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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Tom Walker

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Extended Tom Walker Character Analysis

In Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker," Tom Walker is a meager, hard-minded, and miserly man. He lives with his wife and suffers through daily arguments with her. Tom and his wife are similar in their miserly attitudes. Tom shows an unapologetic and cold outlook on life. He is cynical, due to his dire financial circumstances and his bad relationship with his wife. This cynicism allows him to befriend the devil. He does not show fear when meeting the devil in the swamp, because nothing could be worse than his wife.

The devil makes a deal with Tom, offering him directions to the buried treasure of Kidd the Pirate. The details of the deal are kept secret, but, as proof of the deal, the devil burns a black fingerprint onto Tom’s forehead. Tom refrains from disclosing the deal, but it is implied that Tom sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the treasure. Tom’s unwillingness to share the details suggests that he is aware of the corrupted nature of the deal.

When Tom tells his wife of the treasure, she urges him to comply with the devil’s terms and make them both rich. Tom’s dislike for his wife pushes him to be recalcitrant. He refuses to go through with the deal simply out of the “mere spirit of contradiction.” He avoids pleasing or doing anything for his wife. This difficult attitude causes his wife to go and find the devil herself. However, her efforts to appease and solicit money from the devil lead to her death. Tom is almost glad of his wife’s disappearance and death. At first he is worried, but when he finds her apron hanging in a tree, he is only excited at the prospect of finding the silver she had taken. Instead of the silver, he is disappointed to find her heart and liver, but he does not seemed shocked. He instead shows pity for the devil, believing that his wife had troubled the devil before he killed her.

Tom still desires money and financial security, and he makes another a deal with the devil for monetary gain. At first the devil asks him to become a slave trader to make money, but Tom refuses outright. Tom, although painted as cold and morally corrupt, has some principles.

As a story of the early 19th-century United States, Tom’s decision here provides commentary on the author's attitude towards the slave trade. By having Tom do anything other than trade in slaves, Irving satirically condemns the entire enterprise.

Tom does agree to go into the profession of a usurer—a person who lends money at very high rates of interest. Tom excels and becomes a “rich and mighty man.” However, he is still stingy, and when building a lavish house he can only bother to properly furnish a couple of rooms. This shows Tom’s deeply ingrained sense of parsimony; he cannot stop being miserly and greedy, even when he has large amounts of money. Tom is also successful through duplicity; he becomes rich because he pretends to be a “friend in need” when truly he is taking advantage of his customers’ desperation.

However, the older Tom becomes the more fearful he grows as he considers his sinful actions. He realizes that the devil will come to claim his soul. Tom decides that the only way to combat his pact with the devil is through devotion to God. But his efforts stem from selfish need; he works to gain protection but does not change his ways. Tom is hypocritical and judges the churchgoers around him, pointing out their sins while ignoring his own. Tom’s fear of being taken by the devil, however, is rightly placed. When Tom gets into an argument with a land-speculator over money, Tom exclaims “The devil take me, if I have made a farthing!” After uttering an unwitting invitation, the devil arrives and takes him away.

"The Devil and Tom Walker" serves as a moral story. Tom commits many sins through his lies and work as a usurer, but his final mistake is to continue being a miser. Even when successful and rich, Tom is meager with his home and greedy with his work. In the end, he even claims to have not made any money, which reflects his parsimonious nature. The devil takes him to hell for this, pointing out to all readers—especially “money brokers,”—that a life of greed and duplicity is one that will lead to an unfortunate end.

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