The Devil and Tom Walker Questions and Answers
by Washington Irving

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How did Tom and his wife "cheat" each other in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As was mentioned in the previous post, Tom and his wife share a very contentious relationship. They are continually trying to "cheat" each other by hiding valuables from one another.  Tom and his wife are both greedy individuals who purposely hoard items without their partner knowing. Irving describes Tom's wife by writing,

"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" (1).

Tom also goes out of his way to pry so that he can detect her secret hiding places. The two characters are also continually arguing over what should be considered "common property." These verbal arguments often turn physical, and there is a significant strain on their relationship because of their greedy personalities. Throughout the story, Tom and his wife's relationship is described as being miserable. Following Tom's first interaction with Old Scratch, he is hesitant to tell his wife about the offer. However, his wife takes it upon herself to drive a bargain with the devil and travels alone into the swamp. 

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Blake Douglas eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Tom and his wife are introduced as thoroughly unlikable people, and their marriage seems to bear more resemblance to the relationship one would expect to see between sworn enemies. As a fulfillment of their description as misers, Tom and his wife are said to cheat each other at any opportunity.

The term "cheat", as used in the story, probably has no connection to the modern slang that refers to infidelity. Rather, Tom and his wife seem to treat their marriage almost like an antagonistic game, and cheating in this context refers to the ways in which they defy the standard behaviors and expectations of a marriage, consumed as they are with greed. It is mentioned that they can barely resist fighting over things which, under any other circumstances, would be considered common property. Thus, they steal physical property from their common ownership, and also metaphorically steal any enjoyment or comfort that the other might reasonably find in the marriage. 

This helps to explain several subsequent elements of the story. For example, it makes sense of the harsh manner in which Tom's wife greets the news of his meeting with Old Scratch, and her intention of taking the treasure for herself. It also clarifies Tom's motivation in spiting her through his sudden reversal and apparent lack of interest in going through with the bargain. Finally, it explains why Tom hardly mourns his wife's disappearance.

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