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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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," how does the setting influence the story?

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The most significant ways in which the setting affects the story is by contributing to the mood, and by increasing tension.

The setting which receives the greatest amount of detail is the swamp, and the old Indian fort found there, where Scratch resides. This detail, which is mostly concerned with...

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communicating the dark, decaying, foreboding and haunted nature of the place, contributes to marking it as an evil place, one where we should expect a normal person to avoid. The fact that Tom seems perfectly alright with it tells us that he is either brave or foolish, although once we learn more about him it just seems that he's a bad person himself and we can comfortably judge his metaphorical book by its cover.

The swamp is also difficult to access, which has not only kept the treasure safely out of anyone's hands for many years, but it also makes it difficult for Tom to find Scratch when he wants to; this increases the tension by making it slightly unclear for us, and especially unclear for Tom, whether he will actually have a chance to go through with the bargain. This is intended, however, because Scratch means to build Tom's anticipation to the point that he's willing to agree to any terms.

There isn't much devoted to other settings in the story, other than the ending, where the approaching thunderstorm and the way Tom is "returned" to the swamp and the Indian fort, suggesting that the storm was a direct manifestation of the Devil's power.

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," how does the physical setting of the story reflect the moral decay of the characters and the whole society presented in this story?

While the setting definitely contributes to a theme of decay and a foreboding mood, I don't think that the entire society presented in this story can be thrown under the same wagon as Tom and his wife. While there are surely some general and specific crimes or instances of poor morality mentioned, Tom and his wife are not representative of society as a whole, and this story still serves as a fable or moral cautionary rather than an apocalyptic social commentary. 

The most distinct elements of setting that contribute to this theme are the swamp with the ruined Indian fort, and Tom's dilapidated house. The swamp has several images that directly and indirectly convey a theme of rot and decay, and Tom's home does the same for sterility. The trees that represent people, particularly the one for Deacon Peabody, are probably the most direct link to the idea of the setting depicting moral decay, as the deacon's tree is rotten on the inside, metaphorically depicting the same rottenness inside the deacon.

This is also the only point where we can make a direct connection to the broader society; Tom sees many trees, all of them marked with prominent names, and all of them scored with the Devil's axe, as if each chop is a strike against their character. However, the exact meaning of the axe scores is not given, and it is unclear if these represent some specific act of immorality, or if the amount is any more or less than might be expected. This also does not represent decay in as clear a manner as the literal rotting of the Deacon's tree. 

So, there is probably not a theme of pandemic immorality in this society, but rather that the Devil is like a woodsman; carefully selecting his targets and nurturing them to his own ends. The average person does not seem to be very corrupted, nor particularly interesting to the Devil.

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How does the physical setting of "The Devil and Tom Walker" reflect the moral decay of the characters and, indeed, of the society presented in the story?

There are a variety of physical locations that are described in "The Devil and Tom Walker", and the entire story does not take place in any one of them (unless we consider the entire Massachusetts country side to be representative of moral decay...probably not a good thesis). However, there are two particularly significant physical settings that are described in detail, and which suggest moral decay; the Walker homestead, and the swamp.

The homestead is described as a fairly miserable place, not only in its appearance, but in its reputation among the neighbors and its general tone ("The house and its inmates had altogether a bad name."), due to the constant arguments and fighting between Tom and his wife. Physically, the house is described as forlorn, surrounded by sickly trees ("emblems of sterility"), surrounded by unproductive fields, and likened to being a prison. This moral decay is largely limited to the Walkers themselves; if we consider morals to be a matter of "doing what is right", then the Walkers literally live in wrong-ness; there is no moral gray area here, and their book truly can be judged by its cover.

The swamp represents a "descent into darkness" in Tom's character, but is also emblematic of social decay, moreso than the Walker home. As Tom enters the swamp, it is described as;

-an ill-chosen route. 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 traveller into a gulf of black, smothering mud...

and so forth, complete with lurking alligators. The swamp is every stereotype ever conceived of about a swamp, and Tom's passage through it (particularly his choice to remain on this path) is representative of his moral decay. The aspect which pertains to social decay is largely found in the trees which the devil is chopping;

Tom looked in the direction that the stranger pointed, and beheld one of the great trees, fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core, and saw that it had been nearly hewn through, so that the first high wind was likely to blow it down. On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody-

Irving is being so straightforward with the symbolism here that he's practically hitting us over the head with it; the Deacon's moral decay is represented by physical decay in the form of rot. To top it off, the devil declares, of the tree representing the Deacon, "He's just ready for burning!", suggesting that the Deacon's fate is not a pleasant one.

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," how does the physical setting of the story reflect the moral decay of the characters?

You might want to respond to this question by refering to the description we are given of the residence where Tom and his stingy wife live. It is a key feature of this description that the setting parallels the kind of characters that dwell there. Consider the following description:

They lived in a forlorn-looking house that stood alone, and had an air of starvation. A few straggling savin trees, emblems of sterility, grew near to it; no smoke ever curled from its chimney; no traveler stopped at its door.

Of course, the hardship and misery evoked by this description tells us a lot about the characters of Tom and his wife, in particular focusing on their sterility and their lack of ability to produce any children, which hints at some kind of rottenness at the core of both their marriage and themselves as individuals.

The way in which the setting mirrors the characters in this story is also noted explicitly when the figure of the devil explains the way in which trees are related to characters in their various stages of moral decay. Consider the following description:

He now looked around, and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the ax.

Setting is therefore shown to be a crucial part in terms of the development of character in this excellent satire.

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