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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So you’re going to teach “The Devil and Tom Walker.” This classic piece of American literature has been a mainstay of English classes for generations. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time guiding students through the text, some teaching tips will help ensure that the experience is rewarding for everyone, including you. Studying “The Devil and Tom Walker” will expose students to moral allegories and themes surrounding moral corruption, societal issues, and Faustian legend. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1824
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9-10
  • Approximate Word Count: 4,700
  • Author: Washington Irving
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Short Story, Folktale
  • Literary Period: Romanticism
  • Narration: Third-Person
  • Conflict: Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Supernatural
  • Setting: Colony of New England, 1727, North America
  • Structure: Moral Allegory
  • Mood: Colloquial, Satirical

Texts That Go Well With "The Devil and Tom Walker"

“Afterward,” a short story by Edith Wharton published in 1910, is a gothic ghost story about a couple who move into a haunted house. The story follows the disappearance and death of the main character’s husband. It promotes the theme that greed is a sin that will eventually be punished, just as Tom’s greed in “The Devil and Tom Walker” proves his undoing.

“The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), by Stephen Vincent Benét, initially resembles “The Devil and Tom Walker” closely: both stories feature a poor man who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for his soul. However, where Tom Walker readily agrees to do the devil’s work and become a usurer, Jabez Stone resists. When the devil comes to collect his soul, he hires the famed American lawyer and orator Daniel Webster to defend him in a trial. Both stories prominently feature regional American history, Faustian legend, and moral instruction, with “The Devil and Daniel Webster” directly drawing inspiration from Irving’s work.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, was published in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in 1819 and 1820. The story is a prime example of Irving’s use of gothic elements. It revolves around superstition and fear: Ichabod Crane is tricked into believing the legend of the headless horseman. Both “The Devil and Tom Walker” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have vividly described settings which give each story an ominous and spooky tone.

“The Mortal Immortal,” published in 1833, is a short story by Mary Shelley that explores the negative consequences of immortality. The main character, Winzy, accidentally drinks an elixir that grants him eternal life. While at first it supplies him with a joyous disposition and tranquility, Winzy soon finds that his eternal youth is a hindrance as those around him age and die. Like “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Shelley’s story references Faust, the devil, and folk superstitions.

“The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852),  by Elizabeth Gaskell, is a classic ghost story that employs gothic tropes and a framed narrative, similar to Irving’s stories as related by Crayon. Furthermore, “The Old Nurse’s Story” explores the immorality of two sisters overtaken by jealousy, who are both punished for their acts, just as Tom is punished for his greed.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a gothic novella. Like “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the aspects of human nature that give rise to immoral behavior. Both Tom Walker and Dr. Jekyll exist in society while simultaneously sinning against it: Tom is a greedy usurer who takes advantage of others, while Dr. Jekyll uses a potion to give himself the freedom to commit heinous acts in the form of Mr. Hyde.

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Key Plot Points