Tom Walker’s Story as a Moral Allegory: “The Devil and Tom Walker” is a moral allegory, a story that reveals a moral or message. Washington Irving uses its main character, Tom Walker, to instruct readers about hypocrisy, greed, and the corruption that wealth and power bring.
- For discussion: What is the moral of the story? How do Tom and his wife help reveal the moral? What are their actions, and what are the consequences of their actions?
- For discussion: What does Tom claim right before he is taken by the devil? What does this statement reveal about Tom’s nature?
- For discussion: How does the narrator end the story? What moral can be found there?
Irving’s Use of Symbolism: Irving uses symbols to highlight the story’s moral. Symbols of importance within the story include the shortcut through the swamp, the trees in the swamp, and fire.
- For discussion: How might symbols serve a story better than stating ideas outright? What does Irving’s use of symbols contribute to the tone and themes of his story?
- For discussion: What do the trees in the swamp symbolize? How do the details of the trees in the swamp correspond to the people they symbolize? What happens when the devil cuts down a tree?
- For discussion: Find each instance of fire symbolism within the story. How does it contribute to the story’s moral?
- For discussion: In the beginning of the story, Tom takes a shortcut. What does this shortcut tell you about Tom’s nature? How does the narrator describe shortcuts? What could a shortcut symbolize?
- For discussion: What other symbols recur throughout “The Devil and Tom Walker”? What functions might they serve?
“The Devil and Tom Walker” as a Social Commentary: In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Irving addresses several social issues of his time. Through fiction, Irving comments on the immorality of the slave trade, the greed and corruption of those in power, and religious persecution and hypocrisy.
- For discussion: What social commentary does Irving make about the slave trade? How does he weave this commentary into the story?
- For discussion: What does Tom do with his newfound wealth and power, and how do his actions reflect his greed? What does this suggest about wealth and power in society?
- For discussion: In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the devil supports the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists by other Christians. What does the devil’s support say about religious persecution? What is the irony implied behind Christians persecuting other Christians?
Tom’s Story as a Faustian Legend: Tom Walker’s decision to sell his soul to the devil is reminiscent of the German legend of Faust. In the legend, Faust sells his soul for knowledge and power, much as Tom sells his soul for monetary gain. In many versions of the legend, Faust is eventually taken by the devil due to his irrevocable moral corruption—a fate identical to that of Tom Walker.
- For discussion: How is Tom’s character first described? What is Tom willing to sell his soul for? What other stories have a character making a “deal with the devil”?
- For discussion: What does Tom begin to fear as he becomes older? How do his efforts to protect his soul from the devil show hypocrisy and moral corruption?
- For discussion: Tom is taken by the devil at the end of the story. What does this say about making a deal with the devil? Do you think Tom’s fate was inevitable?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- The devil introduces himself using several names or titles. What ideologies or actions do these names and titles suggest the devil supports?
- The devil is described as wearing Native American garb, and is the “Evil Spirit” that the Native Americans communed with in the swamp. Why do you think Irving chose to describe the devil in this way? What does this say about American society in the 18th and 19th centuries?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Story Includes Racist Beliefs and Language: The presence of the devil in the swamps outside the Boston colony is directly attributed to Native...
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