The Devil and Tom Walker Analysis

  • Washington Irving's classic short story "The Devil and Tom Walker" serves as a warning to readers against the evils of greed and corruption. Its main character, Tom Walker, is a bitter, unloved miser who sells his soul for riches. Tom is an allegorical figure whose downfall is designed to impart to readers the moral of the story.
  • As in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and other stories, Irving seamlessly weaves together the real world and the supernatural. In "The Devil and Tom Walker," the supernatural appears in the form of Old Scratch (the devil), 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. The fact that Tom's fortune comes from the ill-gotten gains of a pirate only further cements the amorality of greed. It's also worth noting that Captain Kidd's fortune was buried in a swamp—a powerful metaphor for the corruption associated with money.

Analysis

Style and Technique

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.

Historical Context

A Young America
At the time Irving wrote "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824, the United States was a new and growing country. As...

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Literary Style

Point of View
This story is narrated by Geoffrey Crayon, a fictional character created by Irving who appears in a number of the...

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Compare and Contrast

1727: Religion is central to the lives of New England citizens. At the Salem Witch Trials, less than forty years before, twenty people...

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Topics for Further Study

Discuss the relationship between Tom Walker and his wife. Do you feel that they deserve each other? Do you feel that they both get what they...

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What Do I Read Next?

A History of New York, Irving's 1809 novel in which Dutchman Diedrich Knickerbocker recounts the settling of New York by the Dutch, in...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Abel, Darrel, ''The Rise of a National Literature,'' American Literature: Colonial and Early National Writing,...

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Bibliography

Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Bowden, Edwin T. Washington Irving Bibliography. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hiller, Alice. “’An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving’s Entree and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 275-293.

McFarland, Philip. Sojourners. New York: Atheneum, 1979.

Murray, Laura J. “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)colonization in the Early Republic.” American Literary History 8 (Summer, 1996): 205-231.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.

Piacentino, Ed. “’Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving’s Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal 30 (Fall, 1997): 27-42.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935.