Theme: Moral Decay Revealed through Motifs and Symbols This lesson plan focuses on Irving’s use of literary motifs and symbols in developing the story’s themes. Students will examine several motifs and symbols and interpret how they suggest moral decay in the characters and their society. In studying the motifs and symbols, students will be better able to describe “The Devil and Tom Walker” as an example of social criticism.
In the opening paragraph, the author blends fact with fiction. Which details in the paragraph are factual? Which details are attributed to “old stories”? The story has some qualities of a folk tale, including stock characters— characters that are presented as stereotypes rather than developed as individuals. Explain how Tom’s wife fits the stereotype of the tormenting, shrewish wife. In works of literature, the devil appears in different forms and disguises to suit the culture or setting in a particular story. What form does he take in this story? What is there in his appearance that is universal or traditional? The devil is very eager to make a deal with Tom—to give Tom great wealth in exchange for his soul. However, when Tom’s wife tries to make her own deal with the devil, he won’t come to terms. Why not? What does the devil’s refusal to barter with her most likely imply? Describe the final agreement between Tom and the devil. What is the one thing Tom refuses to do? Why do you suppose the author includes this detail in the story? How does Tom spend his new wealth? Do you think being very rich changes Tom, or is he the same man he has always been? Explain your thinking with evidence from the story.