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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Who or what is the antagonist in the story "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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It could be argued that there are three forces of antagonism that work against Tom Walker. The first, and perhaps most profound, is his own inner nature. Tom Walker is a greedy and hard-hearted man. His desire for personal material gain outlasts his caring for his wife, his dedication to his community, his care for his personal reputation, and even his willingness to care for his horses.

Although her appearance in the story is brief, Tom Walker's wife is an antagonist. She is not at all unlike her husband in her desire to keep all material gains for herself. Like Tom, she is even willing to barter her immortal soul for temporary, earthly gain.

And lastly, the devil, who first appears to Tom Walker as a woodsman he recognizes as Old Scratch, is Tom's final antagonist. He takes advantage of Tom Walker's greed and collects Tom's soul for himself.

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Usually if the incarnation of the devil is a character in a story, it can be assumed that he is the antagonist. An antagonist is a character in opposition to the main character or protagonist. Even though Tom Walker's character merits no sympathy, he is the protagonist in Irving's tale, and the devil, here named the "black woodsman" or "old scratch," is set up in conflict with Tom. When they first meet in the swamp, the devil talks about his hatred of the whites who have settled the area around his swamp. He has even labeled some of the trees with the names of rich men in the area. Eventually Tom strikes a deal with "old scratch" and becomes a very wealthy man. The reader may assume that one of those trees came to be marked with Tom's name as well. In the end of the story, despite attempting to fend off the devil with religion, Tom is eventually taken away by a "black man" on a "black horse" to the swamp, which is then set ablaze.

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