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The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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How does "The Devil and Tom Walker" exemplify Romanticism?

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Some Romantic elements in "The Devil and Tom Walker" include its appeal to a mythic past, its emphasis on emotion over intellect, and the idea of the woods as a mysterious, supernatural place.

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Washington Irving's tale “The Devil and Tom Walker” exhibits many characteristics of Romanticism. First, it is a story of the supernatural. Old Tom Walker and his wife encounter the strange black man who is really the devil more or less in disguise. While Mrs. Walker tries to dicker with the devil and loses, Tom deals with him more shrewdly (so he thinks) and becomes a rich man. Tom's deal, however, eventually catches up with him, and he loses everything he has, including his soul. Indeed, Tom might think that he can best the devil, but the enemy wins in the end as Tom's supernatural wealth becomes his undoing, physically and spiritually.

The story is also focused on the individual and how personal choices affect the life of a man. This, too, is an element of Romanticism. Tom Walker is the protagonist of the story, and the narrator describes his character in detail. He is mean and miserly, cruel to everyone and everything, and as time goes on, he does not change for the better. In fact, his deal with the devil makes him even worse, for he now has money and sets himself up in business as a moneylender. Now he is in the position to hurt not just his wife and animals but many other people as well. And he does. Tom squeezes the money and the life right out of his clients. Yet at the same time, Tom grows anxious about the deal he made to get all that money, and he tries to go through the motions of religion to make himself feel better. Yet his religion is merely a show, for he is as nasty and greedy as ever. After reading the Bible, he will foreclose on a mortgage of some poor person without a second thought. We can't help but think when the devil carries Tom away that he has gotten exactly what he deserves.

Finally, “The Devil and Tom Walker” places a strong emphasis on emotions over reason, as does Romanticism. Tom Walker and his wife are both driven by greed. They want riches and fame, so they allow their passions to push them right into a deal with the devil. They do not stop to think about the consequences. This lack of reasoning gets Mrs. Walker killed. This lack of reasoning sets Tom up in a lucrative business, but it also makes him more and more cold and merciless. He is not thinking straight, and his grasping passion drives him right into the devil's arms in the end, for he has failed to use his common sense and think about what happens to people when they give themselves to evil.

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One of the main aspects of Romanticism found in "The Devil and Tom Walker" is its reliance on the supernatural. Reacting against rationalism, the Romantics worked to integrate the supernatural into literary works. Based loosely on the Faust myth, the story shows Tom having actual conversations with Old Scratch, the devil, and eventually trading his soul for worldly wealth.

A second aspect that marks the story as Romantic is the folkloric basis of the supernatural in this story. The story does not draw inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology but from the folk traditions of common people. Romanticism was centrally concerned with gathering together and recording oral traditions and tales: the Brothers Grimm compilations of fairy tales is an exemplary example of this trend. While Irving is inventive in creating this story himself, it clearly roots itself in folkish morality tales about temptation and encounters with the devil. In fact, Irving includes tongue-in-cheek parodying of folktale "authenticity" when he writes of one version of the story:

This, however, is probably a mere old wives’ fable. If he really did take such a precaution, it was totally superfluous; at least so says the authentic old legend; which closes his story in the following manner.

Finally, the opening of the story, with its detailed description of a foreboding natural setting, is Romantic in its emphasis on nature and on the effects of nature on human emotions. Most often in Romanticism, nature is associated with God and seen as an expression of divine goodness, but in this case, the twisted nature of the gloomy swamp and "treacherous forest" Tom enters mirrors the way it has been taken over by demonic forces.

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Washington's story has to do with Tom Walker, a rural New Englander, and his chance meeting with the devil at an abandoned fort one day. Walker sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the whereabouts of buried treasure left in the woods by Captain Kidd, the pirate.

The story has several Romantic elements:

  • The story deals with events in a mythic past. Kidd's treasure is more legend than fact, and the early days of settling the country have a similar storybook quality
  • The presence of the devil suggests that the fort is a kind of magic, supernatural place, and it is said that the Native Americans sacrificed humans to the devil there
  • The woods and swamp are contrasted with Tom's house and domestic arrangements. Nature is the site of mystery and forbidden, hidden knowledge, while Tom's house is simply the place where he argues with his wife
  • Even though Tom and his wife are very hardheaded when it comes to money, Tom's experience with the devil represents a triumph of emotion—his desire to find the hidden gold but also to gain the upper hand against his wife—over reason. A rational man would question the wisdom of making a deal with the devil, and in fact the whole scenario of meeting an evil spirit in the woods is fundamentally irrational.
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Romanticism was a movement in the arts that began as a revolt against the scientific rationalism after the Industrial Revolution.  Possessed of a distrust of industry and the city life, Romanticism encouraged the use of intuition, imagination, and emotion as superior to reason; Romanticists felt that contemplation of the natural world is a means of discovering the truth that lies behind mere reality.  In addition, the Romantics fostered an interest in the more "natural past" and in the supernatural.

In the story of the Romantic, Washington Irving, "The Devil and Tom Walker," there is clearly evidence of elements of Romanticism.  One prominent element is


  • The main plotline revolves around the bargains of the devil with Tom Walker's wife and Tom himself.  In fact, this story has been referred to as the "comic New England Faust."


  • The moral lesson of the story that greed is evil evolves from the narrative of Tom Walker in a rural area.  For example, even though he becomes rich, Tom is so stingy that he still does not properly feed his horses.
  • The beautiful natural landscape of New England with its bluffs is the setting for the preternatural experiences of Irving's narrative.


  • Tom Walker loses his life because he tries to outwit the devil.  Had he had love (true emotion) for his wife and his fellow-men, he might not have met the end that he has from his greed and hypocrisy.
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How is "The Devil and Tom Walker" a good example of American romanticism?

A love of the paranormal or supernatural is also a key element in Romanticism. 

In "The Devil and Tom Walker" there are several events which qualify as unexplainable beyond a shadow of a doubt or strange and eery.  One of these is the legend of the hidden pirate treasure and the other is the old Indian fort nearby where Tom and his wife live.  Both of these factors hold the people's interest and intrigue their imaginations based on the lure of treasure and the strange and unfamiliar Indian ceremonies and burial grounds.

Another is the disappearance of his wife who was never seen or heard from again.  The only thing found to explain her whereabouts was her apron hanging from a tree containing a heart and liver.

Of course, the Devil is also a source of intrigue.  In this story both Tom and his wife act out of greed to "strike a bargain" with the Devil and toy with the supernatural in doing so.  Tom evidently has a change of heart and attempts to go back on his deal.  When the Devil calls to collect his soul, Tom is mysteriously swept away toward the Indian burial grounds on a striking black horse and is never heard from again. 

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How is "The Devil and Tom Walker" a good example of American romanticism?

Tom Walker addresses a typical setting and theme of American Romanticism. As the young nation matured, the woods became symbolic of individualism, passionate self-discovery that moved past the book learning of now crowded cities. The woods changed from a threatening place of danger to life, limb and soul (just ask the folks in Salem). Man was left in the woods surrounded by nature to investigate his own being and moral makeup. Here Tom Walker faces his insatiable greed and does not learn his lesson.

A typical theme of American Romanticism would involve man’s weakness for easy wealth and cruelty to others. Slavery, spousal disharmony, greed and sloth are portrayed in this cautionary tale. Romanticism moved us into a new mode of thought, but obviously the traditional American work ethic was to be preserved.

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