Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As in other of his tales, Irving here combines a supernatural subject with a matter-of-fact narration. The reader is allowed to suspend disbelief partly through the framing of the tale, which is recounted by the fictional narrator Geoffrey Crayon, who has heard it from an old Cape Cod whaler, who claims to have memorized it from a manuscript written by a neighbor. Thus, the tale is several times removed from its source, with no one to vouch for its authenticity. The phrase “it is said” is used frequently, and once the reader is told that the facts “have become confounded by a variety of historians.” Although the tale ends with a claim for its veracity (“The truth of it is not to be doubted”), readers can believe or not as they wish.

The serious and the comic are juxtaposed. Although the selling of one’s soul and the inhumane consequences of greed are significant, they become subjects for laughter through Irving’s character portrayals and his use of ironic understatement. The characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical figures. Tom’s unnamed wife is the typical nag of antifeminist literature. Tom himself is not described in detail and is given such stock traits as greed and hypocrisy. The reader need not be concerned for the fate of either character.

Irving has a keen eye for the ironies and contradictions of human behavior. When Tom becomes wealthy, he ostentatiously equips a grand carriage but has it pulled by starving horses. He builds a large house but leaves it unfurnished out of miserliness. He exacts the harshest business terms on those least able to pay. Throughout the tale, this irony exposes the vanity and meanness of those for whom material possessions become paramount.