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...
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