The Devil and Tom Walker Summary
Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” tells a story of greed. The story opens with the legend of the notorious pirate William Kidd, who buried a fortune somewhere in Massachusetts, and made a deal with the devil to protect it. In 1727, the miserly Tom Walker is out walking in a swamp, when he comes across the Devil himself. Old Scratch, as he is called in the story, is cutting down trees, each tree marked with the name of a prominent Massachusetts resident.
In exchange for his soul, the Devil offers Tom Walker Captain Kidd’s treasure. Tom wants to think about it, and returns home. His wife agrees to meet Old Scratch, telling Tom that the devil wants a sacrifice. It is she who makes the deal, but all Tom can find of her is her heart and liver tied to a tree. The devil’s condition is that Tom must use the money in his service, so Tom becomes a usurer.
As time passes, Tome becomes a very wealthy man. Despite this, he continues his miserly ways. As he grows older, Tom turns to religion as a means of saving his soul. As such, Tom always keeps two Bibles at his side. One day, when a poor man asks Tom for clemency, Tom declares, “The Devil take me if I have made but a farthing!” Suddenly there is a knock on the door, and Old Scratch himself appears, who tosses Tom Walker on the back of his horse and disappears. All that Tom had built turns to dust and ash, leaving behind only the New England saying “The Devil and Tom Walker.”
Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” is thematically similar to “Goodman Brown,” in the following ways:
- The same ironic lightness of touch found in “Rip van Winkle,” e.g. “Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife” that is somewhat foreign to the deadly-in-earnest Hawthorne tale.
- An allegory that, unlike Hawthorne’s allegory, is “cleaner” in terms of the symmetry between sin and punishment.
There is discernible irony and some humor in Hawthorne’s “Goodman Brown,” but it is a drier and subtler sort than what is to be found in Irving’s “Tom Walker.” Compare the “Tom consoled himself with…” quote given above with the words Hawthorne puts into the mouth of the Devil “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England”.