In "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving what is the message? How does Irving convey this message? And why does it matter?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • America's writer of fictional sketches, Washington Irving,inserts this message in his narrative of "The Devil and Tom Walker": If one embraces evil and makes a pact with Devil, he must 'pay the Devil his due.' 

When Tom takes what he believes to be a shortcut homeward, he encounters Old Scratch, who accosts him, scowling with red eyes. And, because he has lived with a "termagant wife that he did not even fear the Devil." Finding in Tom a kindred spirit, Old Scratch agrees to relinquish his treasures of Captain Kidd if Tom will work in his service. The Devil presses his finger on the forehead of Walker, saying, "There is my signature."

When he returns home, Tom divulges his "uneasy secret" to his wife. But, when she excitedly urges him to make the agreement with "the black man," Tom "flatly refused, out of the mere spirit of contradiction." So, Mrs. Walker decides to drive the bargain "on her own account" and sets out for the forest, never to be heard from again. Irving writes that Tom Walker "grew so anxious about the fate of his wife and his property" that he finally seeks her at the Indian fort; however, there is no sign of her having been there. At length, he hears a commotion in a cypress tree and spots a bundle tied in a checkered apron, Mrs. Walker's apron, in fact. Believing that it holds the treasure, Tom climbs the tree only to discover on his return to the ground that the apron contains her heart and liver. The termagant had met her match with the Devil, although Tom ponders, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!"

While Tom seeks to renew his acquaintance with "the black woodsman," it takes some time before he agrees to any terms regarding the treasure. When the Devil demands that he become a slave trader, Tom dissents, but finally agrees only to becoming a usurer. So, having opened a business in Boston, Tom Walker accumulates bonds and mortgages and becomes "rich and mighty." But, as he grows old, Tom begins to worry about his soul and has a "lurking dread that the Devil, after all, would have his due." To prevent this payment, he perpetually keeps a "big Bible" in his office, and carries a small one with him at all times. Nevertheless, Tom is caught one day when "[T]he black man whisked him like a child into the saddle" and rushed out with him on a horse "that galloped like mad across the fields, over the hills" and into the dark swamp. Afterwards, the townspeople search his property; however, nothing was found but chips and shavings in his iron chest which usually held gold and silver, and his home has burned to the ground. Only the troubled spirit of Tom Walker the usurer can be seen on many a stormy night.

  • Thus, with elements of legend and satire against American economics and politics, Washington Irving conveys his message. This is a message from which there is, indeed, a moral that matters: The temporal pleasures of money and power are certainly not worth the price of losing one's integrity, decency, and soul.
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The Devil and Tom Walker

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