At a Glance

  • Greed drives the plot of "The Devil and Tom Walker." Tom and his wife, two miserly people unhappy in their marriage, encounter the devil in the swamp outside Boston. At first, Tom refuses to make a deal with the devil, but after his wife dies attempting to make the same bargain he finally agrees to the devil's terms. His greed is his downfall, and his repentance at the end of the story does not change his fate.
  • Themes of morality and corruption are intertwined in "The Devil and Tom Walker." As soon as Tom meets Old Scratch, he gets caught in a cycle of moral corruption. He spites his wife by not accepting the devil's original offer, then makes the deal after his wife's death. He spends the rest of his life miserable and alone, corrupted by his greed.
  • Misery emerges as one of the biggest themes of "The Devil and Tom Walker." Tom and his wife are described as an unhappy couple whose arguments frequently devolve into physical fights. Tom has the scars to prove it. When he realizes his wife is dead, Tom feels momentarily happy. Once he accepts the devil's offer, however, Tom feels miserable again. In the end, he learns that money cannot buy happiness.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Washington Irving is said to be the first to have used the phrase “the almighty dollar.” This tale, found in part 4 (called “The Money Diggers”) of Tales of a Traveller, comically presents the results of valuing the dollar above all else. Both Tom and his wife care more for possessions than they do for each other. She urges Tom to sell his soul, and he is more concerned for his household treasures than for her. The two live in conflict and misery because of greed and eventually die from greed, she by trying to bully the devil into better terms and he by attempting to squeeze the last bit of profit from an unfortunate client.

The Faust theme, in which the soul is exchanged for knowledge and power, is reduced here to a story of money grubbing. The occupations that are viewed as of special service to the devil—slave-trading and usury—are those that place monetary profit before humanity. (Irving also attacked the slave trade in his A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828, and he had personal experience with the humiliation of debt and bankruptcy.)

Tom’s turn to religion near the end of the tale is a combination of superstition and hypocrisy. Tom hopes to ward off the devil through the outward trappings of Christianity, but the tale clearly satirizes those who make a public show of devotion while retaining meanness of spirit.


(Short Stories for Students)

Greed is one of the most important themes of "The Devil and Tom Walker." Tom is approached by Old Scratch and offered...

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