Washington Irving’s short Gothic tale “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824) is set in Massachusetts in the 1720s, a time in which Puritans believed the devil could be encountered like an actual person. This was a literal interpretation of several Biblical verses, such as Satan “going to and fro on earth, and walking up and down on it” (From the “Book of Job,” King James Version). Fittingly, the devil is one of the three main characters in Irving’s story and is defined both through direct and indirect characterization.
Direct characterization refers to the storytelling technique when we are told about a character’s traits up front. For instance, “Marie was a fiercely private person,” is direct characterization. On the other hand, indirect characterization allows us to make conclusions about a character's traits through showing us their behavior, such as in, “Marie guarded her journal with her life.” By using an omniscient or all-knowing narrator in “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Irving allows each character to be defined both directly and indirectly. However, some characters are more directly characterized than others, such as Tom Walker’s wife. She is defined to be as miserly as Tom and also as "a tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm." Further, when she learns of the mysterious “black man’s” offer to her husband to reveal pirate’s treasure in exchange for a favor, she jumps at the deal with pure greed.
All her avarice was awakened at the mention of hidden gold, and she urged her husband to comply with the black man's terms, and secure what would make them wealthy for life.
Though Tom Walker is also directly characterized, like when the narrator tells us he is a “meager, miserly fellow,” sometimes the story allows us to form our own inferences about his actions. This has the effect of making Tom a more well-rounded character for us. For example, when his wife meets a macabre end, possibly at the hand of the devil, he muses:
He even felt something like gratitude toward the black woodsman, who, he considered, had done him a kindness.
This leaves us to infer that Tom is secretly happy of being rid of his wife and tells us something about the quality of their former relationship.
The character who is mostly indirectly defined is, of course, the “black man,” whom Tom encounters in the forest. Even the fact that he is the devil is not explicitly stated at the onset; rather, he is referred to as a “great black man carrying an axe” and the “black woodsman.” He is described more by his attributes, which would be relatable to an early nineteenth-century audience, as we can see in the following statement:
For, whatever people may think, he is not always to be had for the calling; he knows how to play his cards when pretty sure of his game.
Thus, from these lines we conclude that the devil knows how to patiently wait for a bargain to fall in place. He is also an excellent manipulator of people. Further, when Tom and the devil finally make a deal, we are told that there is one condition about the bargain which doesn’t need to be mentioned, “being generally understood in all cases where the devil grants favors.” The reference is of course to forfeiting one’s soul to the devil, because that’s the price the devil always seeks.
Finally, the devil’s reemergence at the end of Tom’s life happens when Tom doesn’t have any of his Bibles on his person, indirectly revealing Tom's hypocrisy. Though he has lived a sinful life and traded his soul out of avarice, he still thinks a show of piety can save him. However, the devil takes Tom completely by surprise, whisks him “like a child into the saddle,” gives his horse a lash, and disappears into a thunderstorm. We can clearly work out from his late, grand entry that the devil is someone who always keeps his end of a deal, another instance of indirect characterization.
By using repeated indirect characterization to illustrate the devil, Irving lends his story a mysterious and tense air, despite the comic conventions in place. Tom comes to a just end and, like his wife, is never heard from again.