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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The devil explains that he cuts the trees down for firewood. What does that symbolize or represent?

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In the story, the trees that the Devil cuts down for firewood represent the souls of men.

We know this because the text describes trees inscribed with the names of great men on their trunks. The imagery of a forest of trees ready to be turned into firewood represents the many souls Old Scratch will claim as his own. Each of these trees are also scored with an axe to designate ones ready to be chopped down. Scoring a tree readies the tree for felling; this is done by slashing or making vertical marks on the trunk in order to make it easier to remove the wood from the axe.

In the story, Tom Walker sees that one of the trees is inscribed with Deacon Peabody's name. The tree is huge and boasts an impressive exterior, but the interior is rotten to the core. By all indications, the tree is almost hewn through and a strong wind will soon fell it. Deacon Peabody is well-known for making shrewd bargains with the Indians to his advantage, and the fact that his tree is almost hewn through speaks volumes about his eternal fate. Another tree on the grounds has the name Crowninshield on it; this tree has just been hewn down. In life, this man earned his wealth through 'buccaneering' or piracy on the seas.

Old Scratch or the Devil tells Tom Walker that Crowninshield's hewn tree is just ripe for burning. The implication is that Crowninshield will burn in hell for the crimes he perpetrated while on earth.

“He’s just ready for burning!” said the black man, with a growl of triumph. “You see, I am likely to have a good stock of firewood for winter."

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