The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving

The Devil and Tom Walker book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What Happens in The Devil and Tom Walker?

Narrator Geoffrey Crayon relates a local legend about Captain Kidd, a pirate said to have buried treasure in a swamp near Boston. One day, in 1727, a miserly man named Tom Walker walks through the swamp, where he meets a black man whom he recognizes as the devil, also known as Old Scratch.

  • The devil offers Tom a deal: he'll give Tom the buried treasure, but on one condition—presumably, that Tom give the devil his soul. Tom declines the devil’s offer just to spite his wife, with whom he fights constantly.
  • Tom's wife, upon hearing of the deal, journeys into the swamp in search of the devil. She brings with her all of her and Tom's most valuable possessions to appease the devil. Tom later finds her apron tied up in a tree. Evidently, she and the devil fought, and he left behind her heart and liver for Tom to find.
  • Tom encounters the devil once again. This time, he agrees to the bargain. He lives the rest of his life as a merciless moneylender, hoarding his great fortune. Tom regrets his decision and repents for his sin. One day, the devil takes him away on a black horse, and Tom is never seen again.

Download The Devil and Tom Walker Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

Introduction

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.

Plot Summary

“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...

(The entire section is 943 words.)