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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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," the author says that Tom built a "vast house, out of ostentaion; but left the greater part of it unfinished and unfurnished, out of parsimony" (lines 270-272). What do these lines say about Tom's character?

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This quote from "The Devil and Tom Walker" reveals a number of details about Tom's character. Firstly, the fact that Tom has a "vast" house shows that he is materialistic and keen to show off his wealth to other people. This idea is further reinforced by the word "ostentatious," meaning that the house is designed to be showy and to impress others. Tom clearly cares a lot about what other people think of him.

The fact that he leaves his house "unfinished" and "unfurnished," however, suggests that he is a very miserly person who does not really want to spend any money. This is also shown by the word "parsimony," meaning an unwillingness to spend money.

So, while Tom wants people to think that he has lots of money and is very successful, he doesn't actually care about the condition inside. For Tom, outward appearances are all that matter, suggesting that Tom craves approval from others.

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This quote is incredibly ironic and it emphasises Tom's principle characteristic of being mean and miserly, which is as true now for him even when he has incredible wealth as it was true for him in poverty. Note how the text continues after mentioning the new house that Tom builds for himself:

He even set up a carriage in the fullness of his vain glory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it; and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screeched on the axle trees, you would have thought you heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.

This is typical of Tom's extreme reluctance to spend any money. He is depicted as being so in love with money and so unwilling to let any slip out of his fingers, that even when he has so much, he refuses to use it to finish and furnish his house, or to feed the horses that pull his carriage. This is of course Irving exaggerating Tom's character somewhat, as clearly the picture that Irving paints of Tom is ridiculous in the extreme. It serves to highlight Tom's major failing of being a miser and the extent to which that love money takes him.

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