What does the darkness symbolize in Washington Irving's story "The Devil and Tom Walker"? 

What does the darkness symbolize in Washington Irving's story "The Devil and Tom Walker"?


Expert Answers
mercut1469 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Darkness pervades Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker." It is a symbol of both the unknown and unbridled evil. The shortcut Tom takes at the beginning is through a "dark grove" replete with "gloomy pines" and "black, smothering mud," and which is "dark at noonday". The forest is described as "treacherous" and is symbolic of the unknown frontier of the newly colonized North American continent. The story is set in 1727 and at that time much of what would later be the United States was still unexplored. While the area around Boston would have been well known to settlers, it was still considered a mysterious entity to many. Superstitious colonists (raised on the sermons of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards) very much believed in evil and the existence of the devil. The woods represented their darkest fears, including Indians and wild animals. That the incarnation of Satan himself might reside in the dark woods was perfectly believable.

Evil does indeed lurk in the forest and Irving uses darkness in his characterization of the "black woodsman." He is described as a "black man" who was neither African nor Indian. He relished the burning of white men by Indians, presided over the persecutions of religious non-conformists, was a patron of slave dealers and the "grandmaster" during the Salem witch trials. In short, he was involved in any number of evil deeds. After telling of the riches with which he can bestow upon Tom, he burns a black fingerprint into Tom's forehead, "which nothing could obliterate." In his bargaining with Tom, he insists that the money be used for evil. At first he wants Tom to outfit a slave ship, but when Tom recoils from this demand, the man is satisfied that Tom will loan money to his neighbors at exorbitant interest rates (usury). 

Although he attempts to stave off the black man by getting religion in his later years, darkness is again used as the symbol of evil in the story's ending. After cheating a friend, Tom utters the words "The Devil take me...if I have made a farthing," and just then a "black man" on a "black horse" takes him away to the "black hemlock swamp". Tom is never seen again, presumably dead and gone to hell. All his possessions are reduced to nothing and even his horses rendered skeletons.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Darkness assumes a very traditional symbolic status within Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker"; it serves as a reminder of the far-reaching presence of evil.

The story itself begins in an atmospherically dark area that is a "thickly wooded swamp" with a "dark grove." It is near this area that the miserly Tom Walker and his wife dwell in a "forlorn house" with a "miserable horse." Tom first meets Old Scratch while taking a shortcut through the swamp, which was "dark at noonday" and full of potential traps, including "a gulf of black smothering mud" and "half rotting" tree trunks. 

Old Scratch himself takes the form of a "great black man" with a soot-covered face, a "shock of coarse black hair," and an axe on his shoulder. Old Scratch leaves the black imprint of his finger burnt into Tom's head. This mark seems to suggest that Tom has been touched by the presence of true evil, and indeed, Old Scratch later kills Tom's wife and enters into an agreement with Tom to take his soul in exchange for great riches. 

It it, thus, appropriate that with Tom's soul signed away, the dark imagery continues. Despite Tom's fervent attempts to keep the devil from returning by becoming a churchgoer and forcefully praying, the deal has been done. Tom has been marked by evil, and Old Scratch returns with a "black horse" after a "terrible black thundergast" in order to make good on his bargain. 

parkerlee eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since in the Bible the Devil is referred to as "The Prince of Darkness," obscurity would represent all which falls within his dominion or power.

Ironically, the original name for Satan was Lucifer, which means 'light' (Latin version, 'star.') According to the Biblical acccount in Isaiah 14:12-14, Lucifer was an archangel in Heaven who coveted God's place and incited a rebellion against Him in Heaven.

The antithesis of these names emphasises the degree and intensity of the original "Fall."

abomahadi | Student


Read the study guide:
The Devil and Tom Walker

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question