Satire in The Devil & Tom Walker

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  • 0:02 Why Satire?
  • 0:24 Truth and History
  • 2:02 Marriage & Shrewish Women
  • 3:34 Greed and Money Lenders
  • 4:46 False Piety
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we take a close look at Washington Irving's short story 'The Devil and Tom Walker' by reviewing the people and ideologies that it satirizes.

Why Satire?

Washington Irving's short story 'The Devil and Tom Walker' uses satire to critique both people and ideas. Satire uses humor, irony, or exaggeration as a way to highlight problems with people, institutions, or social ideologies so that those problems can be addressed and improved upon.

Truth and History

To appreciate how this short story satirizes history, it's important to understand a little bit more about the entire collection of stories in which it was published.

'The Devil and Tom Walker' was originally published in 1824 as part of a collection of stories in Tales of a Traveller. The fictional Geoffrey Crayon was listed as the book's author instead of Washington Irving. In the book, Geoffrey Crayon wanders around collecting and recording the stories that others tell him. 'The Devil and Tom Walker' is one of those stories.

Here's the thing about historical stories: They're supposed to be impartial. What's the problem with that? The way that history gets written can be affected by a historian's beliefs. The histories and stories told in Tales of a Traveller claim to be searching for a single authentic truth, but no such thing actually exists.

In the case of 'The Devil and Tom Walker,' we hear the story from an 'iron-faced Cape Cod whaler' who is repeating the story from someone else. Instead of the story being hard fact, therefore, it's more like a long-winded version of the telephone game. It has changed so many times during its retellings, that the whaler can't even say what the original, 'true' events are.

For example, when Tom Walker goes to find his missing wife, the whaler tells us four different reasons that she might have disappeared. He explains, 'What was her real fate nobody knows, in consequence of so many pretending to know. It is one of those facts that have become confounded by a variety of historians.' In other words, so many historians pretended to know what happened to Tom's wife, that now nobody knows the actual truth.

Marriage and Shrewish Women

A shrew is an old term for a bad-tempered woman, and Tom's wife is a perfect example of one. She has a terrible temper, screams and claws at her husband during their fights, and is as greedy and selfish as he is.

There is no love in this marriage, as we discover upon hearing the first description of Tom's house: 'The house and its inmates had altogether a bad name.' By calling Tom and his wife 'inmates,' the story compares their home and marriage to a prison. This is why any bachelor who passes by their house 'shrunk within himself' and 'hurried on his way, rejoicing…in his celibacy.'

Tom's lack of feeling toward his wife is also demonstrated in this humorous moment: 'However Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so he flatly refused, out of the mere spirit of contradiction.' The irony here is that no one would normally want to sell himself to the devil. Tom's reason for rebuffing the devil's offer has nothing to do with his own welfare, though; he only cares about making his wife mad.

As if that's not bad enough, Tom's reaction to the devil's killing his wife is downright heartless. Not only is Tom more upset over losing his silverware than learning about his wife's death, he actually 'consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife.' What's more, he feels gratitude toward the devil, 'who, he considered, had done him a kindness' by murdering his wife.

Greed and Money Lenders

'The Devil and Tom Walker' appears in the final section of Tales of a Traveller, which is subtitled 'Money Diggers.' Tom is a perfect example of one of those money diggers. After all, we already saw in the previous section that he cares more about money than his own wife! What's more, Tom is willing to sell his soul to the devil for riches.

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