Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” contains historical and biblical allusions. Irving uses his skeptical narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, to retell a story based on local superstitions, which in turn are supposedly based on historical events. Allusions root his stories within the folkloric and cultural traditions of Irving’s readership.
The Legend of Faust: In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Tom Walker sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth and power. This is similar to the legend of Faust, in which the scholar Faust signs away his soul to the devil in order to obtain worldly pleasure and arcane knowledge. Faust is loosely based on a real person, Johann Georg Faust (1480–1541), a German scholar who experimented with magic and occult practices.
- Likely due to his reputation in life and rumors spread about his death, Faust’s life has since been retold, misconstrued, and adapted into stories and plays. A notable adaption of the Faust legend is Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus (1604), in which Faust signs his soul to the devil for skills in magic. Like Tom Walker, Marlowe’s Faust tries to repent but is unable to escape damnation.
History of War With Native American Tribes: “The Devil and Tom Walker” takes place in 1727, and thus the backdrop of the story includes the colonists’ history of war with Native American tribes. The references to such struggles likely point to either the Pequot War (1636–1638), which took place in Massachusetts Bay, or King Philip's War (1675–1678), which took place throughout New England.
- The swamp in which Tom meets the devil was once an “old Indian fort.” Tom even finds “a cloven skull, with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it.” The people of the colony fear the swamp and the “old Indian fort” because of stories that “the savages held incantations [t]here and made sacrifices to the Evil Spirit.”
- The devil, as Irving depicts him, explicitly aligns himself with the Native Americans. This was a common belief of colonial Puritans. This element of the short story may also indicate racist attitudes toward Native Americans on the part of Irving and his contemporaries.
Biblical Allusions: In writing about the devil, a prominent figure in many Christian traditions, Irving incorporates multiple biblical allusions.
- The devil’s fingerprint on Tom’s forehead is likely an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis, in which Cain is marked by God after killing his brother. The devil’s mark on Tom’s forehead suggests that Tom, like Cain, is marked by his sinful acts.
- Another biblical allusion is found in the phrase “a great man had fallen in Israel.” In the story, the quote is used to announce the death of Absalom Crowninshield, a powerful and morally corrupt man of the colony. The quote is a reference to 2 Samuel 3:38, where it means that a good and honorable person has died. Its invocation for Crowninshield is therefore ironic, as he was a corrupt man who is sent to hell for his actions.