Comparison of the supernatural elements in Washington Irving's short stories

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

14 Pages, Grade: 1.3 (A)


table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Washington irving as a romatic writer

3. Washington irving and the american situation between 1789 and 1825

4. definition of “the Supernatural” and its role in romantic literature

5. the supernatural element in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

6. Comparison of the supernatural elements with “Rip van Winkle”

7. summary and conclusion

8. works cited

1. Introduction

Supernatural elements as a part of literature and art are nowadays very popular. There are different authors like Wolfgang Hohlbein taking up this topic in German literature as well. The short stories “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” which were published in 1820, experienced their renaissance in cinema over the past few years. In 1999 the American director Tim Burton, known for his interest in fantastic stories, used “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a model for his movie simply called Sleepy Hollow.

For this term paper it is necessary to take a look at Washington Irving as a romantic writer to understand his works in a wider context. Irving combined European and American aspects of romanticism. The political situation of the U.S.A. around 1800 is also important, because in his works Irving refers to it again and again. He tried to resolve the American identity crisis through his fiction. Furthermore I would like to examine closely what is supernatural about the stories mentioned and I will compare the supernatural elements of the stories. I would like to find out, if there is any difference in Washington Irving’s use of the supernatural elements and in which way these possible differences influence the plots of the stories. Before that is possible, at first the phenomenon of “The Supernatural” has to be defined and the differences between similar phenomena like “The Fantastic” and “The Miraculous” have to be pointed out carefully. Chapter four serves this purpose. The knowledge about “The Supernatural” can then be transferred on the analysis and the comparison in chapters five and six.

2. Washington Irving as a romantic writer

The exact period of Romanticism cannot be defined exactly. Some literary scientists say it started around 1795 and ended around 1840, but there are different authors having slightly other opinions. At the end of the 18th century a change of mentality took place. The ideas of the Enlightenment were questioned. The overall aim of Romanticism was the absolute unity and harmony of all things. Feeling and not reason was the most important characteristic. The world was in a poetic mood so to speak. People tended to mysticism in order to flee from reality. In the beginning of romanticism the industrialisation made its first steps as well. Man was seen simply in the context of his working power. Self-realisation was an important process and it could only take place outside society. So poets were seen as outsiders who tried to explain life to the people. Folk tales and fantastic stories were central elements of the romantic period.

Washington Irving was an author who wrote both. He is regarded as one of the earliest and strongest voices of romanticism in America. But his close connection to English and Continental romanticism is often overlooked. Irving made romantic elements like the Caatskill mountains and the Hudson River very popular. His topographical descriptions of both old and new world settings were greatly admired by popular readers and his felicitous style appealed to sophisticated readers not ordinarily attracted to the sentimental and the sensational. Irving’s primary purpose of writing The Sketch Book was not a defense of his native land nor an appreciation of Britain, his motive was simply to earn money. Nevertheless his engaging descriptions of the Hudson River valley provided a pleasant picture of the United States. The aura of romance which Irving threw over his American subjects tempered the harsh negative expressions which most English readers had acquired from their biased countrymen.

His treatment of the American scene in The Sketch Book, then, blended the real and the ideal, suffused the detail with an air of mystery and feeling, and conveyed his impressions in a gracious style which even the most discriminating British reader could not object. (ADERMAN, 16)

The persona of Geoffrey Crayon marked a transition to a prose style that could be called romantic like no other. The sentimental and detached stance towards his material has been described as the viewpoint of an “alienated observer” (HEDGES, 128-163). The particular, and indeed private or personal, way in which language operates in The Sketch Book reinforces the romantic quality of the text. Especially in The Sketch Book Irving combined romantic settings from Europe and America. Although Irving was claimed by the English as one of their own, and though he wrote as good as any Englishman, his style was that of an American. His prose sustained him in a way that would become characteristic of the American romantic writers.

3. Washington Irving and the American situation between 1789 and 1825

The year 1789 was an important year in American history. In that year the first president was elected and the ratification of the Constitution took place. Nevertheless the nation was in an identity crisis. The American citizens were not sure about their own future. The separation from the Old World, i.e. Europe had not fully taken place. RUBIN-DORSKY says: “Americans immersed themselves in an idealized Old World, vicariously enjoying the forbidden fruits of the past” (68) . The American nation had not found their own identity, they orientated themselves towards Europe. They saw the Old World as an object of aspiration and this manifested a deep anxiety about their own culture. The extraordinary economic growth and territorial expansion in the 1820s brought with it an increase of power and prestige. When “Rip van Winkle” was first published in 1819 it captured the American imagination. Irving takes up the American situation when he speaks of the village Rip lives in. “The very village was altered; it was larger and more populous. There were rows of houses which he had never seen before, and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared” (65) . Rip’s village is a reflection of an advancing America. He views it with horror, because everything has grown and he cannot recognize it. The nation’s anxiety is reflected in Rip: … every thing’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name or who I am!” (70). When Rip climbs up the Kaatskill mountains he looks to the West and to the East and what he sees is typical for America at that time. In the East he sees the world he knows, represented by the Hudson River and the rich wooded countryside. In the West he perceives the unknown wilderness, frightening and dark. Not only Rip but also Washington Irving is stuck between these two worlds:

As an American writer in 1820, Irving was not capable of fully resolving his (or America’s) crisis of identity through fiction, since his creations could not provide the sustenance that he sought from the principle of continuity operative in the world. (RUBIN-DORSKY, 122).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Comparison of the supernatural elements in Washington Irving's short stories
Bielefeld University  (Faculty for Literature Science and Linguistics)
Seminar: American Literature and Culture, 1800-1865
1.3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
417 KB
Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkle, Washington Irving, supernatural, miraculuos, fantastic
Quote paper
Daniel Nienaber (Author), 2002, Comparison of the supernatural elements in Washington Irving's short stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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