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'The Fall of the House of Usher', 'Rip van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' in relation to Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the fantastic

An analysis

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2009 13 Seiten

Anglistik - Komparatistik



1. The rise of the supernatural tale in American Romanticism

2. The literary genres of the fantastic, the uncanny and the marvelous: A definition
2.1. The fantastic
2.2. The uncanny and the marvelous

3. Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as fantastic tales?
3.1. Rip van Winkle
3.2. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

4. The Fall of the House of Usher as a tale of the uncanny?

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited
6.1. Primary Works
6.2. Secondary Works

1. rise of the supernatural tale in American Romanticism

The period of American Romanticism in the years between 1835 and 1865 is usually associated with the emancipation of America from colonial status. As a colony of Britain, America developed a culture based on religious and traditional believes that had been transferred from the former. Even after America declared its independence in 1776 did the cultural dependence on Britain persist. Only after the Anglo-American war of 1812 to 1814 did the Americans start to develop a national feeling, which was accompanied by the wish for a specifically American culture. This then was the impulse for Americans to declare their cultural independence.

American Romanticism, which is also referred to as the American Renaissance, a term coined by F.O. Matthiessen in 1941, is generally seen as the first great height of American literature[1] (Zapf 85). The works of romantic writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe were considered the first American masterpieces to reach world literature level (Zapf 85). At the same time, however, they clearly marked the fist maturing of American writings. They also showed that Americans wanted to break with the old European traditions in order to build a distinctively American culture and history and to breach the excessive European influence that had paralyzed the creative potential of the New World for so long (Zapf 85). An extract from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar best describes this notion:

Perhaps the time is already come… when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectations of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around as are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the polestar for a thousand years?[2]

Common themes of American Romanticism America were sentimentalism, primitivism and the cult of the noble savage, political liberalism, the celebration of natural beauty and the simple life, idealization of the common man and an interest in the picturesque past.[3] Additionally, an interest in the supernatural or in “the crepuscular heart of mystery” (Hart 725) was a widespread topic used by romantic authors. The latter used the supernatural to deal with the disorienting situation of 19th century American culture, which was not only pressured by the frontier experience but also by an unease concerning the experiment of democracy, the virtual nonexistence of a developed American society and racial issues especially relating to slavery and the Native Americans. Additionally, the occupation with the supernatural showed the American romanticists’ concern with the “culture’s occupation with death in an increasingly secular, individualistic, and scientific age”.[4]

Two romantic authors that tried their hand as supernatural tales are Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. In their supernatural tales ghosts, ghouls, vampires and other mysterious beings as well as inexplicable phenomena make their appearance. Some of these appearances can be rationally explained; others are clearly of supernatural origin. The reader[5] of supernatural tales usually chooses one or the other explanation. However, sometimes the reader hesitates between the two. Stories, in which the latter is the case, are according to Tzvetan Todorov’s definition situated in the fantastic.

In my opinion Washington Irving’s tales Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher belong to different literary genres even though they both constitute supernatural stories. The former belong to the fantastic, while the latter does not. This hypothesis will either be proven wrong or right in the course of this paper. To do so, I will first focus on the definition of the fantastic, which is, as mentioned above, given by Tzvetan Todorov in his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. In a second step I will apply Todorov’s definition to Irving’s and Poe’s tales.

2. The literary genres of the fantastic, the uncanny and the marvelous: A definition

2.1. The fantastic

The fantastic is a completely new literary genre that originated in France at the end of the 18th century.[6] Most critics consider the second edition of Jacques Cazotte’s tale Le Diable amoreux from 1776 as the first fantastic tale (Steigerwald 329). Tzvetan Todorov agrees in that matter. He uses Cazotte’s tale to exemplify what he understands to be at the “very heart of the fantastic”[7]. While travelling, the main character of Le Diable amoreux, Don Alvaro de Maravilla, meets a beautiful young woman by the name of Biondetta and falls in love with her. Biondetta returns his love and explains to Alvaro that she is actually a powerful sylph who has just taken human shape because of her love for him. The couple decides to return to Spain, where Alvaro wants Biondetta to meet his mother. However, before the meeting, Biondetta and Alvaro spent a night of passion together after which Biondetta disappears. At the end Alvaro returns home to his mother. He is no longer sure if his experiences with Biondetta or even Biondetta herself were real or merely dreams or illusions. The same holds for the reader. He is just as unsure about which interpretation to choose as the character in the story.


[1] Zapf, Hubert. „Romantik und >American Renaissance<“ Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2004. 85.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Addresses and Lectures. (1883 Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2001), 83-84.

[3] Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. (1941 New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 725.

[4] Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley and Charles L. Crow, The Haunted Dusk. American Supernatural Fiction 1820-1920, ed. Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley and Charles L. Crow (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983), 3.

[5] With ‘reader’ I do not mean the actual reader but the reader implied in the story. The term reader is used synonymously for the implied reader throughout the paper.

[6] Jörn Steigerwald, „The fairy-tale, the fantastic tale“, in Romantic Prose Fiction, ed. Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel and Bernard Dieterle (Amsterdam: Hohn Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008), 325.

[7] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973), 25.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
436 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
fantastic Tzvetan Todorov Rip van Winkle Sleepy Hollow The Fall of the House of Usher Edgar Allan Poe Washington Irving



Titel: 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 'Rip van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' in relation to Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the fantastic