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The Devil and Tom Walker

by Washington Irving

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Discussion Topic

Tom's attempts to escape and cheat the devil, and his eventual death in "The Devil and Tom Walker."

Summary:

In "The Devil and Tom Walker," Tom attempts to escape and cheat the devil by becoming fervently religious and carrying a Bible at all times. Despite these efforts, his greed and hypocrisy ensure his eventual downfall. The devil ultimately claims Tom, illustrating the futility of trying to escape a pact with evil.

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

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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How does Tom die in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

At the end of Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker," Tom Walker, who is a moneylender, is foreclosing a mortgage. This foreclosure will ruin the speculator who borrowed the money and who begs for a few more months to pay. Tom, however, refuses to give him a single day. As they argue over the matter, the speculator points out that Tom has made a great deal of money out of their dealings already, whereupon Tom cries out:

The devil take me ... if I have made a farthing!

As soon as he says these words, there are three loud knocks on the door. When he goes to answer the summons, Tom finds a sinister black figure, who abruptly tells him, "Tom, you’re come for!" The man whisks Tom up onto his horse and rides away with him. The moneylender is never seen again, becoming nothing more than a proverb in the memories of his neighbors. Irving says that this was the end of Tom Walker, and the implication is that, since Tom made a pact with the devil earlier in the story, this combination of lie and blasphemy in his argument with the speculator is the cue for the devil to claim his due and take his servant away on his black horse to hell.

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How does Tom die in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

In the story, Tom Walker makes a pact with Old Scratch, or the devil, after his wife dies at the devil's hands.

For his part, Tom finds little to mourn about his wife's death. In fact, he believes that Old Scratch has done him a favor by claiming his shrewish wife. Inspired by his greed, Tom approaches the devil. In exchange for access to the pirate's treasure, Tom agrees to serve the devil.

Initially, Old Scratch orders Tom to become a slave trader, but Tom refuses. In the end, both agree that Tom will be a usurer. In his new job, Tom is relentless in his quest for money and prestige. He lends to the

needy and adventurous, the gambling speculator, the dreaming land-jobber, the thriftless tradesman, the merchant with cracked credit.

The text tells us that Tom shows no mercy to the poor, who often struggle to meet their financial obligations. With the money he earns, Tom builds a large house. However, due to his miserly habits, he leaves much of the house unfinished and unfurnished. We are told that he also purchases a carriage and that he nearly starves the horses who pull it.

As time progresses, Tom fears for the state of his soul. He becomes a religious fanatic and takes to carrying a Bible with him constantly. However, his new habits fail to save him from the devil's clutches. One day, while a poor land-jobber asks for more time to pay his debts, Tom is caught unawares by the devil's presence.

Old Scratch grabs Tom, puts the hapless miser onto his horse, and takes him away. According to the text, a countryman sees Tom and the devil racing across the fields to the black hemlock swamp near the old Indian fort. Then, a thunderbolt falls from the sky and sets the whole forest ablaze. Tom is never heard from or seen again.

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what happens to Tom's treasure at the end of the story?

At the beginning of the story, it is established that the treasure, already "ill-gotten", is presided over and guarded by the Devil. In stories like this, that usually doesn't bode well for the character unlucky enough to meet him, or for the honesty to be expected in any of the Devil's words or objects.

Surely enough, when the Devil claims Tom (as part of their bargain) at the end of the story, most of Tom's worldly possessions are left behind, such as his home and horses. The horses are discovered to be dead, and the house burns down the next day. The treasure is discovered to be a chest filled with "chips and shavings"; small pieces of wood - a subtle reference to the Devil's identity as the "Black Woodsman". The actual treasure may never have existed, or it may have been taken to Hell - its fate, and indeed its existence in the first place, are unclear. 

Part of the point of ensuring that the treasure followed Tom to Hell was to show that his earthly acts could not be separated from his character; it would be impossible for him to pass on his wealth to anyone else because it was bound to his soul.

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In "The Devil and Tom Walker," what finally happens to Tom Walker?

Tom cuts what is traditionally called a "Faustian bargain", trading his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly favors. In the context of the story this detail is left out, being referred to as something that "need not be mentioned" but is "generally understood" in such circumstances. This emphasizes that the focus of the story is not upon the exact course of the plot, because we already have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen; Tom is going to try to skip out on the bargain, and the Devil is probably going to collect his soul anyway.

Surely enough, as Tom ages he loses his carefree attitude and begins to think about death and the fate that awaits him, and attempts to alleviate his fears by going to church and carrying Bibles. The Devil catches him at the door one morning, his protective Bibles misplaced, and puts him astride a black horse, which gallops out of town and into the swamp, apparently to the old Indian fort where Tom first met the Devil, and thereafter Tom disappears. All of Tom's worldly possessions are either transformed into useless junk, or destroyed by natural acts. It is suggested that his ghost still haunts the swamp.

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How does Tom attempt to cheat the devil in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Tom Walker has come to realize that the pact he made with the devil is a very bad deal indeed. In fact, it's so bad that he doesn't really get anything out of it, certainly nothing that brings him much in the way of satisfaction or peace of mind. Though he may be phenomenally rich thanks to the deal that he's made, it hasn't made his life any easier—far from it, in fact. Tom has become riddled with fear over the fate of his mortal soul. He is worried, with good reason, that he's going to hell.

So, in a desperate attempt to cheat the devil and wheedle his way out of the bargain he's made, Tom tries to make out that he's a devout Christian. He does this first of all by becoming a “violent churchgoer”—that is to say, someone who enthusiastically attends church on a regular basis. To the same end, he starts praying “loudly and strenuously,” as if his life depended on it. For good measure, Tom also keeps a Bible with him at all times, as if this could ward off the devil.

But none of Tom's strategies work. The simple reason for this is that Tom's supposed religiosity is entirely for show; it’s not in the least bit genuine. So, when death finally comes for him, all he can do is to try and run away.

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What does Tom do to try to free himself from the devil's claim?

Tom tries to use religion to free himself from the devil's claim on his immortal soul, thinking he can outsmart the devil this way.

The irony is that the way Tom practices Christianity only binds him more tightly to the devil. He begins to attend church and pray more loudly than everyone else. However, this is hypocritical behavior: it is entirely for show and has nothing to do with inward transformation or belief in God. It particularly violates the biblical mandate in Matthew 6:5, which says the following:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.

Irving's early readers would have thought of that Bible verse.

Tom also practices religion in harsh, judgmental ways, wanting to condemn others for their sins. He even would like to revive the old witch trials, which the narrator had previously mentioned specifically as the devil's work.

In addition to becoming a churchgoer, Tom also keeps a Bible with him at all times so that the devil can't catch him by surprise. However, he carries it as he continues his cruel work of lending money to desperate people at ruinous interest rates.

Irving shows that Tom's religious faith is a sham, a false form of Christianity that ironically ties him more closely to the devil. The devil wants people like Tom, who are hateful rather than loving, attending church and twisting the Christian faith into something it is not.

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