illustrated outline of a person's head with a red thumbprint on the forehead with an outline of the devil behind

The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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What is the author's purpose, target audience, and message in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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"The Devil and Tom Walker" is a cautionary tale that warns against greed. The narrator addresses moneylenders as his audience, stating:

Let all gripping money-brokers lay this story to heart.

However, the audience is all of us. Anyone might be tempted to be greedy and make money at another's expense. The story is a parable: a tale with a moral message. Tom Walker and his wife are both obsessed with money, and they both come to a bad end.

The story is not condemning money itself but rather having an insatiable appetite for money that overtakes common compassion and care for living beings. Tom's wife hoards money secretly, and the two compete for money, caring more about it than each other. They are also willing to starve their horses to have more money.

After Tom's wife dies, accumulating money becomes even more of an obsession for Tom. He becomes a money-lender making loans to the desperate at high interest rates. When the loans can't be repaid, Tom heartlessly seizes everything his clients own, ruining them. He cares nothing about them at all.

Being rich brings Tom no joy. He puts his money into pretense so that he will look successful—for instance building a house that is grand on the outside but unfurnished and unfinished on the inside. His religious faith is another such sham, one he hopes will cheat the devil of his due.

Tom comes to a bad end, and all his ill-gotten wealth is shown to be nothing but dust. Irving uses imagery throughout the story that depicts the lust for money as sordid and ugly. We dislike Tom Walker and his wife and leave the story not wanting to be like them.

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"The Devil and Tom Walker" is really aimed at anyone who's too attached to the things of this world. As there are always a depressingly large number of such people about, the story still retains its relevance to this very day—many many years after it was written.

After he makes his sordid bargain with the Devil, Tom becomes totally obsessed with making money. And no matter how much money he makes, it's never enough. Tom has succumbed to what religious folk call idolatry, which is the worshipping of something that isn't God as if it were God. In this case, it's Mammon or wealth that's being worshipped, and Tom Walker is the high priest of this pernicious cult. A fantastically wealthy moneylender Tom has lost sight of what's most important in life. All he cares about is adding to his already vast and ever-growing fortune.

At the same time, it's notable that Tom doesn't derive the least bit of happiness from being rich. Quite the opposite, in fact. He must be the saddest rich man in the whole wide world. There's a cautionary tale in there for just about everyone. Not only can money not guarantee happiness, it can even bring great sadness in its wake, as Tom Walker, desperate to avoid going to hell for his sins, discovers to his cost.

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In The Devil And Tom Walker, the author's purpose in writing is to warn against avarice and selfishness; he appeals to anyone who thinks that he/she can gamble the happiness of his/her life for shady gain. His message is that it does not pay to covet wealth at any cost.

In the story, Tom Walker makes a pact with Old Scratch/the Devil for Kidd the Pirate's treasure. Accordingly, Tom has to fulfill some conditions set by the Devil in exchange for access to such wealth. We are never told what those conditions are, but it is implied that it involves nothing less than complete surrender to the service of the sly Tempter.

When Tom takes his wife into his confidence, she begs him to accept the terms and conditions. Perversely, Tom refuses, for the sake of being contradictory. The couple quarrel long and hard about the affair. Eventually, Tom's wife makes her own deal with the Devil. One day, she absconds with all of the valuables the couple owns. When she is not heard from again, Tom goes looking for her. During his search at the Indian fort, he spies a bundle tied up in a checkered apron, hanging upon the branches of a tree. Tom is ecstatic, but this is not due to the knowledge that this bundle might provide him with clues of his wife's whereabouts. He just thinks that the bundle contains the household valuables his wife had taken with her.

When he climbs up the tree and gets a hold of the bundle, he discovers to his shock that it contains a heart and a liver. Shock gives way to unfettered joy when he realizes that the Devil has probably done him a great favor in dispatching his wife.

The story concludes with Tom fulfilling the terms of his agreement with the Devil and losing his life and his soul in the process. The author asserts that Tom disappears without a trace one day; all he has left to his name is an iron chest filled with wood-chips and shavings plus two skeletons in his stable. Sadly, his house also burns down to the ground not long after he disappears. The moral of the story is that it does not pay to be both parsimonious and covetous.

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