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

Start Free Trial

What are some examples of satire in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Quick answer:

The story may be analysed as a satire in the sense that it mocks greed, religious hypocrisy and the inhumane treatment of others.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Irving's narrator is establishing the setting of the story, it is described as "about the year 1727, just at the time when earthquakes were prevalent in New England, and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees," but Irving does not mean that the area has been experiencing seismic events....

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

 Irving is satirically alluding to the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement in Puritan New England that began to gain momentum during this time. The purpose of the Great Awakening was to bring lapsed Christians back to the church.Tom Walker was living through this period and obviously failing to heed the call to return to God's grace.  

Another use of satire was more subtle.  Washington Irving never openly worked for abolition or said much about it publicly, but in private letters he indicated that he felt that slavery and other forms of extreme social oppression were morally repugnant.  Scholars of Irving's work note that he did not want to alienate readers and steered clear of controversy.  However, if we analyze his description of the devil, we see that he seems to be satirizing the demonization of African Americans and Indians.

"...the stranger was 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."

Irving is subtly and carefully pointing out that the devil's complexion is the result of dwelling in the fires of hell rather than an indication of his ethnicity. Irving is satirizing the beliefs of racists at the time who considered slaves and Indians to be demons.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the first things that is satirized in the story is marriage. Tom and his wife have a rather turbulent relationship and Irving satirizes this by saying that single people passing by their house were often glad they were not married. He writes,"the lonely wayfarer shrunk within himself at the horrid clamour and clapper clawing; eyed the den of discord askance, and hurried on his way, rejoicing, if a bachelor, in his celibacy."
Once Tom has made his deal with the devil, Irving satirizes his hypocritical actions. He says,"Thus Tom was the universal friend of the needy, and he acted like a "friend in need;" that is to say, he always exacted good pay and good security. "
In addition, Irving satirizes the way Tom turns to religion and became extremely critical of his neighbors, despite the fact that his own soul was damned. Irving says," 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. Thus Irving manages to satirize several element of his own society while telling the kind of story many people were already familiar with.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are three examples of sarcastic humour in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

In this brilliant satire by Washington Irving there are certainly any number of examples of humour to pick from. You might however want to analyse the presentation of Tom and his wife, and the kind of marriage that they "enjoy" to see a number of different incidences of irony and sarcasm and how it is employed for comic effect. First of all, consider the way in which the greed of Tom and his wife is described. So miserly are they said to be that they even try to cheat each other:

Whatever the woman could lay her hands on, she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg.

This picture of Tom's wife constantly prowling around for anything she can find to stow away is one that is grimly satirical and clearly uses exaggeration for comic effect. Not, too, the way in which the skinny horse would "look piteously at the passerby, and seem to petittion deliverance from this land of famine." Again, the conditions in which Tom and his wife live are so bad that even the animals want to get out. Lastly, consider the way that the sounds of the squabbles between Tom and his wife made any travellers passing by profoundly greatful that they were unmarried:

The lonely wayfarer shrunk within himself at the horrid clamour and clapperclawing; eyed the den of discord askance; and hurried on his way, rejoicing, if a bachelore, in his celibacy.

Clearly we can see several examples of sarcastic humour therefore from the presentation of Tom and his wife and their marriage and living arrangements, which use exaggeration for comic effect.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Devil and Tom Walker," in what ways is this story a satire?

It is important to realise that in this story, Irving is updating the traditional archetype concerning a man who makes a deal with the devil only to lose his soul in the end for the new America that he is a part of. A satire is a story that mocks some human folly, and as we read it becomes clear that Irving is mocking greed, stinginess, religious intolerance, spiritual hypocrisy and the inhumane treatment of others. He criticises the Puritans for their persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists, the Salem witch trials, and their practice of usury through the action in the novel. By far the clearest indication of this element of satire is the way that Irving makes it clear that the devil has been inextricably intertwined with these activities as is seen when the devil introduces himself to Tom:

"Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave dealers, and the grand master of the Salem witches."

Note how the devil places himself at the centre of all of this despicable activities, and thus Irving makes it clear how he feels about them.

If you want to see how stinginess and greed are satirised you only need to look at how Tom and his wife are described in incredibly amusing terms that exaggerates their greed:

He had a wife as miserly as himself: 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, and many and fierce were the conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common property.

We are presented with stereotypes representing an embodiment of greed - Tom and his wife's avaricious nature even leads to conflict between them as each tries to squirrel away money and possessions from the other.

Clearly, then, Irving uses this tale as a harsh comment on what he sees as the failings of America in his time, in particular criticising the hypocrisy and cruelty perpetrated by the Puritans against other groups and their sense of greed and miserliness.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is satire used in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

Satire is the use of hyperbole, irony, and humor to critique people, institutions, and even social norms. The purpose of satire is to alert people to crucial problems in society and to encourage specific changes.

In The Devil and Tom Walker, Washington Irving uses satire to criticize greedy moneylenders, shrewish women, hypocritical leaders, and biased historians.

Tom's wife is described as "a tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm. Her voice was often heard in wordy warfare with her husband." In the 18th century, it was believed that shrewish women exhibited traits antithetical to those expected of a refined woman. When Tom shares the story of his encounter with Old Scratch, Tom's wife demands that he "comply with the black man's terms and secure what would make them wealthy for life." For her part, Tom's wife decides to take things into her own hands when her husband perversely refuses to comply with her demands.

She goes and meets with Old Scratch himself, taking with her "the silver teapot and spoons and every portable article of value." Washington Irving uses situational irony to critique the actions of an overbearing and shrewish wife; her actions reward her with the opposite of what she's hoped for. Instead of reaping great rewards from her efforts, she becomes the victim of Old Scratch and is "never heard of more."

The narrator tells us that "What was her real fate nobody knows, in consequence of so many pretending to know. It is one of those facts that have become confounded by a variety of historians." Here, Washington Irving is critiquing the problem of biased historians corrupting the truth about historical events. In the story, some say Tom's wife had "eloped with the household booty"; still others imagine that Old Scratch had decoyed her into a dismal quagmire." Meanwhile, there are those who support the theory that she had "lost her way among the tangled mazes of the swamp and sunk into some pit or slough." So, there's a variety of stories about the fate of Tom's wife, all suppositions engendered from the imaginations and biased perceptions of various parties.

In the story, Washington Irving also satirizes corrupt moneylenders and hypocritical leaders. Ministers and great men of the colony are portrayed as evil and untrustworthy men. Old Scratch pronounces judgment on these influential men, and they are burned up as firewood in the story: "Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of quakers and anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave dealers, and the grand master of the Salem witches." Instead of God presiding over the judgment of these men, the author has the Devil do the honors, an irony.

Later, in the story, the author uses humor and hyperbole to highlight Tom Walker's hypocrisy. After enriching himself at the expense of his clients, Tom becomes religious because he's afraid for his chances in the afterlife: "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." Basically, Tom becomes religious, not for altruistic purposes, but so that he can cheat the Devil out of the bargain he's made with him.

As can be seen, the author uses satire as a sort of social commentary about life in New England in the 18th century.

Last Updated on