In Washington Irving's short story The Devil and Tom Walker, Tom meets the devil or Old Scratch on his way through the swamp. How has his appearance been foreshadowed through the description of the...
In Washington Irving's short story The Devil and Tom Walker, Tom meets the devil or Old Scratch on his way through the swamp. How has his appearance been foreshadowed through the description of the swamp and the shortcut Tom took?
That Tom Walker will encounter Satan during his trek through the woods is preordained as far as readers of Washington Irving's short story are concerned. Indeed, the title of the story is pretty much a dead giveaway: The Devil and Tom Walker. We know that the protagonist will encounter the devil. Irving, however, establishes mood and builds tension through his depiction of the setting in which he story takes place, specifically, the woods through which Tom hikes. Irving first establishes that the forest is particularly bleak, having Tom detour through a "short cut" involving a swamp "thickly grown with great gloomy pines and hemlocks . . . which made it dark at noonday, and a retreat for all the owls of the neighborhood." Hemlock, of course, is a poisonous plant synonymous with Gothic settings in which murder will occur at some point in a story. Its choice by Irving was likely intentional for this purpose.
Irving does not stop at his depiction of a particularly dark and unpleasant section of forest in which to place his protagonist. He goes further:
"It had been one of the strong holds of the Indians during their wars with the first colonists. . . Any one but he would have felt unwilling to linger in this lonely melancholy place, for the common people had a bad opinion of it from the stories handed down from the time of the Indian wars; when it was asserted that the savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the evil spirit."
The reader now knows that, not only is this section of the forest particularly bleak, but it was also the scene of a massacre of a some sort involving the indigenous population that is now associated with sorcery and witchcraft. Irving continues to build upon this motif, having Tom take note of the sights and sounds that now surround him, including the the "boding cry of the tree toad" and the black mold comprising the soil beneath his feet. Then, finally, the author has Tom discover the skull with an Indian tomahawk "buried deep in it" lying just beneath of the surface of the muddy soil on which he has been standing.
The devil's appearance may constitute a tactical surprise for the story's protagonist, and for the reader, but the author has led us right to this point through his portrait of a dismal setting associated with horror and evil.