illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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How does the author convey his view of the Puritan attitude through Tom Walker's statements?

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An early indication that Washington Irving was about to satirize the Quaker and Puritan influences that permeated New England during the period he depicts in his short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” is the beginning sentence of his second paragraph. Note in the following passage Irving’s comment on the notion that natural disasters reflect God’s will:

“About the year 1727, just at the time that earthquakes were prevalent in New England, and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees, there lived near this place a meager, miserly fellow, of the name of Tom Walker.”

All too often, religious fundamentalists described natural disasters as evidence of God’s wrath against those who had sinned. When Irving, in the above sentence, wrote that the “earthquakes . . . shook many tall sinners down upon their knees,” he was satirizing such practices. This was the first instance of the author commenting upon Puritan influences in a region he knew very well. As “The Devil and Tom Walker” continues, the story’s protagonist encounters a large man in the woods who angrily question’s the interloper’s presence and desecration of the skull:

“What are you doing on my grounds?” said the black man, with a hoarse, growling voice.

“Your grounds!” said Tom, with a sneer, “no more your grounds than mine; they belong to Deacon Peabody.”

“Deacon Peabody be d—d,” said the stranger, “as I flatter myself he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors. Look yonder, and see how Deacon Peabody is faring.”

Again, Irving is commenting negatively upon those who claim moral righteousness while condemning those who fail to measure up. As the reader may be aware (the story’s title may have already given it away), this large stranger is the devil, and his denunciation of Deacon Peabody is telling. The point Irving is making is that hypocrisy among the most pious is more common than one may wish to acknowledge. Deacon Peabody, it appears, is something of a sinner, and the devil is suggesting that, as such, this official of the local parish lacks the moral authority to intervene in the present discussion.

Irving proceeds in his story to skewer the less-than-upright leaders of the community in which “The Devil and Tom Walker” takes place. Deacon Peabody has become wealthy “by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians,” suggesting the imposition of unfair conditions upon the indigenous peoples of the region. A very wealthy man named Crowninshield, whose name, as with Peabody, has been scratched into a tree, accumulated his wealth through “buccaneering.” Additionally, and most prominently, Irving indicts the Puritan ethics that dominated New England by having the devil identify himself to Tom as follows:

“Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave dealers, and the grand master of the Salem witches.”

The leaders of the communities across the newly-settled territories that would eventually become colonies of the Crown and, later, the United States of America, were, Irving comments, slave traders and inquisitors of the worst kind. These leaders were deeply religious men whose fealty to the Bible, especially the New Testament, was not reflected in their approach to humanity writ large. That is how Irving comments on the Quakers and Puritans who inhabit his story.

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In his short story "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving incorporates many motifs from various folk tales.  One of these is the avarice and sanctimonious hypocrisy of the Puritans in Boston where Tom Walker sets up his countinghouse. Irving alludes to the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1730 through 1741 when the Puritans went through "the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then."

Tom establishes himself during this time in which many were "dreaming of making sudden fortunes." Throngs of Puritans enter his countinghouse--"the dreaming land jobber, the thriftless tradesman, the merchant with cracked credit." But, after having made his fortunes on them, Tom worries about the afterlife. "He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent churchgoer." In a satiric tone, Irving describes Walker's religious fervour as disturbing the sanctimonious, who worry that he will "outstrip" them in their careers as pillars of their church.  Ironically, too, Tom is "as rigid in religious as in money matters" and his zeal becomes renowned.  Still, he worries about the Devil, so he carries a small Bible; he even has a Bible that he reads in his countinghouse:

[he] would frequently be found reading it...and would lay his green spectacles in the book, to mark the place, while he turned round to drive some usurious bargain.

Irving's satirical humor is certainly evidenced in this and other passages about the greedy Puritans whose hypocrisy is displayed in their ostentatious behavior in church.

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