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

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Do you think Tom could have escaped the consequences of his bargain with Old Scratch in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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Tom Walker's behavior before he met "Old Scratch" was consistent with his behavior after he met him. He was obsessed with money and material goods, and he chronically battled with his wife because she was equally greed-obsessed. He was an unpleasant, discontented man, and the fights with his wife could be heard by anyone passing their home. Moreover, when Old Scratch set him up to be a money lender, Tom Walker doubled the rate of interest that the devil suggested. He starved his horses because he was too tight-fisted with his money to buy feed for them. Judging from these many actions, it is fair to say that Tom Walker was likely doomed to lose his soul to the devil before he even met him and struck the bargain. There is nothing in his behavior to suggest that he would ever be anything but greedy and unconcerned with the needs of others.

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No. In my opinion, Tom could not have escaped the consequences of his bargain with Old Scratch. When Tom first meets the black man in the woods, the devil points to several trees in the swamp. The chopped-down tree that Tom is sitting on has the name of Crowninshield inscribed into the bark. Crowninshield was the name of a very wealthy man in town who made a vulgar display of his money. It was also rumored that Crowninshield acquired his riches through buccaneering. The devil then comments that Crowninshield's tree is "ready for burning." Although it is not directly stated, it is implied that Crowninshield also sold his soul to the devil for wealth. Similarly to Crowninshield, Tom eventually suffers the same consequences for making a deal with Old Scratch. No matter what Tom does to avoid eternal damnation, the devil owns his soul and comes for him at the end of the story.

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Probably not. Tom Walker willingly makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for his soul; however, as time progresses, the story states, "As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next."  In other words, Tom starts to regret this decision. He decides that he will be a "violent churchgoer. . . and prayed loudly and strenuously." He even begins carrying around a small Bible to protect him from the Devil upon his death.  The issue, really, though is that Tom never changes his heart or feelings: he still loves money more than anything else.  He still has no remorse for his actions or provides mercy to others. 

Near the end of the story, a man begs Tom Walker not to foreclose on a mortgage and tells Tom that his family will be ruined.  Tom Walker says, "The devil take me if I have made a farthing!" and so, of course, he is taken. If Tom had felt real remorse and left the deal with the Devil by giving away all the money he was gifted in...

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the deal, it may have been possible; however, Tom is not willing to do that, so the consequences remain the same.  

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," is there any way Tom could have gotten out of the deal with the Devil?

The fact that this question is being asked gives some insight into Tom's behavior later in the story. In short, Tom probably couldn't do anything to change his fate, but people tend to look for limits and loopholes when terms are unfavorable to them. This might even be considered an insight into human moral behaviors (see reference below, Kohlberg's Stages of Morality). Tom, and many people who would "fight fate" under these circumstances, may in fact be exhibiting a very poor abstract moral code, but a very strong preservation instinct.

The most obvious way that Tom could have gotten out of the deal was by not making it in the first place; it was clear that he was under no obligation to commit to it, and that Scratch was neither pressing him nor really all that interested in pursuing the matter. Scratch already knew that Tom's greed would do the work for him. However, from this perspective, and the perspective of the story as a moral fable, Tom's greed predicted his behavior, and he was basically doomed to sign the contract because that's what a simplistic, amoral character would do.

Once involved in the contract, there wasn't really any stated way for Tom to go back on the deal. Hypothetically he might have tried returning the treasure, but this would not undo the sins that Tom had performed using it. It's also ironic that Tom begins to go to church and read a Bible, but continues lending money just as he was instructed to by the Devil.

Thus, I think that while we might abstractly argue that there could have been some way of getting out of the deal, there was no way for Tom, specifically, to do so, because he lacked the moral character to act beyond the behaviors dictated by his personality.  

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