Washington Irving’s short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker” takes place around 1727 a couple miles outside of Boston. The story follows a “miserly fellow,” Tom Walker, and his wife, who live on a poor farm. The Devil meets Tom and offers him a deal where Tom would trade his soul to the Devil for hidden treasure which was left by a pirate. Tom does not accept the deal the first time and his wife resents him for doing so. His wife then disappears, and Tom is later offered the deal a second time, which he accepts. Tom lives the rest of his life hoarding his money and living in fear of damnation. In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Irving develops a cautionary tale, by exploring and connecting themes of greed and regret to critique the people of his time.
One day Tom Walker finds himself on the opposite side of his neighborhood. To get back to his house, he decides to take a shortcut through a swamp. During his walk, he takes a break to rest due to the rough terrain and finds a skull with an Indian axe stuck in it. This skull is an example of foreshadowing as it represents Tom’s inevitable death. Also, the skull being found at the swamp, in a metaphorical sense, represents that anything that comes from the swamp, even Kidd the pirate’s treasure, brings death along with it.
As Tom is resting, the Devil appears from the swamp. The Devil proceeds to offer Tom a deal for Kidd’s treasure, but he rejects the offer. When his wife learns of the encounter, she decides to take all of their possessions and make a deal of her own with the Devil. Once she leaves, she is never seen again. When Tom goes to the swamp to search for his wife and possessions, all he finds is a heart and liver wrapped in his wife’s apron. This instance of Tom finding only his wife’s heart and liver in the apron is a metaphor how greed leads to negative consequences in one’s life. Here, Tom’s wife was greedy as she was looking to trade for Kidd’s gold, which would give her a lavish lifestyle for the rest of her days. The Devil left her heart and liver as a symbol, as Tom’s wife lived with no compassion, empathy, or any care for anyone other than her. As these character traits are normally associated with the heart, the Devil leaves her heart to symbolize that her actions and greed led to her to her death.
Both Tom Walker and his wife are described as “miserly” (1) people who constantly plan to cheat each other of their possessions and resources. When Tom discovers that his wife had died at the hands of the Devil, he treats the occurrence almost as a joke. When he finds his wife’s heart and liver in the apron, he immediately begins to think about his lost possessions. He also talks about how the Devil had done him a “kindness” in taking his wife. Tom’s thoughts on his wife’s death show traits in their relationship which reveal that the two did not actually love each other. Due to this time period, this must mean that their marriage was arranged by their parents. Here, Irving is saying that arranged marriages are not happy marriages, as the relationship is built on their parents’ thoughts, not Tom and his wife’s love for each other.
After his wife dies, Tom decides he finally wants to make the deal with the Devil. The Devil makes him wait but eventually the two meet again. As they are negotiating the terms of the deal, the Devil asks Tom to spend the money in his name by fitting out a slave ship. Even though Tom is acting out of extreme greed as he is prepared to sell his soul to the Devil for a fortune, Tom draws the line at using the money to transport slaves. This is a commentary on those who work in the slave trade during Irving’s time by saying that even the greediest of people of the earth understand that slavery is wrong.
Soon, the two agree on the deal where Tom would work as a usurer, someone who lends money, in order to drive merchants to bankruptcy, and ultimately the Devil. He lives the rest of his life in this practice but as he grows old, he becomes fearful of his fate. Tom soon begins going to church every chance he gets and praying every second of every day. Even though the practices are good, his intentions are not. He is only praying and going to church out of regret of the deal he struck with the Devil and in an attempt to save his soul from damnation. So, these actions are coming out of selfishness and not true belief and love for God. Here, Irving is criticizing those who practice false piety, meaning those who worship and act as though they are devout in the faith, but are evil in their practices outside of their faith.
In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Washington Irving develops a cautionary tale, exploring and connecting themes of greed and regret to critique the people of his time. Throughout the story there are many instances and details of which hold a larger meaning in the real world. That is the beauty of Irving’s short story, the story has to be read multiple times in order to pick-up on these little details. The decisions Tom and his wife made throughout the story all had a meaning and purpose behind them as each decision was designed to criticize those in Irving’s time. Also, the story applies to today’s world. Maybe not exactly to today’s world, but the overall message of the story can be applied.
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