The Devil and Tom Walker Themes
The main themes in "The Devil and Tom Walker" are greed, corruption, and misery.
- Greed: Tom's greed is his downfall, and his repentance at the end of the story does not change his fate.
- Corruption: As soon as Tom accepts Old Scratch's deal, he spends the rest of his life miserable and alone, corrupted by his greed.
- Misery: Tom and his wife are described as an unhappy couple. When Tom's wife dies, Tom experiences a momentary sense of happiness. However, once he accepts the devil's offer, he is left miserable again. Ultimately, Tom learns that money cannot buy happiness.
Last Updated on January 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
Washington Irving explores several important themes in “The Devil and Tom Walker,” namely greed, corruption, and superstition, and at the story's core, is a faustian theme around the consequences of selling one's soul to the devil. These themes are represented in the short story through the use of characters, such as the devil, powerful men, like Deacon Peabody and Absalom Crowninshield, and the miserly Tom Walker and his wife.
Power and Moral Corruption
Wealthy and powerful men, such as Deacon Peabody and Absalom Crowninshield, are examples of those who have become morally corrupt from power. In the swamp, the devil names trees after them and scores their trees with his axe. When these people become fully corrupted, the devil cuts down the tree and burns it. This is an allegory for the fate of all of those who have become so corrupted by their power that their fate is death and torment in hell.
The devil also presides over morally corrupt practices, such as the slave trade. He calls himself the “great patron and prompter” of slave traders, underscoring the immoral basis of the slave trade. By writing the slave trade as a practice supported by the devil, Irving shows that the slave trade was considered morally wrong, not only by him but also by society. Further, as greedy and corrupt as Tom is, he refuses to become a slave trader. This refusal further illustrates Irving's condemnation of the practice.
When Tom sells his soul for treasure and power, he reveals his lack of morals and becomes a usurer. Tom takes advantage of the desperate and poor through his work by lending money at high interest rates—a practice which Irving indirectly condemns. Eventually, Tom fears for his soul in the afterlife and begins to act as a devout Christian out of selfishness, hoping to save himself. By doing so, Tom only commits further moral digressions through his hypocritical and selfish use of religion.
The consequences of greed are exhibited throughout “The Devil and Tom Walker” in the actions of Tom and his wife. Tom’s greed is insatiable and insurmountable, causing him much misery since he is never satisfied with what he has. His wife, too, is affected by greed and lives in conflict with Tom over money and ownership. They both risk their lives for monetary gain; Tom’s wife is killed by the devil for her greedy efforts, and Tom sells his soul to the devil for treasure. Furthermore, Tom’s greed shows in his actions, such as his refusal to adequately feed his horses in order to save money, or his refusal to furnish his house completely, even when he is wealthy. Tom meets his end because of his greed. He is taken by the devil when he refuses to acknowledge that he had made enough money from a customer. Through Tom's greed and fate, Irving condemns avarice and the careers of usurers, suggesting that their work is not only corrupt but also sinful.
The power of superstition can be seen in the people’s suspicion about the swamp within “The Devil and Tom Walker” and the resolution of the story. People stay away from the swamp out of fear of the evil spirit the indians had raised, believing the swamp to be a dangerous place because of it. Tom meets the evil spirit, or the devil, in the swamp. Instead of sharing the superstitious fear others possess, Tom makes a deal with the devil. He sells his human soul for monetary gain. Tom’s later use of religion to ward off the devil shows further superstitious belief. Yet, Tom is unable to truly change and save himself in the afterlife. He is taken by the devil and placed on a black horse that sparks fire with its hooves—a mysterious sight the harrowed people of the town have become used to. Last, the old wives’ tale of Tom’s restless spirit claims that he is still seen riding upon the black horse on stormy nights. Tom's tale contributes to local superstition of the swamp, which holds as a warning against dealing with the devil.
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