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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Old Scratch

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Last Updated on December 18, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

Extended Old Scratch Character Analysis

In Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," the titular devil fuels Tom Walker's greed and serves as the catalyst for the story's events. The devil represents moral sin and seeks to corrupt others. In this respect, he uses Tom Walker's ambition for his own purposes.

The devil resides deep in a swamp near an ancient Native-American stronghold. This stronghold has infiltrated the lore of Tom Walker's society, which claims that the land represents war and violence and that Native Americans made sacrifices to an “Evil Spirit” there. The devil is described as a “great black man,” because his face is covered in soot and dirt. He wears a red belt, or sash, and carries a large axe upon his back. He also has black hair that sticks out in many directions and large red eyes. He says that he has many names, including the black woodsman and “Old Scratch.”

During his first meeting with Tom, the devil relishes in his own accomplishments in New England, such as "presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists," patronizing slave dealers, and masterminding the Salem Witch trials. The devil is a tricky character, who only makes bargains when he is sure to benefit. He and Tom come to an agreement of sorts in their initial meeting, although the details are not made specific. Given the lore around the devil, it's likely that he desires Tom's soul in exchange for Kidd the Pirate's treasure.

When Tom's wife sets out to claim Kidd's treasure herself, the devil kills her and takes her valuables rather than strike any deal. Tom sees this as a favor that the devil has done for him. However, the devil refuses to appear again until Tom is desperate for money and finally makes an official pact. The devil offers Tom the choice to become a slave trader, which Tom refuses, and then to become a usurer. The devil’s choices for Tom’s career show that both slave trading and usury are considered evil and are supported by the devil. The narrator implies that Tom sells his soul to the devil for success and wealth as a usurer.

The devil claims patronage of all corrupt and morally reprehensible enterprises, such as slave trading and religious persecution. He encourages humans to be sinful, and does so with Tom Walker by encouraging his greed. When Tom asks for proof of the devil’s truth about the Kidd the Pirate’s treasure, the devil places his thumb on Tom’s forehead and burns a mark. This can be considered a “mark of the devil,” which shows Tom’s allegiance to the devil over God. This mark may also be parallel to the Mark of Cain. In the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain was punished with a mark for having killed his brother. Yet this mark does not cause Tom to be shunned from society. In fact, he becomes successful, although notorious. Irving here is allegorizing the corrupt nature of American society, in which the rich and powerful are those who have sinned the most.

The devil, for example, keeps track of trees in the swamp which are named after the powerful and rich. He cuts them down for firewood, which symbolizes the death and subsequent burning in hell of those who have sinned. The fact that only the rich and powerful are being cut down and burned by the devil shows that the wealthiest are the ones who are most corrupted.

In the end, when Tom has become a successful usurer and has lived to an old age, Tom accidentally invites the devil to take him. Even with Tom’s devoutly Christian acts and precautions, the devil gets his way. He comes to Tom Walker’s door and claims him, riding away on a black horse whose hooves spark fire against the ground. Tom is later said to be seen riding the stallion through the swamps as a restless soul.

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Tom Walker