Devil and Tom Walker Themes Lesson Plan
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Theme of Moral Decay Revealed Through Motifs & 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.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to
- define “motif” and analyze major motifs in the story: darkness/gloom, greed, and hypocrisy;
- define “symbol” and interpret major symbols in the story: the swamp, the “great trees” in the swamp, and Tom’s mansion, horses, and carriage;
- describe how the story’s theme of moral decay is developed through the motifs and symbols.
Skills: close reading, drawing inferences from the text, identifying and interpreting symbols and motifs, drawing themes from the text
Common Core Standards: RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.2, RL.11-12.4
An American literary folk tale, “The Devil and Tom Walker” condemns the greed and moral decay prevalent in colonial New England. In the story, set in “about” 1727, Washington Irving alludes to the destruction of Native Americans and the theft of their lands, to slavery, and to the financial recklessness that drove get-rich-quick speculators to ruin. The plot unfolds outside Boston, once a bastion of firm religious belief, and throughout the tale, Irving juxtaposes the greed and moral decay of the Massachusetts colony with piety and religious hypocrisy.
The conflict between the two extremes is embodied in Tom Walker, a character so greedy that he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth. At the beginning of the story, Tom encounters the devil in the gloom of a swamp outside Boston. The devil offers Tom a deal—Captain Kidd’s buried treasure in exchange for Tom’s soul and his agreeing to use the money to do the devil’s work. Tom accepts but refuses to be a slave trader—that is too evil, even for him. Instead he agrees to be a usurer and makes his fortune lending to land speculators; he charges outrageous interest and collects from his debtors with no concern for their financial situations. As he grows older, Tom fears repaying his debt to the devil and becomes a religious zealot in a hypocritical effort to save his soul. In the end, however, the devil carries him away as Tom is foreclosing on another mortgage.
Much of Irving’s social criticism is accomplished through symbolism. The names of leading men of New England are carved by the devil on huge trees in the swamp; the trees appear to be flourishing but are rotting inside, waiting for the devil to harvest them, symbolic of taking the men’s souls. The mansion Tom builds for himself, but is too cheap to furnish, also has symbolic significance.
In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Washington Irving adapts the Faustian legend of selling one’s soul, writing it as a folk tale within the context of the history of New England. Like Faust, Tom comes to regret the bargain he makes with the devil and pays the highest price for his greed. Additionally, the story is a masterful critique of uniquely American experiences.
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