Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Washington Irving is said to be the first to have used the phrase “the almighty dollar.” This tale, found in part 4 (called “The Money Diggers”) of Tales of a Traveller, comically presents the results of valuing the dollar above all else. Both Tom and his wife care more for possessions than they do for each other. She urges Tom to sell his soul, and he is more concerned for his household treasures than for her. The two live in conflict and misery because of greed and eventually die from greed, she by trying to bully the devil into better terms and he by attempting to squeeze the last bit of profit from an unfortunate client.
The Faust theme, in which the soul is exchanged for knowledge and power, is reduced here to a story of money grubbing. The occupations that are viewed as of special service to the devil—slave-trading and usury—are those that place monetary profit before humanity. (Irving also attacked the slave trade in his A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828, and he had personal experience with the humiliation of debt and bankruptcy.)
Tom’s turn to religion near the end of the tale is a combination of superstition and hypocrisy. Tom hopes to ward off the devil through the outward trappings of Christianity, but the tale clearly satirizes those who make a public show of devotion while retaining meanness of spirit.