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The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving: Summary and Analysis

  • 0:39 Characters
  • 1:21 Plot
  • 3:26 Moral, Allegory, Symbols
  • 5:11 Romantic Characteristics
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Romantic literature, such as 'The Devil and Tom Walker,' often references the supernatural. In this lesson, we learn how Washington Irving uses an allegory with symbols to create a moral tale about greed while incorporating the supernatural theme.

Faustian Stories and Songs

Unlike Washington Irving's other stories, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle,' 'The Devil and Tom Walker' is not as well known. However, the story's plot is based on a very famous German legend about a man called Faust , who makes a deal with the Devil in order to gain knowledge and wealth. This motif has made its way into contemporary culture through songs like Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' Eminem's 'My Darling' and, very obviously, in Charlie Daniels Band's 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' Irving creates a similar experience for Tom Walker through the use of allegory and symbolism.

Characters

Tom Walker, the story's main character, is a miser, which means he rarely spends money even when he should. He doesn't give anything to anyone, and that includes his wife.

Tom's wife is as miserly as he is but with a temper. The story explains that she is regularly verbally abusive, and the townspeople suspect she is even physically abusive toward Tom.

Old Scratch is given several names in the story, including wild huntsman and black woodsman. He is the Devil; described as a black man, but neither Negro nor Indian. He has a dirty, soot-covered face and carries an axe. Keep in mind that he is a physical character in the story, like a person with supernatural powers.

Plot

Irving frames the story as an old legend, with witnesses who have passed the story down over the years giving it some validity for his audience. He begins with a short explanation about Kidd the Pirate, who left gold buried on the banks of Boston, and how now that Kidd has died, the Devil himself guards its hiding place. Irving then moves on to the heart of the story and introduces us to Tom and his wife, explaining that they are miserly and mean. One day when walking home, Tom decides to take a shortcut home through the swamp. He sits down on a log to rest and is confronted by a soot-faced man who is identified as Old Scratch. Old Scratch is really the Devil, and he offers Tom large sums of money in exchange for 'certain conditions.'

Tom goes home to discuss the offer with his wife, and she believes he should take the offer. Now, since he doesn't much like his wife and certainly doesn't want to share any wealth with her, he is hesitant to take the deal. His wife, in turn, becomes angry and decides to go see Old Scratch herself. However, after a couple of days, she does not return, so Tom goes looking for her. After searching through the woods, all he finds is her heart and liver tied up in her apron, and he knows that she is dead (and he's rather happy about that). This leaves him free to make his deal with the Devil without having to share anything.

So, after a conversation where Tom agrees to be a corrupt usurer (someone who lends money), he leaves for Boston where he lives a life of wealth and corruption. After some years though, Tom starts to worry about the potential punishment for his acts and tries going to church to seek salvation. He carries a Bible everywhere he goes in hopes of warding off Old Scratch. This, of course, does not work when one morning - with his Bible under a stack of mortgages - Tom opens the door to find a black horse and a black man who says, 'Tom, you're come for.' Tom is thrown upon the horse and swiftly taken back to the old Indian fort and gone in a blaze of fire.

Moral, Allegory and Symbols

Most short stories have a theme , which is insight about human nature. In this case, though, 'The Devil and Tom Walker' has a moral , or a lesson to be learned. Clearly, Irving wants us to see that greed and moral corruption leads us down that wrong path. He illustrates this moral thought through the use of a literary device called an allegory, where the characters, objects and plot represent an idea.

Irving uses a variety of symbols, where one thing represents something else, to create this allegory. The characters themselves are symbolic. The Devil is temptation and Tom and his wife represent greed. Later in the story, Tom symbolizes hypocrisy when he is attending church but still collecting mortgages.

The swamp is described as a shortcut - an 'ill-chosen' route. It is not only Tom's shortcut home, but it was his shortcut to obtaining the wealth he wanted. But as the narrator tells us, it was an ill-chosen shortcut because it cost him eternal damnation. So here, the swamp symbolizes the figurative wrong path.

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