Sometimes referred to as the "comic Doctor Faustus" after von Goethe's novel Faust, in which an aspiring scholar makes a pact with the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge, Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" is based on New England legend where Quakers and Puritans put great emphasis upon religious piety and the retribution paid to unscrupulous sinners.
Because Tom Walker's wife is a termagant, he often leaves the house for
distant parts of the neighborhood." One day, Tom decides to take a quick way home; however, this trek through the swamp proves a poor choice as he becomes mired in swamp and tangled in brush. As Tom rests upon a log after finally reaching an old fort, he hears strange noises and spots an Indian skull with a rusted tomahawk buried into it. As Tom examines it, he hears a gruff voice yell, "Let that skull alone!" A strange man, dark, but not an Indian, emerges, dressed in Indian garb with coarse black hair, red eyes, and carries an ax over his shoulder. In talking with the figure that Tom recognizes as "Old Scratch," or the devil, Tom feels the devil's finger burn into his forehead as proof. Old Scratch tells Tom of Captain Kidd's treasure of gold buried under an oak tree and makes an offer to Tom that is dependent upon a certain condition, a condition that, although not overtly stated, suggests that Tom must sell his soul to the devil as in Goethe's Faust.
Tom requests time to consider this offer because
...he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so he flatly refused, out of the mere spirit of contradition.
Therefore, when he tells his wife about his adventures and stirs her avarice, Tom refuses to sell his soul in order to please her.