imagines his life with Katrina, however, he views her as an incubator for his children rather than an equal partner in marriage. Thus, the writer makes Ichabod’s greed look absurd. In her turn, Katrina uses Ichabod to achieve her purposes of securing her other suitor’s affection. Thus, Brom-Katrina-Ichabod love triangle is hypocrisy. However, the lies of other characters reflect their carelessness when Ichabod disappears. Previously caring, townspeople have shown their true attitude to the man, and the narrator notes that “as he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him” (Irving 38). Thus, Sleepy Hollow is a collection of selfish hypocrites whose insincerity Irving mocks throughout his short story.


Both “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and The Scarlet Letter communicate the themes of supernatural and superstition. The collective mind has made the Sleepy Hollow a time capsule in which nothing changes from day to day, and the Horseman comes always at the same time. Irving draws a stark contrast between the realistic setting of the town and the superstitions and supernatural happenings the townspeople relate to it. Thus, he argues that ghost stories take place only in the presence of people. For instance, the main character of the short story is extremely superstitious. Ichabod’s belief in every legend or a ghost story he hears causes him to see the supernatural. However, Irving does not view this capacity of Ichabod’s mind as something bad; on the contrary, he celebrates the power of imagination and “is intrigued by the involuntariness with which stories come to the mind, and by the degree to which they suggest outside correspondence and cause” (Richardson 58). Similar to Irving, Hawthorne’s attitude to supernatural is quite skeptical. The appearance of scarlet “A” on Dimmesdale’s chest, the Black Man in the forest and the meteor falling in the shape of a letter “A” seem supernatural, however, the author leaves a little room for doubts. He notes the meteor was “with no such shape as his (Dimmesdale’s) guilty imagination gave it, or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it” (Hawthorne 234). Thus, similarly to Irving, Hawthorne states that supernatural is only a result of imagination and superstition, however, the belief in it brings romantic moments to people’s lives.

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In spite of the fact that The Scarlet Letter and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are thematically different, they both share themes such as the ones of hypocrisy, superstition and supernatural. Irving communicates the theme of hypocrisy with mockery and humor, while Hawthorne presents it more dramatically. Both authors rebel against the objectivity of rationalism and add elements of supernatural in order to cross the boundaries of daily life.

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