How does Irving combine Gothic elements with details that are specific to America in order to comment on society in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Undoubtedly, Washington Irving utilizes elements of the Gothic in his folktale modeled after Germans ones; however, his use of this genre is playful and satiric one as presented by his skeptical narrator.

Interestingly, the term Gothic is derived from the name of the Germanic warring tribe that defeated the Romans. Connotative of the Classical era destroyed by the barbarians, there is, then, a suggestion of pain and danger. In fact, it is ironically this pain that is associated with the sublime. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke writes:

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as in every day experience.

  • The sublime

It is this element of the sublime generating from danger and horror that Washington Irving manipulates humorously in his folktale. For instance, when Tom waxes anxious about the fate of his wife and his property with which she has absconded, he sets out for the Indian fort. 

At length...just in the brown hour of twilight, when the owls began to hoot, and the bats to flit about, his attention was attracted by the clamor of carrion crows hovering about a cypress tree....with a great vulture hard by....

Tom recognizes his wife's apron, and "leaped with joy" as he thinks he will retrieve his property. However, he finds only his wife's heart and liver wrapped in this cloth. Rather than horror, Tom merely reflects, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!"

  • Woman threatened by a tyrannical male

Certainly, Irving turns this element on end as Tom as a termagant for a wife whose death relieves him because she has stolen the treasure and  

  • Foreboding setting/Atmosphere of the Supernatural

Irving employs the setting of quagmires, black, "smothering mud" in a dark, treacherous forest. Again, Irving satirizes the gothic, for despite this foreboding atmosphere, Tom "reposes" himself on the trunk of a fallen hemlock [the tree connected with poison] and rests. Here, then, the Devil appears, scowling at Tom with a pair of red eyes. Nevertheless, Tom is undaunted by this supernatural being. For, when the black man tells Tom that he is on his land, Walker merely "sneers" and says, "no more your grounds than mine; they belong to Deacon Peabody." Of course, here also Irving connects the Puritan minister with evil.

In the ending of the story, when Tom's house is burned and his financial records destroyed, there is also the element of the supernatural as there is no rational explanation for this occurrence.

  • Isolated protagonists

Whereas in most gothic narratives, the protagonist is isolated not because of choice, Tom seeks separation from his wife, and when he becomes a usurer, his office is "thronged with customers" as 

...everyone driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices, hurried to Tom Walker.

  • High emotion

The breathlessness and panic of gothic literature is exemplified humorously with the "great speculating fever...[that] raged to an alarming degree" as the frugal Puritans become avaricious, forgetting their faith. Also, when the "quiet Christians" become alarmed with self-reproach at seeing themselves ...outstripped...by this new-made convert,...a violent churchgoer..." Irving satirizes the American economy and greed along with Puritan hypocrisy.

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msdurkinep's profile pic

msdurkinep | eNotes Newbie

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Irving's story "The Devil and Tom Walker" reflects an American offshoot of the Gothic movement that originated in Europe. European Gothic focused on the dark side of human nature, emphasizing the potential for evil in the individual. Gothic stories were enhanced by elements like setting, imagery, and suspense to emphasize the mood.

"The Devil and Tom Walker" adds a distinctly American flavor to these traditional elements. A variation of the classical Faustian tale of making a deal with the devil, Tom Walker meets "Old Scratch," the devil, in the forests of Massachusetts. Old Scratch is described as being "dressed in a rude half-Indian garb," giving the character an additional sense of mystery connected to the settlers' intrigue of Native Americans.

Irving's vivid descriptions of the east coast wilderness paints the distinctly American landscape as a region not full of beauty and promise but of darkness and wrongdoing. Similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," "The Devil and Tom Walker" implies that religious zealots, often considered the pinnacle of righteousness, were in fact evil-doers who had signed their fates with the devil. This is made apparent when Tom finds Deacon Peabody's name scratched into a tree in the forest occupied by Old Scratch.

Old Scratch's influence over the American people is further emphasized when Old Scratch provides Tom with examples of his role in the region throughout history, citing his presence at persecutions of religious group like the Quakers, the Salem witch trials, and the slave trade. These references to American historical events cast America's history as having sinister roots. As an additional commentary on the growing tensions on the topic of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, Tom Walker, far from a moral character, refuses Old Scratch’s offer to obtain his riches by engaging in the slave trade (suggesting that by the time of its publication, such a practice was widely considered despicable, if even an amoral character such as Tom Walker would find it appalling).

Overall, “The Devil and Tom Walker” adapts the classical Faust story by implementing the themes in a distinctly American setting and making subtle commentaries on the unethical practices that taint America’s history.

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