The Devil and Tom Walker Analysis

  • Tom Walker, a bitter, unloved miser who sells his soul for riches, is an allegorical figure that represents the dangers of greed.
  • Irving seamlessly weaves together the real world and the supernatural. The supernatural appears in the form of Old Scratch, who has the power to make Tom rich. At the end of the story, the devil rides into town on his horse to take Tom to hell.
  • Irving portrays money as an inherently evil force that corrupts Tom and his wife. That Tom's fortune comes from the ill-gotten gains of a pirate only further cements the amorality of greed.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

“The Devil and Tom Walker,” by Washington Irving, was published in Tales of a Traveller, a volume containing four books with a total of 32 short stories, in 1824. In this short story, the devil, called Old Scratch, offers Tom Walker money and power in exchange for his soul. This tale can be analyzed in several ways. The historical context, setting, and time of publication explain Irving’s Romantic and moralistic storytelling, while devices such as folktale-style narration and situational irony highlight the specific moral and supernatural features of this short story.

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Historical Context

In the early 1800s, American literature yielded Romantic and humanitarian ideals which could be seen in works published by authors such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller, similar to his previous collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., traces the burgeoning ideas of early American society. Much of Irving’s works reflect the Romantic aspects of landscapes, scenery, and adventure, while other pieces, such as “The Devil and Tom Walker,” also include tales of morality. For example, “The Devil and Tom Walker” reflects the Puritan ideals of right and wrong, especially concerning greed and hypocrisy. Irving’s confrontation with the immorality of the slave trade within “The Devil and Tom Walker” also shows the general opinion of slave trading in the American North, which would become a point of contention with the American South later on.

Furthermore, Washington Irving’s choice of setting—in New England and a few miles from Boston, Massachusetts—was likely due to Boston’s status as a flourishing and popular city in the early 1800s. In using Boston and the natural areas around it, Irving places “The Devil and Tom Walker” into a quintessentially American context. For American readers, the sense of familiarity with the setting aids in the suspension of disbelief. Tom’s story may seem to hold more truth because of the reality of the setting. Furthermore, New England at the time was known to be heavily Puritan, Quaker, and Anabaptist. In response to this, Tom’s inward corruption and religious hypocrisy later on in the story points to the failings of devout followers, who may exhibit outward religious appearance despite being void of internal purity.

Narrative Style

The narrative style of “The Devil and Tom Walker” weaves the supernatural with a serious, matter-of-fact tone through Irving’s personable narrator, Geoffrey Crayon. This combination gives readers a choice of whether or not to believe the supernatural. For example, Crayon uses the phrase “It is said” when introducing information. He also claims the story has been muddled by many historians, showing how it has been passed down through many storytellers. These methods of narration separate the story from the source. However, these methods simultaneously make the story more veritable because of the claims that it has been told and shared by so many.

The narrative is further separated from its true source by the date in which it occurred. It is set in 1727, nearly a hundred years before “The Devil and Tom Walker” was published in Tales of a Traveller. Due to its age and number of storytellers, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is essentially a folktale. The narrator Geoffrey Crayon even states near the end of the story that “The Devil and Tom Walker” has evolved into a local proverb. It acts as an orally passed down story that once stemmed from truth.

Contradiction and Irony

“The Devil and Tom Walker” uses contradiction to elicit humor and clarify moral wrongs. Characters like Tom Walker and his wife are underdeveloped, and therefore readers cannot fully connect with them emotionally. This gives readers room to grasp the moral lesson without having to care for the characters and potentially muddle the lesson. For example, when Tom’s wife urges him to comply with the devil’s deal and get the buried treasure, Tom decides to contradict his wife for the sake of making her unhappy. As an outwardly funny notion, the underlying moral implications of Tom’s interaction with his wife shows a lack of kindness, trust, and love. Furthermore, the devil is a serious and immoral character; however, his presence is lightened by Tom’s lack of fear. For Tom, the devil isn’t as frightening or as horrible as his wife. In Tom’s oddly comedic lack of fear, readers can see Tom’s lack of morals, as any morally upright person would know to fear the devil.

Furthermore, Irving uses irony to drive home the moral lesson about greed and hypocrisy. Tom’s greed leads him to starve his horses and sparsely furnish his large home, even when he has become a wealthy and successful man. The irony of seeing Tom rich yet still parsimonious as if he were poor highlights the failure that follows from greed. Irony can also be seen in Tom’s sudden switch to religion; he becomes more devout than any other churchgoer, but he is the opposite of a morally upright and properly religious person. He instead judges the other churchgoers and remains far from saving himself from the devil: the outward display of goodness can hardly cover Tom’s inner corruption. Irving leads readers to the moral lesson through critical distance from the characters, humor, and irony. By doing so, the lesson becomes clearer and more distinct.

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