The reader need not invest too much time in Washington Irving’s short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” to develop a sense of the setting in which the story takes place. Irving, in fact, begins “The Devil and Tom Walker” with a rather detailed description of the setting in which his protagonist, the titular figure of Tom Walker, first encounters “Old Scratch,” the dark-skinned and exceedingly gruff individual who will be revealed as the embodiment of Satan:
A few miles from Boston, in Massachusetts, there is a deep inlet winding several miles into the interior of the country from Charles Bay, and terminating in a thickly wooded swamp or morass. On one side of this inlet is a beautiful dark grove; on the opposite side the land rises abruptly from the water's edge into a high ridge, on which grow a few scattered oaks of great age and immense size.
The year is 1727. The setting is rural Massachusetts, a heavily wooded area surrounding a swamp. Irving’s protracted description emphasizes the foreboding nature of the environment in which Tom will make his fateful encounter—an encounter the ramifications of which he can only barely comprehend. Note in the following passage the author’s use of haunting imagery to emphasize the nature of the tale that will follow:
The swamp was thickly grown with great, gloomy pines and hemlocks, some of them ninety feet high, which made it dark at noonday and a retreat for all the owls of the neighborhood. It was full of pits and quagmires, partly covered with weeds and mosses, where the green surface often betrayed the traveler into a gulf of black, smothering mud; there were also dark and stagnant pools, the abodes of the tadpole, the bull-frog, and the water-snake, where the trunks of pines and hemlocks lay half-drowned, half-rotting, looking like alligators sleeping in the mire.
Irving employed images intended to invoke nightmarish scenarios. Phrases like “gloomy pines and hemlocks,” “full of pits and quagmires,” “gulf of black,” and “dark and stagnant pools” all suggest a gothic and frightening atmosphere. For a story about an ignorant, poor, “meager and miserly” man with an ill-tempered and domineering wife who encounters and makes a deal with the Devil, Irving’s choice of a setting was entirely appropriate.
Less evocative of such a scenario, but consistent with the story’s theme, is the second main setting in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Having shook hands with the Devil, Tom is transported to urban environs of Boston, where he occupies a position of responsibility while seated at a desk. Tom had sold his soul for short-term financial success and was occupying entirely different housing, at least until the long-anticipated bill came due. In the meantime, he is something of a responsible if avaricious citizen of the city, a church-going member of the community.
Irving switches settings consistent with the change in fortunes of his protagonist. This is New England in the years soon following the infamous witch trials of Salem. Puritanism is intermingled with sin. Irving describes the setting at the conclusion of his, and Tom’s story as follows:
The good people of Boston shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, but had been so much accustomed to witches and goblins, and tricks of the devil, in all kinds of shapes, from the first settlement of the colony, that they were not so much horror-struck as might have been expected.
The story concludes where it began, in the woods occupied by Old Scratch. All vestiges of Tom Walker’s existence, and successes, have been destroyed.