illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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Identify five details describing the setting which suggests something sinister or supernatural exists in Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker." 

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I believe that Washington Irving definitely creates an atmosphere of eeriness in "The Devil and Tom Walker." Here are some ways in which he achieves this.

Irving begins by detailing the swamp that dominates his story, and he describes it in detail: it is "thickly wooded" and features "a high ridge on which grow a few scattered oaks of great and immense size." When Walker goes into the swamp, Irving again takes pains to describe this gloomy and otherworldly setting. This extensive description is a critical tool for how Irving paints his setting, and it creates the atmosphere he is trying to convey.

In addition, there is the larger history of the swamp itself. As others have already said, even before Irving brings in Tom Walker and his family, he has already established something of the dangerous history of the swamp and its use by Captain Kidd to bury his treasure (under the watch of the Devil). However, Irving's backstory does not end there, for he also adds that shortly after burying that treasure, Kidd was actually captured at Boston and executed—an additional but noteworthy detail, in terms of the atmosphere this scene creates.

Irving adds supernatural elements with the presence of the Devil within the swamp and how he claims prior ownership to it, preceding the colonists altogether. There are also the trees, with names marked in them, each corresponding to a prominent member of the colony. Again, the description of the trees intensifies the atmosphere of eeriness and danger. Peabody's tree is described as "fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core, and. . . nearly hewn through, so that the first high wind was likely to blow it down." There was also Crowinshield's tree, recently cut down, who Walker later finds out had only recently died. The description of the trees along with the Devil's words concerning the individuals in question, all within the context of a man later being discovered to have died, create a deeply otherworldly affect, especially when they are combined together.

Finally, as one last feature, there's the method in which the Devil departs. He descends into the swamp in a scene that has a deeply supernatural flavor to it. Irving describes it as follows:

So saying, he turned off among the thickets of the swamp, and seemed, as Tom said, to go down, down, down, into the earth, until nothing but his head and shoulders could be seen, and so on until he totally disappeared.

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In the story's opening paragraph, the swamp is described as a place where the Pirate Kidd buried his ill-gotten gains; it is said that "the devil presided at the hiding of the money, and took it under his guardianship." This detail is both sinister and supernatural.

Next, the story is set during the Great Awakening, and the narrator said it was "just at the time that earthquakes were prevalent in New England, and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees." This description suggests that perhaps God, a supernatural force, was sending earthquakes to New England to shake up the sinners and send them running back to the church.

The swamp through which Tom Walker takes his shortcut is described as "dark at noonday," "full of pits and quagmires," and dotted with areas of " black, smothering mud." It is an altogether sinister atmosphere and most inhospitable to travelers.

As Tom Walker is paused in the swamp, he unearths "a cloven skull, with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it," a tangible reminder of extreme violence that has taken place in the area.

When Tom Walker is joined by the "black woodsman," he correctly surmises that the man is actually the devil, who confirms his identity as a supernatural figure when Tom asserts "you are he commonly called Old Scratch" and the devil nods in agreement.

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The language Washington Irving uses in "The Devil and Tom Walker" allows readers to infer (make a knowledgeable guess) that the setting is sinister and possesses supernatural characteristics. 

The Sinister Setting

The following textual quotes define the setting as sinister.

-thickly wooded swamp

-secretly, and at night

-winding several miles into the interior

-treacherous forest

All of the above illustrate the dangerous nature of the setting. Something which is secret, wooded, winding, and treacherous depicts a place which can be frightening and dangerous. 

The Supernatural Setting

-stories handed down from the times of the Indian wars

-cloven skull, with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it

-On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody

All of the above illustrate that the swamp contains secrets of its own. Given the stereotypes which define swamps, readers most likely see this place as one which possesses ghosts. The carving on the trees, the skull, and the stories all join together to compound the supernatural overtone. 

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