The Devil and Tom Walker Summary
Tom Walker meets the devil, who offers him a bargain: he'll give Tom a buried treasure on one condition—presumably, that Tom give the devil his soul. Tom declines, to spite his greedy wife.
Tom encounters the devil again after his wife's disappearance. This time, he agrees to the bargain. He becomes a merciless moneylender, hoarding his great fortune.
Tom comes to fear damnation. Despite Tom's newfound piety, the devil comes for him on a black horse, and Tom is never seen again.
Last Updated on May 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker" was originally published in 1824 as part of Tales of a Traveller. The volume is comprised of four books with a total of 32 short stories, all narrated by Irving’s personable narrator, Geoffrey Crayon. Irving's earlier collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published serially through 1819 and 1820, includes several of his more well-known short stories, such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Despite the success of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent., Irving's Tales of a Traveller was not well received, with only the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker" and "Kidd the Pirate" gaining notoriety out of the collection.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” begins by establishing the setting, an area outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and then provides a description of where the pirate Captain Kidd hid his buried treasure. The narrator introduces Tom Walker, a miserly man living on a meager piece of land in the year 1727. Tom Walker’s wife is as miserly as he is; she is described as a termagant, or an overbearing and nagging woman. They have a bad relationship, and Tom’s wife physically and verbally abuses him. One day, Tom is returning home and decides to take a shortcut through the swamp. The swamp is the site of an old Indian fort from past clashes between the colonists and Native Americans. Now, the fort is almost completely gone, but many people are superstitious of the swamp, believing that the Native Americans had performed rituals and called upon an evil spirit there. However, Tom is unperturbed by the swamp and the superstitions surrounding it; he is hard-headed and unafraid, due to his dealings with his violent wife.
While resting in the swamp, Tom meets a “great black man” who wears an odd outfit, a red sash, and a large axe across his back. They converse, and the man introduces himself as the “black woodsman,” among other names. Tom knows him to be called Old Scratch. This man is the devil, and he shows Tom how the many trees in the swamp are actually the corrupt and wealthy men of society. The devil explains how he’ll cut them down to burn them, an allegory for how the sinful burn in hell. Tom and the devil get along well during this encounter, so much so that the devil decides to tell Tom where the treasure of Kidd the Pirate is buried, but only for a price. Tom, who in his miserly state wants money and wealth, asks for proof that the treasure is real before he agrees to make a deal with the devil. In response, the devil places a fingerprint upon Tom’s forehead and leaves a mark.
When Tom arrives home, he decides to tell his wife about the deal. When she urges Tom to accept the deal fully and take the treasure, Tom decides to refuse. He does not want to please his wife, who has treated him so horribly. He disagrees just for the sake of contradicting her. His wife becomes angry and decides to make a deal with the devil herself. She is unsuccessful upon the first meeting, however. She returns home and gathers all the valuables in the house, which she takes to the devil as an offering. Tom’s wife never returns after that, and Tom later finds that she was killed by the devil. Tom does not feel sadness at the loss of his wife; rather, he seems grateful for her disappearance. When he finds her heart and liver in the swamp, he observes the traces of a scuffle and states that the devil must have had a hard time dealing with his wife.
Tom decides to accept the devil's deal and seeks Old Scratch in the swamp. He finds him and they begin to discuss the terms by which Tom will retrieve Kidd the Pirate’s buried treasure. The devil requires Tom's soul and for Tom to be employed under him. The devil at first offers Tom a job as a slave trader. Tom, although morally corrupt, refuses to accept, showing that he has moral lines he won’t cross. The devil then asks Tom if he would like to be a usurer, a person who gives out loans and charges high interest rates. Tom, who views the job as a good match for him, readily accepts. The devil then protects Tom and helps him become successful and rich as a usurer.
Tom becomes a “rich and mighty” man as a usurer. He engages in all manner of sin and moral ineptitude through lying and swindling money from those in need. However, Tom grows older and realizes he must soon pay his debt to the devil. Out of fear, Tom joins the church and becomes incredibly devout, but for the wrong reasons. He hypocritically judges the other churchgoers for their mistakes and sins, all the while completely ignoring his own. Although Tom has become rich and involved in the church, he hasn’t changed fundamentally. He is still miserly. When accused of taking a land jobber’s money, he parsimoniously exclaims, “the devil take me if I have earned a farthing!” The devil almost immediately appears at Tom’s door with a large black horse, upon which Tom is placed and then carried away.
The story ends with the narrator's claiming that Tom’s restless spirit can still be seen riding upon the black horse. Usurers and money-brokers are warned against the miserly sins that Tom committed, claiming that they too will be taken by the devil if they so act.