How does Irving create humor in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," a story that is an indictment against American economics and dealings as driven by greed, Washington Irving employs satire. He also satirizes religious hypocrisy and the inhumane treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans. To the point, Irving places the devil in the center of all the despicable actions in order to suggest better his satire.

  • Demoralization of people of color

As Tom Walker takes what he believes to be a shortcut --Irving's satiric comment on Americans' proclivity for quick fixes and quick profits -- he finds himself at an old fort with the evidence of long-ago struggles at a "lonely, melancholy" place where he stops to rest. There, he uncovers a skull with an Indian tomahawk embedded in it. As he examines this skull, Tom hears a gruff voice order him to leave it alone. The stranger that emerges is "neither negro nor Indian":

It is true, he was dressed in a rude, half Indian garb, and had a red belt or sash swathed round his body, but his face was neither black nor copper color, but swarthy and dingy and begrimed with soot, as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires and forges.

In this passage, there is a subtle satire of the often demonizing portrayal of African Americans and Indians. Also, Irving's "black woodsman's" exaggeration is mockingly humorous, as he boasts of having been a patron of slave dealers, as well as the "grand-master of Salem witches."

That Irving abhors slavery is further evinced in his satiric observation that even the greedy Tom Walker "resolutely refused" to go into the slave trade when he makes his deal with the devil.

  • Greed/ American economics

The black man points to the name of Crowninshield that is carved into a tree; the name of a very wealthy man who "made a vulgar display of wealth" and now is ready for burning. As he talks with the devil, Tom refuses to make a financial deal right away. Upon his return home, his wife mentions the death of this same Crowninshield. Because he is uneasy about this proposed deal with the black man, he informs his wife of their meeting. Tom and his wife usually suspect each other in their greed. Irving writes mockingly:

They were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other. Whatever the woman could lay hands on, she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg. Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards.

While Tom is determined not to sell himself to the Devil in order to oblige his wife, Tom's wife is determined "to drive the bargain on her own account" and keep the profits for herself. She sets out to meet with the black man by herself in order to make a deal.

When she fails to return home, Tom grows so "anxious about his property" -- not her -- that he seeks his wife and this property at the Indian fort. As he searches for her, twilight begins to fall and Tom hears "the clamor of carrion crows." Tom detects a bundle tied in a checkered apron high in a tree. After scrambling up the tree, Tom retrieves this bundle only to discover nothing but a heart and liver. Once on the ground, Tom observes footprints of cloven feet and handfuls of black hair that must have come from "the woodsman."

With irony, Irving mocks Tom's lack of concern as he thinks, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!" With further tones of sarcasm, Irving writes of the miser, 

He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodsman who, he considered, had done him a kindness.

After meeting with the black man one night, Tom agrees to be a moneylender for Old Scratch, who insists that his money be employed in the Devil's service. Therefore, Tom opens a broker shop in Boston and lends money at four percent interest a month.

After a financial crash in the area, Irving writes with irony that Tom acted like "a friend in need" to those who borrowed from him out of desperation. 

With further satire, Irving writes of Tom,

He always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. . . [until he] gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer, and sent them at length, dry as a sponge, from his door.

  • Religious hypocrisy

Irving mocks the sanctimonious hypocrites among the religious group with Tom Walker's new religious zeal. He begins to worry about his soul as he ages, so he becomes a zealot in his attendance at church, and prays publicly in a loud voice. In mockery of the Puritans, Irving writes,

The quiet Christians who had been moving modestly and steadfastly traveling Zionward were struck with self-reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped of their career by this new-made convert.

Tom Walker always keeps a Bible open at his house; furthermore, he carries a small one in his pocket wherever he goes out of superstition, not religious fervor. He suspects that the devil "will have his due" and come for his soul.

This fear is realized one day when Tom forecloses on a mortgage one day because he has left his Bible on his desk and left his smaller copy in his coat pocket. 

The black man whisked him like a child into the saddle, gave the horse the lash, and away he galloped, with Tom on his back in the midst of a thunderstorm. . . When the clerks turned to look for the black man, he had disappeared.

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luannw's profile pic

luannw | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Irving creates humor, in large part, through irony and subtle sarcasm.  Tom Walker and his wife are described in the second paragraph as being extremely miserly.  In the next paragraph, he tells the reader that these two fought so much and so loudly, that passers-by, especially men, rejoiced in their bachelorhood, i.e., they were happy to be single rather than married to such a nasty wife.  When Tom tells his wife about his encounter with the devil and his reluctance to sign, she is so greedy that she wants to make her own pact with the devil.  She sets off to the woods to do so and is never seen again.  Her husband's only lament is that she had taken off with some of their household goods of value.  Irving tells the reader that Tom was a man of fortitude and so he "consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife,".  The final irony in the story is, when many years later, having signed with the devil and having made a fortune, Tom is accused of having made money from being so mean and stingy.  In his anger, Tom yells out that the devil should take him if he made any money that way.  Of course, the devil immediately appears and complies with Tom, taking him to hell.

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