illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

Start Free Trial

What lesson can be learned from the story "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most significant lesson to be learned from Washington Irving's short story concerns the harmful effects of unrestrained greed and malice. Throughout the short story, Tom Walker is a miserly fellow who continually fights with his equally greedy wife. While Tom is walking in the forest, he meets Old Scratch and is immediately excited at the opportunity to one day own Kidd's buried treasure. However, Tom must agree to "certain conditions" in order to possess the great sum of money. Tom's overwhelming greed influences him to make the fatal decision to sell his soul for material wealth. After Tom sells his soul, he agrees to become a heartless usurer and attains his wealth through conducting cruel business practices. Tom grows affluent from the misfortunes of others and is able to purchase a vast home. However, Tom leaves his home unfurnished and refuses to feed the horses that pull his expensive carriage. Despite Tom's material wealth, he remains an unhappy, miserly individual. Tom does not experience a change of heart and begins to fear the consequences of selling his soul. Tom's last days are spent ruining people's lives by foreclosing on their mortgages until the Devil suddenly arrives to take his soul. Overall, Tom does not experience any joy from becoming wealthy and will continue to suffer in his next life because he sold his soul. Washington's short story warns readers about the harmful effects of unrestrained desire and illustrates how material wealth cannot buy happiness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most obvious lessons come from the fact that Tom, even though he has all of the money in the world, is miserable and unliked.  We can learn that money does not buy happiness.  So many of us spend our lives striving to get more money and attain riches, but this fable-like tale expresses the very true sentiment that money does not bring happiness or lasting peace.  It is only in meaningful relationships and in helping others that really brings happiness.  That is the main point of this entire story.

Also, to get money, many of us will lose our morals and values along the way, which is the symbolic equivalent of literally selling your soul to the devil.  Tom sold his soul, just as many people lie, cheat, steal and manipulate their way into money.  You lose your integrity, honesty and decency, and it's not worth it.  Being rich is not worth stepping on other people and giving up principled behavior.  That is another lesson that we can take away from this story.

Other lessons can tie into Tom's perspective of things:  he wanted money more than anything else in the moment, but years later after he got it, he would have given anything to give the money back.  Sometimes, we think that we want something so badly in the moment, and will do anything to get it; what we don't realize is that decisions made with such intense desire often come loaded with regret later on.  Making wise decisions that are based so strongly in intense desires is a more prudent choice, and will lead to less regret later on.

Those are just a few lessons that we can take away from this tale; I hope that helped.  Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several possible morals, and since it was told as a potential fable or oral tradition, we are supposed to learn from it.  Here are some possibilities:

1.  Money does not bring happiness.

2.  Greed used for ill only brings misery on the one who exercises it.

3.  In the journey of life, the destination is NOT the most important thing; be careful how you treat others along the way.

For other great commentary on possible morals, see the link below.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What moral the reader is supposed to learn from "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

The moral in “The Devil in Tom Walker” is that if you sell your soul to the devil to get what you want, it will end up destroying you.

When we say “sell your soul” it is usually a metaphor.  In this story, it isn’t.  Tom Walker is not afraid of anything, so when he encounters the dark man in a stroll through the woods he is not unnerved.  He and the devil have a chat, and they discuss an old pirate treasure.  The devil assures Tom that it is real, and tells him where to find it.

Tom spends the rest of his days making himself very rich.  He is not a pillar of morality or an example to his fellow man.  He steals, swindles, and abuses his way through life.

When a poor man asks for leniency in his loan, Tom scoffs.  He has no interest in helping the man.  He does not care that the man his nothing and he has everything.  The man pleads with him, but Tom tells him that “charity begins at home” and he must look out for himself.

You have made so much money out of me," said the speculator.

Tom lost his patience and his piety-"The devil take me," said he, "if I have made a farthing!"

Ironically, the devil appears then and makes good on his bargain with Tom.  The devil takes him.  The lesson we learn is that good people end up with good lives, and bad people end up with bad ones.  In other words, what goes around comes around.  It’s like the concept of karma—what you send out comes back to you.

Tom was not a good person.  It never bothered him that he took advantage of others.  He had no qualms about taking advantage of the poor.  Readers should pause and consider their own choices.  You never know when one will come back to haunt you.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on