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Chris Hewgley

Selfishness: The Root of Emptiness

The “Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving is a short story about a poor man, Tom Walker, living outside of Boston. Tom is found by the devil and the devil bargains a deal with him where Tom will become wealthy through a pirate’s hidden treasure. In return, Tom must take advantage of the needy through a Broker’s shop in Boston. Tom accepts the deal resulting in him living in fear of damnation since he bargained a deal with the devil. Throughout the story Irving uses the character of the Devil and those he tempts, to illustrate that the nature of evil is unique to individual cultures, but ultimately stems from a universal tendency toward selfishness, a sinful action which leaves people feeling empty. He establishes this theme of selfishness in order to warn his readers of the negative effects it can have on a person in hopes they will become more aware and avoid falling victim to a lifestyle similar to Tom Walker’s.

This idea of selfishness is portrayed throughout the story of “The Devil and Tom Walker” but is most clear in the main plotline since it is about a man who makes a deal with the devil for his own personal benefit and without care of his relationship with God. Although this is the main example of selfishness in the story, Irving includes smaller actions and symbols of selfishness throughout the plot in order to show how widespread it really is.

In the beginning of the story, Irving establishes the idea that evil is unique to individual culture during the scene where Tom Walker first meets the Devil. In this scene. Tom is unaware that the woodsman is the devil so the Devil characterizes himself through a list of examples. He says, “I am he to whom the red men consecrated this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice…I am the great patron and prompter of slave dealers” (Irving 2). This list of roles shows how the devil takes different forms in each culture, proving the unique nature of evil, but also showing how everything is related back to selfishness. The first example depicts the image of “red men,” or Native Americans, making sacrifices in order to protect themselves from evil. This idea of killing other for your own protection has a clear relation to selfishness since it is a damaging action, for personal benefit, without regard to other people’s lives. The example of slavery draws a similar parallel since slavery is obviously evil but is also rooted in the idea of wanting more wealth for yourself without regard to the wellbeing of those who are enslaved. These examples solidify Irving’s attempt at showing the overarching spread of selfishness, and its applicability to all cultures.

Towards the end of the story another example stands out which shows the theme of selfishness within the story. After many years of Tom taking advantage of people as a broker, he also becomes very religious. Tom constantly attends church and carries a bible, but his reason for doing so is a fear of damnation. Since Tom made a deal with the devil, he attends church for the sole reason of protecting himself instead of praising God. This self-centeredness is obviously sinful and all sin comes from evil. Since he is  only concerned about himself and not his relationship with god, it is clear this sin directly relates to selfishness as well. But why does Irving lay such a heavy focus on selfishness?

Irving focuses on selfishness in order to show the reader that it has a negative effect on your life specifically because selfness leaves one feeling empty. Irving does this with several examples in the story. When Tom becomes rich, he purchases, “a vast house… but left the greater part of it unfinished and unfurnished” (Irving 4). This image of an empty house creates a connection between selfishness and emptiness. Tom got his wealth without care of the consequences, allowing him to have money, but the things he buys are empty, symbolizing his own personal emptiness. This is again shown at the end of the story when the Devil returns and takes Tom. When trustees were appointed to seize Toms wealth, “there was nothing, however, to administer upon… in place of gold and silver, his iron chest was filled with chips and shavings” and, “his great house took fire and was burned to the ground” (Irving 5). These events further symbolize that a life built off selfishness leaves you empty since Tom was left with nothing once he died.

In conclusion, Irving establishes selfishness as a major theme throughout his story “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Irving uses this theme in order to show that although evil is unique to different cultures and people, everyone has a tendency towards selfishness, which in turn leads to sin and if not careful, damnation. By focusing on selfishness, Irving is giving his readers a specific aspect of their life that they can focus on improving. This will lead to readers living a better lifestyle and decreasing their chances of damnation. Today this concept is still applicable to modern readers regardless of belief in damnation and religion. By attempting to eliminate selfishness in one’s life, people can more successfully find meaning and joy on a daily basis since they will not be left with an empty feeling which Irving states goes hand in hand with selfishness.



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Featured Image

Selam, Seyoum. “You Can’t Walk With God Holding Hands With the Devil!” Tewahedo Orthodox Girl, 3 Sept. 2020,

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