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 narrator's attitude towards the events in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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The narrator’s attitude toward the events of the story is almost one of detachment. Although the narrator relates the story to us, it is not evident how he feels about what is happening. He is certainly not sympathetic to Tom, nor is he gleeful at his fate. Rather, it is as though the narrator finds the whole situation vaguely amusing, as though he has seen humans make choices such as Tom and his wife make, and he is not the least bit surprised at the outcome of these decisions.

The narrator’s attitude is a reflection of the changing attitudes toward wealth and material goods at that time. Puritanism was diminishing in popularity, and people were becoming more comfortable wanting and owning goods and possessions. The sin and guilt associated with wealth was still lingering, though it was not as heavy as it had been.

The narrator’s distant, unsurprised attitude toward the decisions Tom and his wife make, what they are willing to risk and give up for things, demonstrates Irving’s thoughtful approach to the changing attitude. He illustrates the nuances involved with the changing times, the battle between “good” and “evil” as well as wealth and selflessness. If the narrator behaved more strongly in favor of or against Tom, we would not be able to think about the changing times as clearly.

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What seems to be the narrator’s attitude toward the events of "The Devil and Tom Walker"? What does Irving gain by using this type of narrator rather than having Tom relate the events?

The narrator of "The Devil and Tom Walker" tells the story from the third person, but he is privy to Tom Walker's thoughts. It is through sentences like "'Let us get hold of the property,' said he, consolingly, to himself, 'and we will endeavor to do without the woman'" that the reader understands Tom's thought processes. But, it must be noted that the narrator is selective about which of Tom's thoughts that he shares with the reader; in this way, he shapes readers' perceptions about Tom Walker and offers his own tacit judgment.

The narrator is wise to human foibles and his attitude towards the story's events is a detached amusement. He does not build the reader's sympathy toward anyone's losses: neither Tom, his wife, nor the desperate people who come to Tom for financial relief. His tone suggests that greed and avarice are a choice that some people make because they neglect to take the long view of life.

Telling the story from Tom Walker's point of view would inhibit Irving's ability to create the tone of detached amusement. Tom's point of view would compromise the satirical tone of the story because it might polarize readers into two camps: those that sympathize with him and those who dislike him from the outset. Leaving out the humanizing force of Tom Walker's own voice shifts the focus of the story to its theme, a satire of the growing greed in America.

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What seems to be the narrator’s attitude toward the events of "The Devil and Tom Walker"? What does Irving gain by using this type of narrator rather than having Tom relate the events?

The narration in "The Devil and Tom Walker" is interesting because it doesn't exactly mesh with the content of the text. Typically, stories told about the Devil are frightening, and the narrator is teaching a lesson about the perils of having an unscrupulous lifestyle.  This narrator, however, is different. He takes almost a comical approach to the story, and there are a few lighthearted, even funny, comments within the text.  For example, when describing the home of Tom and his wife, the narrator states, "The lonely wayfarer shrunk within himself at the horrid clamor and clapper clawing; eyed the den of discord askance, and hurried on his way, rejoicing, if a bachelor, in his celibacy."

Another example is when Tom recounts the offer he received from the Devil and his wife's reaction:  

However Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so he flatly refused out of the mere spirit of contradiction. Many and bitter were the quarrels they had on the subject, but the more she talked the more resolute was Tom not to be damned to please her.

And a final example, when Tom finds that his wife has disappeared, probably at the hands of "Old Scratch":  "Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife; for he was a man of fortitude." 

All of these examples come together to create a relatively lighthearted approach to serious subject matter. What Irving gains by this is a more approachable, interesting text in which the reader may learn an important lesson: one's actions are far more important than one's words--seen by Tom Walker trying to weasel out of his deal by attending church and reading the Bible. His heart was not changed, and he ended up being taken by the Devil anyway.  The lighthearted, comical tone makes it much easier to see the lesson and learn from Tom's mistakes.  

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