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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Last Updated on June 26, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

The Narrator Introduces the Story’s Background: “The Devil and Tom Walker” begins with a description of a place near Boston, Massachusetts, where the notorious pirate Kidd was said to have buried treasure. It was said that the devil presided over Kidd’s burying of the treasure, and also took guardianship of it. Kidd never retrieved his treasure, as he was soon captured and hanged in England.

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Tom Meets the Devil: Walking home one day in 1727, the miserly Tom Walker takes a shortcut through the swamp. He comes upon an old Native American fort that is rumored to have been used for evil magic. Resting on a stump, Tom is addressed by a man whose face is covered in black soot. The stranger is carrying an axe and wearing Native American garb. He claims that Tom is trespassing on his land. Tom notices that the trees around him are marked with the names of wealthy and powerful men of the colony, and all are scored with an axe. The stranger introduces himself, and Tom realizes that he is Old Scratch—the devil.

The Devil Offers Tom a Deal: The devil offers Tom Kidd’s buried treasure “on certain conditions.” Tom wishes to consider the terms and asks the devil for proof that he is telling the truth. The devil presses his finger on Tom’s forehead, leaving a fingerprint marked on his skin that Tom is unable to clean off. When Tom returns home, his wife tells him that the wealthy Absalom Crowninshield has died. Tom remembers this name from a fallen tree in the swamp, and is convinced that the devil is real.

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Tom’s Wife Goes to the Devil: Tom’s wife is excited by the idea of treasure and urges him to take the deal. However, Tom refuses, simply to contradict her. Frustrated, she goes to the swamp to find the devil and make a deal for Kidd’s treasure herself. When she returns, she tells Tom only that the devil asked her to bring him an offering. She leaves the next day, taking all the valuables in the house, and is never seen again. Several theories are given about her fate, the most probable being that she fought with the devil and was killed.

Tom and the Devil Make a Deal: Tom is impatient to deal with the devil and become wealthy. When he finally finds the devil, the devil stipulates that Tom can have Kidd’s treasure in exchange for his soul, but that the money must be used for evil. The devil proposes that Tom become a slave-trader, but Tom staunchly refuses. The devil then asks Tom to be a usurer, a person who lends money at extremely high interest rates. Tom agrees, for he is well-suited for this work, and he and the devil shake hands.

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Latest answer posted November 25, 2009, 4:54 am (UTC)

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Tom the Usurer: Tom sets up business in Boston, where he exploits a scarcity of funds in the colonies. Those who are in desperate need of money go to Tom, who loans out money with exorbitant interest rates and leaves his customers poorer than before. As a usurer, Tom becomes a rich and powerful man in the colony. He buys himself a large house and a nice carriage. However, Tom is still miserly, so he refuses to furnish his house completely, feed his horses well, or take care of his carriage.

Tom Turns to Religion: As Tom ages, he thinks more about his fate. To avoid losing his soul to the devil, he turns to religion. He becomes an extraordinarily devout Christian, but only outwardly: he judges the other church-goers, viewing their sins as credits to himself. Despite his zeal, Tom still worries that the devil will come for him. He carries a Bible with him everywhere he goes and keeps another on his desk in his office.

Tom Is Taken by the Devil: One day, Tom is preparing to foreclose a mortgage on a land-speculator. The speculator begs Tom not to foreclose on him, and tells Tom that Tom has already made a lot of money from him. Irritated, Tom retorts, “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Immediately, there are three knocks on Tom’s door. When he answers, the devil is there. He sets Tom upon a black horse and sends it running down the street and into the swamp. After Tom is taken, all of his money and belongings are reduced to cinders or wood chips and his house burns down. The story ends with a warning to readers about gaining wealth through sinful means, and mentions that Tom’s spirit is still seen on stormy nights.

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