The Devil and Tom Walker | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Devil and Tom Walker | Symbols


The Trees at the Indian Fort

The trees that grow where the old Indian fort once stood represent the souls of the men whose names are carved into them. When Tom Walker meets the devil in the grove of trees standing in the ruins of the old fort, the devil shows him that there are names carved into the trees. First, the devil points out the tree that has Duncan Peabody's name carved into it. Tom notices that the tree is beautiful on the outside but "rotten at the core." The beautiful exterior represents the grand external appearance of Mr. Peabody, who is very wealthy and respected in the community, while the rotten core represents his immortal soul, darkened by the sinful nature of his actions. The tree takes on the characteristics of the man whose soul it represents. When a soul has become sufficiently immoral/rotten, the devil reaps the soul by cutting down the tree. Tom Walker notices that the devil had recently cut down the tree upon which he had been sitting. It bears the name Crowninshield, which Tom soon discovers is the name of a great pirate recently killed.

Tom's House

Tom's house represents the ostentatious side of greed as Tom shows himself to be wealthy, while the lack of furnishings shows the more practical side of greed that withholds unnecessary expenditure. When Tom grows rich as a usurer, he builds himself a house that reflects his greedy and miserly character. The house is vast "out of ostentation," that is, because Tom wishes to display his wealth to the world with the outward appearance of the house. Houses are valuable assets in a rich man's fortune and can produce even more money upon their future sale. However, Tom's house remains "unfinished and unfurnished, out of parsimony," an unwillingness to spend money. Tom is too cheap to outfit his house with the traditional trappings of wealth because furnishings are not as efficient a way to store wealth as property.

The Destruction of Tom's Fortunes

The destruction of Tom Walker's house, money, loans, and more represents the ephemerality—the temporary character—of material wealth. Tom sold his soul to the devil for riches in the present life. He accumulated a vast amount of money through the sinful act of usury. With that money he filled his coffers, built his house, and outfitted a carriage and horses. When he died, trustees were appointed to deal with all of his assets, but they found nothing to deal with. His loan notes had turned to ashes, his money to wood chips and shavings, his horses to skeletons, and his house to ash. As soon as Tom vanished from this life, his material possessions lost all their value. The destruction of Tom's fortunes is a physical manifestation of the Christian belief that no material possessions follow a person beyond the grave. For Christians, wealth from this life cannot be brought into the afterlife, and obtaining wealth by immoral means in this life will condemn a soul to hell in the afterlife.

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