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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How does Tom attempt to escape the bargain in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker" Tom tries to get out of his deal with the devil by becoming religious. As he grows older Tom starts to attend church services and pray and sing loudly. In fact, the narrator notes that in his later years "Tom was as rigid in religious, as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his neighbors, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account became a credit on his own side of the page." Tom was worried that the devil might come to take him at any time and "That he might not be taken unawares, therefore, it is said he always carried a small bible in his coat pocket." Tom tried to compensate for his moral failings and break his deal with the devil by taking on the trappings of religion; however, ironically, Tom never changed his moral behavior and continued his practice of extorting money from those who came to him for loans. This was ultimately his undoing, as the devil comes to take him away while he is in the middle of mistreating one of his clients. In the end, Tom's outwardly religious behavior couldn't compensate for his cruel and unethical behavior.

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How does Tom try to avoid fulfilling his end of the bargain?

As Tom grew older, and gained more money than he knew what to do with, he began to grow nervous that the devil would return to collect his end of the bargain.  To keep the devil at bay, he begins going to church.  He prays loudly, and outwardly appears to have become the picture of a good Christian soul.

He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church goer. He prayed loudly and strenuously as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs. Indeed, one might always tell when he had sinned most during the week, by the clamour of his Sunday devotion.

His new outlook was noted by the other people in the town who were surprised that this new member of the church seemed to be more religious than them.

The quiet christians who had been modestly and steadfastly travelling Zionward, were struck with self reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped in their career by this new-made convert.

In fact, Tom treated church the same way he treated his money.  In order to lie to himself he would keep track of the people's transgressions and decided for each sin they committed, he was that much better of a person.

Tom was as rigid in religious, as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his neighbours, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account became a credit on his own side of the page. He even talked of the expediency of reviving the persecution of quakers and anabaptists. In a word, Tom's zeal became as notorious as his riches.

Of course, none of this mattered.  His new ways did not show a change in heart.  He would still make bad deals, he would just read the bible while he did so.  In the end, the Devil returns and takes away Tom and he is never seen again.

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How does Tom try to get out of his bargain?

In his tale "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving wryly narrates,

As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next.

Having made a pact with the Devil and been the cruelest of usurers under the directions of "Old Scratch," Tom begins to worry about the proverbial Day of Reckoning when he dies. So, he becomes "a violent churchgoer"; that is, he prays vociferously as though heaven can be taken by his very lung power. He is "rigid" in both religious and monetary matters; now a fundamentalist, he criticizes his neighbors, believing that every one of their sins which he exposes will "credit on his own side." In fanatical fashion, he castigates Quakers and Anabaptists, urging their persecution. Nevertheless, Tom still dreads payment to the Devil; so, he begins to carry a Bible with him at all times and assures that customers observe his reading when they come in for loans to his office.

Irving humorously includes this passage, also:

Some say that Tom grew a little crack-brained...and that fancying his end approaching, he had his horse newly shod, saddled, and bridled, and buried with his feet uppermost; because he supposed that at the last day the world would be turned upside down, in which case he should find his horse standing ready for mounting.

But, he discounts it as a "old wives' fable, narrating that this precaution of Tom's is superfluous because he calls out his own fate when, having lost "patience and piety," he tells a speculator that he has made too much money off him, "The Devil take me...if I have made a farthing!" At this moment a "black man ...holding a black horse" appears and says, "Tom, you're come for."

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How does Tom try to get out of his bargain?

He becomes a "violent churchgoer." He also keeps a large Bible on his desk and carries a small one in his pocket. He becomes very judgmental, keeping track (almost like a ledger) of others' sins. He seems to think he can justify his sins if he can show that he is not as sinful as other people.

The problem with this plan is that even though he becomes religious, he never becomes righteous. He never changes his wicked behavior. The irony is that he could have gotten out of the deal if he had truly repented.

This is a Faustian tale. Dr. Faustus, by Marlowe, Faust, by Goethe, and many stories since, are all tales of people who make deals with the devil. In some of these tales, the person does get out of the deal, but that can only occur if the person TRULY repents. Goethe's Faust repents and goes to heaven. Dr. Faustus in Marlowe's version never does. Neither does Tom Walker.

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How does Tom try to get out of his bargain?

Tom gets frightened in his old age, not wanting to lose his soul.  He begins to go to church and becomes devoutly religious, believing he can "chase the devil" from him; in essence, scare it away.  Irving lets us know that Tom is not successful, and when the devil takes Tom away, his fortune - and house - crumble.

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