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The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what does the description of their house and horse indicate about the Walkers?

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In the exposition of Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," the descriptions of the Walkers' "forlorn-looking" house and the "miserable" horse that have "an air of starvation" about them indicate the insensitivity and the stinginess of the owners. It is these characteristics of callousness and parsimony which set the tone for the actions to come in the narrative.

When Tom Walker makes his way through the treacherous forest and tries a shortcut, he reaches an old fort: a "lonely, melancholy place" rumored to have been the site of "sacrifices to the evil spirit."  But the insensitive Walker is not in the least deterred by this haunted and foreboding place. Instead, he rests upon the trunk of a fallen hemlock, listening to the "boding cry" of a tree frog as he digs around with his walking stick in the black mold near his feet.  Then, when a stranger with a "gruff voice" calls out to Tom Walker, he is not intimidated by the "great black man" who appears before him, "begrimed with soot" and carrying an ax, despite his having recognized this strange being as "Old Scratch."

One would think that to meet with such a singular personage, in this wild, lonely place . . . would have shaken any man's nerves, but Tom was a hard-minded fellow. . . .

Later, when Mrs. Walker learns of Tom's encounter with Old Scratch, the stingy woman decides to "drive the bargain on her own account" in order to keep the riches all for herself. But, she does not fare well against the cunning Old Scratch. 

After Tom strikes his own bargain with the Devil, he becomes a usurer. When difficult times hit many of the residents of the town, Tom made loans to his advantage:

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; [he] gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer, and sent them at length, dry as a sponge, from his door. 

The reader can almost picture these people resembling Walker's "miserable horse." In fact, his "vast house" that Walker purchases after becoming a "rich and mighty" man is ostentatious only on the exterior. Inside, his characteristic parsimony is demonstrated as there are no lavish furnishings. Furthermore, he still neglects his livestock: his carriage horses are nearly starved and the wheels of the wagon are without grease, causing them to make a horrible screeching sound.

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From the description of the condition of the Walkers' home and horse it is clear that they are a cruel and miserly pair. The narrator notes that, "They lived in a forlorn looking house, that stood alone and had an air of starvation." The narrator's choice of the word starvation is particularly notable because it indicates an incredible level of miserliness that the couple exude. This same miserliness is reflected in the horrible condition which they keep their horse in: "A miserable horse, whose ribs were as articulate as the bars of a gridiron."  This suggests that the horse is starved to the extent that its ribs are evident and its life is impoverished due its terrible condition.  Throughout the rest of the story the Walkers live up to what we expect from such a description. While Mrs. Walker disappears with their silverware, which she intends to use in a trade with the devil, Mr. Walker discovers that she has gone missing and goes out more in search of the silverware than his own wife. Mr. Walker further confirms his penuriousness by trading his soul for treasure and becoming a usurer. In fact, even after becoming incredibly wealthy, Mr. Walker is so stingy that he only finishes the outside of his house, leaving the inside unfinished and without furniture.

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