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The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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How does Irving create humor in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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Irving's story reveals the potential dangers, for the Christian and for society, of a religion that is too closely associated with a business-like world. We have seen that in "The Devil and Tom Walker," Irving suggests that Puritanism and business can be a dangerous mix. He does not suggest, however, that we should all become atheists. Irving was himself a devout Christian and was not advocating atheism or any other kind of irreligion. Rather, he wants to make us aware of the potential dangers of mixing Christianity with money-making or business practices, which are inevitably materialistic in character. As Christians we must always remember what Jesus taught us: "

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," a story that is an indictment against American economics and dealings as driven by greed, Washington Irving employs satire . He also satirizes religious hypocrisy and the inhumane treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans. To the point, Irving places the devil in...

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the center of all the despicable actions in order to suggest better his satire.

  • Demoralization of people of color

As Tom Walker takes what he believes to be a shortcut --Irving's satiric comment on Americans' proclivity for quick fixes and quick profits -- he finds himself at an old fort with the evidence of long-ago struggles at a "lonely, melancholy" place where he stops to rest. There, he uncovers a skull with an Indian tomahawk embedded in it. As he examines this skull, Tom hears a gruff voice order him to leave it alone. The stranger that emerges is "neither negro nor Indian":

It is true, he was dressed in a rude, half Indian garb, and had a red belt or sash swathed round his body, but his face was neither black nor copper color, but swarthy and dingy and begrimed with soot, as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires and forges.

In this passage, there is a subtle satire of the often demonizing portrayal of African Americans and Indians. Also, Irving's "black woodsman's" exaggeration is mockingly humorous, as he boasts of having been a patron of slave dealers, as well as the "grand-master of Salem witches."

That Irving abhors slavery is further evinced in his satiric observation that even the greedy Tom Walker "resolutely refused" to go into the slave trade when he makes his deal with the devil.

  • Greed/ American economics

The black man points to the name of Crowninshield that is carved into a tree; the name of a very wealthy man who "made a vulgar display of wealth" and now is ready for burning. As he talks with the devil, Tom refuses to make a financial deal right away. Upon his return home, his wife mentions the death of this same Crowninshield. Because he is uneasy about this proposed deal with the black man, he informs his wife of their meeting. Tom and his wife usually suspect each other in their greed. Irving writes mockingly:

They were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other. Whatever the woman could lay hands on, she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg. Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards.

While Tom is determined not to sell himself to the Devil in order to oblige his wife, Tom's wife is determined "to drive the bargain on her own account" and keep the profits for herself. She sets out to meet with the black man by herself in order to make a deal.

When she fails to return home, Tom grows so "anxious about his property" -- not her -- that he seeks his wife and this property at the Indian fort. As he searches for her, twilight begins to fall and Tom hears "the clamor of carrion crows." Tom detects a bundle tied in a checkered apron high in a tree. After scrambling up the tree, Tom retrieves this bundle only to discover nothing but a heart and liver. Once on the ground, Tom observes footprints of cloven feet and handfuls of black hair that must have come from "the woodsman."

With irony, Irving mocks Tom's lack of concern as he thinks, "Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!" With further tones of sarcasm, Irving writes of the miser, 

He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodsman who, he considered, had done him a kindness.

After meeting with the black man one night, Tom agrees to be a moneylender for Old Scratch, who insists that his money be employed in the Devil's service. Therefore, Tom opens a broker shop in Boston and lends money at four percent interest a month.

After a financial crash in the area, Irving writes with irony that Tom acted like "a friend in need" to those who borrowed from him out of desperation. 

With further satire, Irving writes of Tom,

He always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. . . [until he] gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer, and sent them at length, dry as a sponge, from his door.

  • Religious hypocrisy

Irving mocks the sanctimonious hypocrites among the religious group with Tom Walker's new religious zeal. He begins to worry about his soul as he ages, so he becomes a zealot in his attendance at church, and prays publicly in a loud voice. In mockery of the Puritans, Irving writes,

The quiet Christians who had been moving modestly and steadfastly traveling Zionward were struck with self-reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped of their career by this new-made convert.

Tom Walker always keeps a Bible open at his house; furthermore, he carries a small one in his pocket wherever he goes out of superstition, not religious fervor. He suspects that the devil "will have his due" and come for his soul.

This fear is realized one day when Tom forecloses on a mortgage one day because he has left his Bible on his desk and left his smaller copy in his coat pocket. 

The black man whisked him like a child into the saddle, gave the horse the lash, and away he galloped, with Tom on his back in the midst of a thunderstorm. . . When the clerks turned to look for the black man, he had disappeared.

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Irving creates humor, in large part, through irony and subtle sarcasm.  Tom Walker and his wife are described in the second paragraph as being extremely miserly.  In the next paragraph, he tells the reader that these two fought so much and so loudly, that passers-by, especially men, rejoiced in their bachelorhood, i.e., they were happy to be single rather than married to such a nasty wife.  When Tom tells his wife about his encounter with the devil and his reluctance to sign, she is so greedy that she wants to make her own pact with the devil.  She sets off to the woods to do so and is never seen again.  Her husband's only lament is that she had taken off with some of their household goods of value.  Irving tells the reader that Tom was a man of fortitude and so he "consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife,".  The final irony in the story is, when many years later, having signed with the devil and having made a fortune, Tom is accused of having made money from being so mean and stingy.  In his anger, Tom yells out that the devil should take him if he made any money that way.  Of course, the devil immediately appears and complies with Tom, taking him to hell.

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What is Irving satirizing in the story, "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Washington Irving cleverly satirizes the institution of marriage, Puritan culture, and the slave trade at various moments in the short story “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Irving satirizes the institution of marriage by depicting Tom's unhappy, violent marriage. Despite being completely incompatible with each other, the couple refuses to split and continues to live in misery together. Tom and his wife both bring out the worst in each other and their notorious feuds often become violent. Their hostile relationship provides humor to the story, and Tom feels relieved when his wife disappears after visiting Old Scratch.

Irving also satires the extremely religious, self-righteous Puritan citizens by illustrating the names of prominent men carved into the trees on Old Scratch's property. Characters like Reverend Peabody and Absalom Crowninshield represent corrupt Puritan authority figures that Irving uses to depict the debased nature of many self-righteous individuals. Even Tom Walker’s religious conversion satirizes corrupt Christians, who appear to be holy but are actually wicked sinners.

During Tom Walker’s meeting with Old Scratch, Irving satirizes the slave trade when Tom refuses to use the devil’s money to fund a slave-trading operation. Despite Tom Walker’s immoral nature and willingness to strike a deal with the devil, his refusal to participate in the slave trade is satirical of institutionalized slavery.

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What is Irving satirizing in the story, "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Irving is talking satirizing people who show insincere piety and in reality are greedy or covetous.  In the story, Tom Walker makes a pact with the devil for wealth.  The devil comes through on his end of the bargain by making Walker wealthy.  Walker is a money lender who lends money at an extremely high rate of interest.  When Walker is accused of usury by one of his clients, he shouts, "May the devil take me if I have made a farthing!"  Of course, he has made much more than a farthing and the devil does indeed take him.  Earlier in the story, before the pact is made with the devil, Walker rests in the woods where he meets the devil.  On the trees are the names of many people Walker knows from the area who are rich, some of them people who are outwardly pious.  All of these people, the devil tells Tom Walker, are people with whom he's made contracts.

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What is Irving criticizing in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

One of the main targets of Irving's withering satire is the intimate link between Puritanism and the business world. Despite their devout religiosity Puritans had the reputation of being hard-working traders, merchants, and businessmen. In their daily business practices they sought to sanctify the world of the market place, the merchant house, and the exchange. Inevitably, this led to charges of hypocrisy, which Irving is only too willing to exploit in "The Devil and Tom Walker."

He makes it abundantly clear that Puritanism's close association with the business world can all too often lead to behavior which is very far from being Christian. Christianity preaches meekness and humility, whereas business, especially the kind of business in which Tom Walker's engaged, puts a premium on aggression and ruthlessness.

Irving shows us just how easy it is for someone to pretend to be a devout Christian while at the same time engaging in acts that are anything of the sort. Of course, this is a potential problem for all Christian denominations, all of whom have some hypocrites within their ranks. But Irving puts it to us that Puritans, because of their close association to the business world, are especially vulnerable to such hypocrisy.

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What is Irving criticizing in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Washington Irving is critical of a number of different things in "The Devil and Tom Walker" including religious hypocrisy and avarice. However, the most central target of his criticisms is the practice of usury or predatory lending. For example, when Tom Walker is selling his soul to the devil for pirate Kidd's treasure, the narrator remarks that the devil proposes "that he should turn usurer; the devil being extremely anxious for the increase of usurers, looking upon them as his peculiar people." This suggests that in Irving's eyes becoming a usurer is akin to doing the devil's work. Later the narrator recounts of Tom Walker's lending practices that, "He accumulated bonds and mortgages; gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer; and sent them at length, dry as a sponge from his door." This suggests that Irving has a very low view of the way in which many lenders abuse and ultimately discard their clients. Finally, as the story draws to a close Tom Walker's soul is claimed by the devil as he is in the act of refusing mercy to one of his clients. All of this indicates Irving's strong distaste for the practice of usury in no uncertain terms.  This criticism of predatory lending connects back to the larger thematic criticisms of avarice and hypocrisy in human nature.  This is evident when Tom Walker continued to engage in this terrible lending practice while attempting to save himself through becoming a devout and pious man. In the end, it becomes clear that one cannot behave in morally inconsistent and hypocritical ways and avoid the consequences of one's poor moral character. 

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what is Irving making fun of about Puritan society and human beings in general?

I would say the most striking criticisms Irving levels at human beings (and general human society) can be found in the characterization of Tom Walker, along with his wife, whose extreme parsimony and pettiness was such that they made themselves miserable. This extreme, self-defeating miserliness is reflected in the condition in which the two live. They have taken miserliness to the highest point of absurdity, to such a degree that they have become impoverished for it. Consider, in the beginning of the story, the description of the house they live in: "they lived in a forlorn-looking house that stood alone, and had an air of starvation." Later, after Tom sells his soul to the devil, this same absurdity would continue to manifest, as now he would reside in a vast mansion (largely incomplete) and riding around in a carriage, pulled by starved horses. There's a tension here, between the ostentatious desire for status and prestige, continually undermined and made pointless by his own stinginess.

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what is Irving making fun of about Puritan society and human beings in general?

In "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving centers the story on Tom Walker, a greedy man who is willing to do just about anything to make more money. This all-consuming desire for wealth eventually leads Tom to make a deal with the Devil. With this deal, Tom sells his soul to the Devil so he can be materially wealthy while he is alive. 

As he gets older and closer to death, Tom begins to worry about the deal he made with the Devil so many years ago. He convinces himself that if he turns to religion now, he may not actually have to spend the afterlife with the Devil. Tom becomes a fervent church-goer and prays loudly. He is very showy about his faith, but does not actually modify his other behaviors to match his purported religious beliefs. Irving wrote this aspect of the story largely to critique Puritans, who he believed were vocal about their religious practices but did not actually align their actions with the beliefs they spoke about loudly and criticized others for not following.

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Why does Irving use humor in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Satire is a particular type of humor, and literary critics agree that in "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving was satirizing America's growing greed and materialism when the story was written in 1824.

Irving was a well-known social satirist, and with this story he observes how the American colonies, even the ones that were supposed to be religious communities like the Puritans, were set up to exploit the abundant natural resources in America. And like Tom Walker, people also exploited each other when there was money to be made.

Irving's satirical humor in this story enables him to make a social critique without it turning into an editorial or a rant. Through the use of humorous exaggeration, Irving is able to make Tom Walker and his wife ridiculously greedy—to the point that they would squabble over the eggs that their chickens laid.

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Why does Irving use humor in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Like most of Irving's stories, "The Devil and Tom Walker" is a satire; so because the author is mocking Puritan beliefs and superstitions, hypocritical church members, greedy husbands and wives, etc., humor is a necessity to assure that the audience knows that the piece is satirical. Irving's exaggeration of the level of greed and dislike in the Walker marriage is humorous, but it also illuminates problems that Irving saw in marriages and the consequences of greed.

While it is amusing that Walker is so concerned about the devil coming for his soul after he becomes a usurper that he carries around a Bible and wants his horse buried upside down, Irving uses his humor in this section of the story to point out the hypocrisies in people who are openly religious but inwardly immoral.

In short, the story's humor advances Irving's satirical tone and themes.

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