The Devil and Tom Walker | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Devil and Tom Walker | Themes



Greed is the central theme of "The Devil and Tom Walker." It is greed that killed Kidd the pirate—for stealing things that did not belong to him—as well as Tom's wife and even Tom Walker. Tom's wife is willing to sacrifice anything to take the devil's offer of riches. She even brings him the meager possessions that she owns as a "propitiatory offering," a gift designed to make the devil do what she wants. Eventually, she sacrifices her own life in the pursuit of greed. Tom Walker is slightly cleverer in his dealings with the devil, but greed rules him as well. His desire for money is much stronger than his desire for almost anything else. There is only one moral line that Tom will not cross: slave trading.

Tom eventually recognizes that his greed will condemn him to suffer in hell for eternity. He tries to solve this problem by being as religious as he is greedy, but he never stops his pursuit of additional wealth. Greed leads to his eventual downfall. Tom lies about having earned money off of a poor land-jobber—a person who buys and sells land for a living—and condemns himself to the devil for it.

Christian Morality

Christian morality underlies the theme of greed, but it also informs the concept of usury as a sin. The idea that the devil has a special appreciation for usurers—lenders who take advantage of people in need of money—derives from the Christian ideology that profiting through moneylending is sinful. Tom Walker's approach to moneylending is the most egregious example of how lenders can make money by offering high-interest loans to people who are likely to be unable to repay those loans. The lender is then allowed to foreclose—take possession of whatever property or assets were used to secure the loan. In this way, Tom profits from the misfortune of others. At the same time, Tom tries to make up for his sinful deeds with an equal amount of religious zeal. He prays loudly, carries a Bible with him, and promotes the persecution of other Christian faiths that were considered heretical—contrary to accepted church doctrine—like Quakers and Anabaptists. With this contrast, the reader is challenged to critically evaluate this kind of Christian morality, which promotes disfiguring or even killing of other Christians because of divergent opinions about religious practice.


Temporality refers to the temporary nature of things, in this case of material goods and life. The theme of temporality encourages readers to reflect on the ephemeral quality of life and the goals one seeks in that life. The theme of temporality first appears in the description of Kidd the pirate's treasure. Kidd acquires a massive fortune and takes great care to bury it in a safe location so that he will not lose it. Then he is hanged before he even has a chance to make use of his ill-gotten money. He secured the fortune, but it did him no good.

The theme recurs in the devil's discussion with Tom Walker about who owns the swamp. Tom Walker firmly believes it to belong to Duncan Peabody, but the devil argues that he was there long before Mr. Peabody and—based on the precarious condition of the tree that represents Mr. Peabody's soul—will be there long after. Land cannot belong to a mortal in the same way that it can to the immortal. Mr. Peabody's wealth and land are temporary; they will not follow him into death any more than Kidd the pirate's treasure followed him.

The third appearance of this theme occurs in the end of the story when all of Tom Walker's possessions turn to ash and dust upon his death. The transformation of his wealth into useless materials reflects the Christian view that wealth is a worldly possession that people cannot take with them into the next life (whether to heaven or hell). Tom cannot use his money to buy his way into heaven; all use for his money disappears when he dies. The story challenges the reader to consider whether the goal of wealth is a worthwhile endeavor when it cannot be taken into the next life.

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