The Devil and Tom Walker | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Devil and Tom Walker | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Devil's Treasure

In the area near Boston, in the British colony of Massachusetts, Kidd the pirate buried a rich treasure. He earned the fortune through piracy and buried it for safekeeping, but he was hanged for piracy before he could ever make use of it. The devil now owns the treasure because it was earned through immoral means and the owner has perished. Years later, around 1727, a man named Tom Walker lives in the same area. He is a poor and greedy man, with a poor and greedy wife. Their lives are dominated by quarrels and misery.

Tom Meets the Devil

One day, as Tom takes a shortcut home through a gloomy swamp, he rests near the site of an old Native American fort that has been abandoned since the Indian Wars decades before. The place is rumored to have hosted evil incantations and sacrifices, but Tom is unafraid of these superstitions.

Suddenly, a soot-covered stranger appears, dressed in "rude, half-Indian garb." The stranger claims to own the land in the swamp, although Tom knows that it belongs to Duncan Peabody. The stranger shows Tom a rotting tree with Mr. Peabody's name carved into it that he plans to cut down as well as a recently cut tree with the name Crowninshield. The stranger identifies himself by a variety of names and deeds, and Tom recognizes that he is the devil, whom Tom refers to by the nickname, "Old Scratch."

The devil offers Tom a deal: in exchange for his soul, the devil will give Tom access to the treasure buried in the region by Kidd the pirate. Tom does not agree, leaving the forest thinking about the deal. As he returns home, he finds the devil's fingerprint burnt into his forehead and his wife reading a newspaper announcement of the death of Absalom Crowninshield.

Tom Decides to Accept the Devil's Deal

Tom shares his secret with his wife, who begs him in vain to take the deal. Finally, Tom's wife seeks out the devil to make the deal in his place. When she does not return, Tom searches for her in the swamp, finding only her heart and liver tied up in her apron. Tom then resolves to accept the devil's deal, seeking him out only to find that the devil has additional terms. The devil will give him the money if it is "employed in his service." Tom refuses the devil's first suggestion—entering the slave trade—but accepts the second, becoming an aggressive moneylender or a usurer.

Repercussions

As Tom's wealth increases, he builds a big house but leaves it empty. He outfits a carriage with fine horses but starves them. He charges high interest on his loans and requires harsh terms for repayment, allowing him to take control of the assets that had been used as collateral for the loan.

Eventually, Tom begins to worry for his soul in the afterlife. He begins to go to church and to be the most zealous of the congregation, but he does not stop his sinful usury. He continues to charge high interest and to foreclose on properties for the sake of increasing his own wealth. When one of his clients begs him to have mercy, Tom loses his patience and complains, "The devil take me ... if I have made a farthing!" Tom has earned more than a farthing (a small coin) from the man—through interest on his loan and foreclosing to take control of the property the man used as collateral for the loan—and so, with this short-sighted exclamation, Tom has sealed his fate. The devil arrives and puts Tom astride a big black horse that carries Tom away, never to be seen again.

All of Tom's riches turn to wood chips, dust, and ash. His worldly riches have not saved him from eternal damnation. The narrator notes that men like Tom, who are "griping money-brokers," should "lay this story to heart." Their sinful actions will condemn them to the devil just like Tom Walker.

Analysis

The Futility of Greed

Irving's story opens with a very short tale that occurred decades before Tom Walker met the devil. A pirate by the name of Kidd buried a rich treasure near Boston. Although Kidd's treasure is mentioned only briefly, most of Irving's contemporary readers would have known the story. The character of Kidd the pirate is based on the historical Captain William Kidd (1645–1701), who obtained valuable treasure by robbing an Armenian trading ship. Kidd's subsequent travels brought him to Boston, where he was caught. He was then taken to England and hanged in 1701 for his piracy, but the cargo of the richly laden ship he robbed was never found. Irving begins Tom Walker's story with a historical story with a real relationship to the Boston region where he sets the tale of "The Devil and Tom Walker." The historical character of the tale increases the realism of Irving's parable, while simultaneously introducing the futility of greed. Kidd possessed a great amount of wealth, but he hid it away without using it and then died before he could use it. Obtaining the money was, moreover, the cause of his death. Greed might bring a man riches, but the sinful methods of obtaining money to satisfy greed have consequences. Captain Kidd's story—if known by the reader—foreshadows the fate of Tom Walker.

A Faustian Bargain

A "Faustian bargain" is where a person strikes a deal with an evil or devilish character, exchanging something of moral or spiritual value for something of material or worldly value. The name "Faustian" is derived from the Germanic folklore tales featuring a character called Faustus or Doctor Faustus. In each story, the Faustus character sacrifices something of great lasting value for something of temporal value. "The Devil and Tom Walker" may be called a Faustian tale or a tale of a Faustian bargain because the main character, Tom, makes a deal with the devil where Tom exchanges his ever-lasting soul for short-lived wealth.

Racial Prejudice

Irving's devil is a woodsman covered in soot, "as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires and forges," but Tom Walker's perceptions of him are tinged with racial prejudice. He first sees the devil as "a black man" but is then perplexed that the man "was neither negro nor Indian." Irving is careful to clarify that the devil is not a man of another race, but the qualities that make him devilish play on racial stereotypes. The devil wears "rude, half Indian garb" that signifies his lack of civilization. He delights when the "red men ... now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice," playing into superstitious and prejudicial tales of Native American savagery. The devil has a "shock of coarse black hair, that stood out from his head in all directions," which was a common stigmatization of African American hair. Even though his face is only black because of soot, its blackness is cast as unusual and disquieting by relying on readers' conscious or unconscious prejudice against people with dark-colored skin. Even if Irving's narrative later makes it clear that he views working in the slave trade as an evil far worse than greed—because even a miserly, horrible man like Tom Walker finds it too awful to practice—his devil is characterized as uncivilized, devious, and frightening through an activation of racial prejudices in the reader.

Christian Morals and Symbolism

The premise and details of Irving's tale are based in Christian belief and scripture, making "The Devil and Tom Walker" a kind of Christian parable—a story with an embedded moral—about greed. Irving's devil is a version of the Christian one, a fallen angel who rules over the realm of condemned souls in hell. The Christian devil and hell stand in opposition to the Christian God and heaven. After death, good, pious Christians who have committed minor sins will go to heaven to live a pleasant, eternal afterlife. Bad, sinful people and those who are not Christians will be condemned to eternal suffering in hell after their death. Living the good, pious life that allows access to heaven in the afterlife requires sacrificing many vices, behaviors that are physically, emotionally, or mentally enjoyable but are considered sins. Indulging in vices allows a person to enjoy their life but threatens a horrible afterlife. The concept of selling one's soul to the devil turns on these conflicted priorities; a person can acquire their greatest desire in their mortal life while postponing payment to the afterlife.

Tom's deal with the devil follows precisely this formula. He is a greedy man who desires riches. He takes the devil's money and agrees to use it to acquire further wealth. The devil, in turn, will receive Tom's soul. Tom accepts this deal with little concern for what will happen to his soul after death because he prioritizes wealth in the current life. However, when he has achieved his goal of being wealthy, he begins to become concerned about the afterlife. His religious zeal marks his effort to revoke the deal he has made with the devil. Tom hopes that if he attends church with enough frequency and enthusiasm, he might be able to save his soul. It does not seem to occur to him that he should also stop benefitting from the sinful acquisition of money through usury, the practice of lending money at high interest rates and to people who will not be able to repay the loan. Usury is considered a sin by Christian morality because it profits off the misfortune of others and when aggressively practiced, as Tom does, drives others to poverty and perhaps sins of their own.

Tom even goes so far as to try to prepare an escape route for the Second Coming of Christ by burying his saddled and bridled horse upside down. The Christian Second Coming of Christ, also referred to as the Rapture, is the end of days prophesied in the Bible as the end of the world. According to the Christian Bible, when Christ returns to Earth for the second time (the first being his life on Earth as described in the New Testament), he will conduct a final judgment upon all humans. Although interpretations of the prophecies give varying explanations of what exactly will happen during the Rapture, the critical point is that all humans (alive and previously deceased) will be forever separated into the kingdoms of heaven and hell. Tom seems to believe that the world will be turned upside down during this apocalyptic time, so if his horse is already saddled and at the ready, he will be able to outrun the devil.

Heedless of all of Tom's preparations, the devil takes Tom after he exclaims, "The devil take me ... ." Tom disappears from the face of the Earth, and his possessions disappear into dust and ash. Tom's greed has sealed his fate; the devil has taken back everything that he loaned to Tom during his life—wealth, status, physical comfort—and claimed what was rightfully his according to the terms of the deal. Tom has become the victim of the devil's usury, and the devil has foreclosed on his soul. It is not a coincidence that the devil likes usurers, "looking upon them as his peculiar people," according to Irving, because the devil tempts men to commit sins that risk the afterlife of their soul in exchange for temporary comforts of the current life.

The Devil and Tom Walker Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Tom Walker meets the devil on a shortcut through the swamp.

Rising Action

2 The devil offers Tom a deal for Kidd the pirate's treasure.

3 Tom tells his wife about the devil and the offered deal.

4 Trying to take the devil's deal, Tom's wife disappears.

5 Tom accepts the devil's deal and conditions, opening a bank.

6 Tom grows rich and pious, trying to negate the deal.

Climax

7 Tom loses his patience and the devil takes him away.

Falling Action

8 People see a man on a horse galloping into the swamp.

Resolution

9 All of Tom's possessions turn into dust and ash.

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