Study Guide

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

The Devil and Tom Walker Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Devil and Tom Walker

This tale, which was told to the narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, during a peaceful afternoon of fishing, begins with a local legend concerning treasure buried by the notorious pirate Captain Kidd in a swamp not far from Boston. Near this swamp, in 1727, lives a miserly fellow named Tom Walker and his wife, a woman as miserly as he. These two, so greedy that they even try to cheat each other, are constantly fighting, and Tom’s face shows the physical marks of their arguments.

One day, cutting through the swamp, Tom comes across the remains of an old Indian fortification and discovers a skull with a tomahawk still buried in it. As Tom kicks at the skull, he hears a voice and looks up to see a black man, “neither negro nor Indian” seated on a stump. The man, wearing a red sash around his body, has a soot-stained face, which makes it appear as if he works in some fiery place. Tom soon recognizes the stranger as the devil, Old Scratch. The devil confirms the story of Kidd’s buried treasure and offers it to Tom but only on a certain condition, a condition that the story does not state but that is surely the possession of Tom’s soul. Old Scratch proves his identity by leaving the imprint of his finger burned into Tom’s forehead.

When Tom tells his wife of the encounter, she greedily urges him to accept the bargain, but to spite her he refuses. Unable to change Tom’s mind, she decides to make her own pact with the devil, keeping the profits for herself. After an initial inconclusive meeting with Old Scratch, Tom’s wife sets out again for the Indian fort, this time taking with her all the household valuables she can carry. When she does not return for several days, Tom, uneasy for his valuables, goes to find her. After a long afternoon’s search, he sees hanging in a tree a bundle tied in his wife’s apron. Thinking that he has found the valuables, he opens the apron and discovers only a heart and a liver. Evidently, his wife died attempting to deal with Old Scratch as she had formerly dealt with Tom, for around the tree are tufts of black hair obviously pulled from the devil’s head. Although unhappy about the disappearance of his valuables, Tom is consoled by the loss of his wife.

Feeling grateful and with a growing desire to gain Captain Kidd’s fortune, Tom seeks to renew his acquaintance with the devil. Old Scratch does not appear for some time, however, and, when he does, he seems reluctant to discuss the treasure. Finally, though, he agrees to relinquish the treasure if it will be used in his service. He first suggests that Tom become a slave trader. Tom balks at sinking that low but agrees to go into business as a moneylender or usurer.

Tom moves to Boston and becomes successful, exacting hard terms and showing no mercy to those in his debt. Growing older, Tom regrets his bargain and searches to find a way out of the pact. He becomes zealous in church attendance, prays loudly and publicly, keeps an open Bible in his home, and always carries a small one with him. He does not, however, give up his harsh business practices.

One hot afternoon, dressed in a white linen cap and silk morning gown, Tom is about to foreclose a mortgage. When the poor victim begs for a delay, reminding Tom of the money he previously made from him, Tom replies, “The devil take me . . . if I have made a farthing!” Immediately, there are three knocks at the door, and standing in the street is Old Scratch and a black horse.

Having left the small Bible in his coat and having covered the large one with the mortgage, Tom is helpless to prevent the devil from placing him on the horse, which gallops off down the streets of Boston. The next day, his house burns to the ground, and Tom never returns. It is said, however, that the swamp and Indian fort are haunted by a spirit on horseback wearing a white cap and morning gown. The story is so well-known, says the narrator, that it is the source of the New England saying, “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

The Devil and Tom Walker Summary

In "The Devil and Tom Walker," set in New England in the early 1700s, a narrator relates a story he has heard about a local man's dealings...

(The entire section is 671 words.)