What is an example of hypocrisy in Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker?"

1 Answer | Add Yours

kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Examples of hypocrisy abound in Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker." Tom lives a bitter, dreadful existence. He is in a loveless marriage and he and his wife scrounge for every bit of money they can find. Hypocrisy, in fact, is integral to Tom Walker's character, as well as that of his soon-to-be-disappeared wife. Note, for instance, in the following passage from early in Irving's story, in which the author describes the constant suspicions between man and wife regarding hidden money in defiance of their agreement regarding the sharing of wealth:

"Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards, and many and fierce were the conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common property."

The above quote from "The Devil and Tom Walker" suggests a deeply-rooted cynicism as well as a marked tendency on the part of both spouses towards hypocrisy. This, however, is but a mere hint of the hypocrisy yet to come as Tom wanders through the dark, dense woods whereupon he encounters "Old Scratch," one of many euphemisms for Satan, or the devil. During their initial conversation, the black woodsman who is revealed as the devil alludes to the hypocritical nature of the man whom Tom argues is the rightful owner of the land on which they sit:

"Your grounds?" said Tom, with a sneer; "no more your grounds than mine: they belong to Deacon Peabody."

"Deacon Peabody be d——d," said the stranger, "as I flatter myself he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to his neighbor's."

Deacon Peabody -- and the name cannot be accidental, a "deacon" being a member of the clergy -- is an example of hypocrisy. As the devil notes, this wealthy landowner is known for commenting harshly upon the sins of others while apparently being equally loose with his morals. 

Without a doubt, the most glaring examples of hypocrisy in Irving's story involve Tom's character after he has made his deal with the devil and has reaped the rewards in monetary wealth. While Tom had the decency to reject the devil's suggestion that he trade in slaves, he does accept and prosper at an arrangement in which he becomes what today is known as "a loan shark," but is also commonly known as an usurer, one who exploits the financial problems of others by lending them money at exceedingly high rates of interest and then foreclosing on them when their hapless victims cannot pay-up. Usury in-and-of-itself is not hypocritical; where Tom is a hypocrite is in the manner in which he befriends those in the community he now inhabits only to victimize them through his business practices. As Irving's narrator states, 

". . .Tom was the universal friend of the needy, and he acted like a 'friend in need;' that is to say, he always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. He accumulated bonds and mortgages; gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer; and sent them at length, dry as a sponge from his door."

The final and most blatant act of hypocrisy in "The Devil and Tom Walker" is found in the titular character's turn towards religion in an effort at reneging on his deal with the devil. Believing that his one chance at resisting the devil lies in a religious conversion, he becomes an orthodox practitioner of Christianity. Tom, in short, becomes 'holier than thou.' Irving describes Tom's conversion as follows:

"As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next. He thought with regret on the bargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church-goer. He prayed loudly and strenuously as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs."

Tom's stridency with respect to religious observance leads him to act just as the long-deceased Deacon Peabody had: he comments repeatedly upon the presumed sins of his neighbors while exhibiting increasing intolerance towards those whose faith differ from his own. Tom's orthodoxy includes the constant presence on his self as well as on his desk of a Bible, and it is the references to the Bible that are most imbued with hypocrisy, as in the following passage:

"He had also a great folio bible on his counting house desk, and would frequently be found reading it when people called on business; on such occasions he would lay his green spectacles on the book, to mark the place, while he turned round to drive some usurious bargain."

Note the reference to "green spectacles." Green eye shades were traditionally synonymous with accounting and banking, the greenish tint of the glasses used to reduce eye strain from long hours poring over financial ledgers. That Irving has his "protagonist" lay his green spectacles on the Bible is to emphasize the hypocrisy inherent in Tom's soul. Tom retains his businessman demeanor, continuing to practice usury at the expense of his less-fortunate neighbors, despite his new-found commitment to God. This, Irving suggests, is the height of hypocrisy.

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,928 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question