Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
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Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And the Indian fort! The Indian fort then, it might not surprise you, is a representation of hell. The final scene where Tom is taken on the black horse shows his descent into hell. When we look at the swamp and the Indian fort together, we can conclude that Irving is saying that taking the shortcuts in life will lead us down the wrong path - the path to hell.
Of course, Tom's Bible represents the other side of that - the chance for salvation. But in his final moments, Tom realizes he left it under his mortgages, under the evidence of his corruption, where it cannot help him.
In addition to its use of literary devices, Irving's story has many characteristics of writing from the Romantic time period. Like most Romantic stories, the element of the supernatural is obvious in 'The Devil and Tom Walker.' The fact that the Devil is as real as any other character in the story is beyond the realms of reality, as is Tom's literal compact with him. This reinforces, too, the Romantic tendency to gain wisdom from the past. The Puritans believed the woods were filled with evil and that the Devil was behind every tree. Irving's story quite literally reinforces that idea.
We can also see evidence of the Romantic view that the city is a place of moral corruption. The setting for this story is Boston, and it is here that Tom does the Devil's work. He is a corrupt soul who is taking advantage of people for monetary gain. His corruption finally ends when he is whisked back into the forest. While it's not exactly the escape he wants, it is an escape from, or maybe a punishment for, his corrupted life.
In summary, Irving's story 'The Devil and Tom Walker' is a moral tale warning its readers against greed and corruption. Irving illustrates this moral through the use of an allegory, where the characters, objects and plot represent more than simple elements of the story. Symbols, like the swamp for the wrong path in life, the Indian fort for hell and the Bible for salvation, reinforce his message. We also learned that Irving's story reflects the characteristics of the Romantic time period, including the use of the supernatural and the city as a dirty, corrupt place. Using all of these techniques together, Irving is able to create a powerful and timeless story to remind us to avoid temptation and to stay on the right path.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
10 chapters | 115 lessons