The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what is implied about Washington Irving's opinions of Puritans?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It's fair to say that Irving's portrayal of Puritans is far from flattering. He lays bare and satirizes the fundamental paradox at the heart of their moral code: intense religious commitment combined with an equally intense Protestant work ethic. This paradox between the spiritual and the material is expressed by the character of Tom's wife, who tries to make a shabby deal with Old Nick himself. She loads up all the valuables she's accrued over the years—the fruits of hard work, sweat, and toil, which for Puritans is an unmistakable sign of godliness—to exchange for Captain Kidd's treasure. Unfortunately for Mrs. Walker, the deal must've fallen flat, because all that's left of her is a heart and liver (which is kind of surprising, as we never thought she had a heart in the first place).

Anyway, Tom is quite relieved at the loss of his nagging old harridan of a missus and, after cutting a deal with the Desolate One, settles down to a life of professional usury. And it is in Tom's career moves that we see the full paradox of Puritanism exposed in all its hypocrisy. Tom maintains outward respectability, regularly attending church every Sunday like a good Puritan. But at the same time, he continues to lead the life of a cruel, heartless money-lender, who'll do anything to squeeze every last penny out of his unfortunate debtors. Irving appears to be insinuating that Puritanism, for all its intense spirituality, is too wedded to the values of this world, and that when push comes to shove, mammon (wealth) will always take precedence over God.

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Indubitably, Washington Irving satirizes the avaricious and sanctimonious Puritans.  In the scene of Tom Walker's establishing a countinghouse in Boston, Irving describes the hoards of adventurous Puritans who are willing to gamble, speculate, and raise money by desperate means by appealing to Walker, their "friend in need."

As Tom ages, he fears spiritual reprisals and decides to become "a violent churchgoer."  His strenuous singing and devotion cause the pillars of the church to become disturbed by Tom's "outstripping" them of their careers:

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

Anxious that the Devil will pay him a visit in order to collect accounts, Tom Walker hypocritically carries a Bible, and he has one on his desk at the countinghouse.  Frequently, the hypocritical Walker reads this Bible, and must mark his page while he turns to "drive some usurious bargain."

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