The Devil and Tom Walker

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Tom Walker Character Analysis

A “meagre miserly fellow,” Tom Walker is first and foremost outrageously, self-destructively greedy. He despises his miserly, abusive wife and has nothing to live for but the satisfaction of his desire for owning things. One evening, he meets the devil Old Scratch in a Massachusetts swamp, who offers Tom the long-dead Captain Kidd’s long-buried treasure in exchange for Tom’s immortal soul. After some indecision and his wife’s death at the hands of Old Scratch—a fate which foreshadows her husband’s own—Tom at last resolves, Faust-like, to seal the deal: so, in exchange for pirate treasure, he sells his soul, and, in accordance with the devil’s conditions, also becomes an exploitative usurer, or moneylender, in Boston. As the years pass, Tom becomes rich and respected, but he also begins to regret having paid for his worldly success with an eternity among hellfire and brimstone. To protect himself, he becomes zealously and hypocritically religious and always carries a bible with him. But the devil gets his due nevertheless: while Tom is predatorily foreclosing the land jobber’s mortgage one morning, Old Scratch knocks at Tom’s door and whisks him onto a black horse, which gallops away back to the swamp and Tom’s damnation.

Tom Walker Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker

The The Devil and Tom Walker quotes below are all either spoken by Tom Walker or refer to Tom Walker. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Greed Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of The Devil and Tom Walker published in 2008.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” Quotes

There lived near this place a meagre miserly fellow of the name of Tom Walker. He had a wife as miserly as himself… They lived in a forlorn-looking house, that stood alone and had an air of starvation.

Related Characters: Tom Walker, Tom Walker’s Wife
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Outside of the swamp, Tom Walker and his wife live in impoverished desperation. They are both miserly and greedy, and their greed leads them to steal and cheat one another. Their relationship reveals how self-defeating greed is - the more that they try and cheat one another to benefit themselves, the emptier their world becomes. 

The house itself reflects Tom and his wife's moral failings. It is "forlorn" and has an "air of starvation." They have hollowed out their home with their greed, and now it is merely an uninviting place. Furthermore, the house's air of starvation mirrors Tom and his wife's insatiable hunger for wealth. 

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One day that Tom Walker had been to a distant part of the neighborhood, he took what he considered a short cut homewards through the swamp. Like most short cuts, it was an ill-chosen route… It was full of pits and quagmires, partly covered with weeds and mosses, where the green surface often betrayed the traveller into a gulf of black, smothering mud…

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom ventures into the swamp as part of a "short cut." The quote goes on to say that most shortcuts are "ill-chosen" routes. Here, Tom's short cut symbolizes the shortcuts that many people take to try and become wealthy quickly and with minimal effort. And, like Tom's shortcut, these "get rich quick" attempts are often full of immoral or illegal "pits and quagmires." 

The fact that the shortcut path has a "green surface" that "often betrayed the traveller into a gulf of black, smothering mud" reveals how something that seems easy or pleasant can quickly reveal itself to be ugly and immoral. Those people who try and take shortcuts of this kind will find themselves stained by the "black, smothering mud"of greed and other sins of character. 

As he turned up the soil unconsciously, his staff struck against something hard. He raked it out of the vegetable mould, and lo! a cloven skull, with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it, lay before him. The rust on the weapon showed the time that had elapsed since this death-blow had been given. It was a dreary memento of the fierce struggle that had taken place in this last foothold of the Indian warriors.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Tom finds the skull of a man killed during battle. Gorily, the murder weapon, an "Indian tomahawk" is still "buried" in the skull. This "dreary momento" represents an even more primal and extreme form of human greed: warfare. The fact that the battle occurred in Old Scratch's Swamp should not be surprising, considering his love of human greed and misery. The fact that there is "rust" on the weapon also reminds us that Tom Walker's story is not unique in history - people have been misusing each other for personal gain long before Tom wandered into the swamp. 

Furthermore, the skull develops the theme of storytelling as moral instruction. This short story is didactic - that is, it aims to teach its readers a moral lesson. The skull itself is a "memento mori," a common occurrence in storytelling that aims at moral instruction. A momento mori is a potent reminder that death is imminent. It is also interesting that Tom digs, however "unconsciously," for the skull. Everything in Old Scratch's Swamp, even the gold Tom eventually digs up, bears death along with it, in the metaphorical sense.  

Tom looked in the direction that the stranger pointed, and beheld one of the great trees, fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core, and saw that it had been nearly hewn through, so that the first high wind was likely to blow it down. On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody, an eminent man, who had waxed wealthy by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians.
Related Characters: Tom Walker, Old Scratch, Deacon Peabody
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In Irving's short story, the devil is imagined as a woodsman who cuts down living sinners like trees and feeds them into the fires of hell. Here, we see Tom looking at a tree that represents Deacon Peabody. It is "fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core," which symbolizes how the Deacon's public image as a successful religious man contrasts with his interior moral rot, which he revealed by making his fortunes exploiting the local Native Americans. Not only has Deacon Peabody been greedy, but he has also been a hypocrite, pretending to be a man of God while actually tending his relationship with Old Scratch. It is ironic that such a man has gained social prominence in Tom's world.

The fact that the tree might be blown down by the "first high wind" is telling - Deacon Peabody's time on earth is nearly over, and his soul will soon be ready to feed into the fires of hell. 

One would think that to meet with such a singular personage [as Old Scratch], in this wild, lonely place, would have shaken any man’s nerves; but Tom was a hard-minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil.

Related Characters: Tom Walker, Old Scratch, Tom Walker’s Wife
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we see that Tom Walker is not afraid to find himself standing in front of the devil. He was also disdainful of the skull he found earlier, giving it a kick. From these two examples, we understand that because Tom has lived his life in sin, he does not fear the manifestation or result of it. Neither does he fear death at this point, although eventually, he will go a little mad because he fears it so much. 

The reason Tom gives for not being afraid of the devil is because he has spent so much time with his "termagant" (harsh and overbearing) wife. This is a moment of dark humor, and foreshadows the coming scenes with Tom's wife. However, the real reason that Tom doesn't fear the devil is because he is spiritually blind—he should be very frightened indeed, but instead is only interested in how he can turn a profit from this meeting.

Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodman, who, he considered, had done him a kindness.

Related Characters: Tom Walker, Tom Walker’s Wife
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

All that Tom can recover of his wife is her heart and her liver wrapped up in the apron that had carried the household silver. This is a shocking and strange moment meant to excite and confound the reader. Here, Tom considers the fact that his wife is dead, and all the silver she carried off is gone as well, and he decides to "console" himself for the painful loss of the silver with the good news that he is finally free of his wife. This calculation of Tom's is another moment of potent dark humor in the text, where Tom goes so far as to thank the devil for killing his wife and freeing him.

Ironically, Tom had refused to sell his soul for fear of pleasing his wife, and now that she is gone there is nothing preventing him from making a deal with Old Scratch in exchange for the buried treasure. Tom's wife's disappearance is the beginning of the end for Tom. 

He [Old Scratch] proposed, therefore, that Tom should employ it [the pirate treasure] in the black traffic; that is to say, that he should fit out a slave-ship. This, however, Tom resolutely refused: he was bad enough in all conscience; but the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader.

Related Characters: Tom Walker, Old Scratch
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom becomes desperate to make a deal with Old Scratch for the gold. When the devil finally does offer to make a deal with Tom, he begins by insisting that Tom should use the treasure to finance a slave ship. The devil suggests this because it is the absolute worst thing that Tom could do. Tom, who up until this point has been eager and even desperate to make a deal with the devil and throw his soul away for material gain, stops short at this suggestion. He flatly refuses to take part in the slave trade.  

This moment is the story's clearest moral accusation - slavery is so abominable that not even terrible Tom Walker will do it. Tom's refusal is his single moment of grace in the text. 

After this, the devil will suggest that Tom use the money to begin working as a usurer (someone who loans money and charges interest, often at especially high rates). This order of events suggests that the devil considers usury the second worst thing Tom could do, right below entering the slave trade.  

He [Tom Walker] built himself, as usual, a vast house, out of ostentation; but left the greater part of it unfinished and unfurnished, out of parsimony. He even set up a carriage in the fullness of his vainglory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it; and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screeched on the axle-trees, you would have thought you heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Many people flock to borrow money from Tom, and he sucks them dry with his exorbitant interest rates. By doing so, Tom becomes a rich man. This passage reveals how society rewards social predators like Tom, but it also shows how impoverished Tom's life is, even when he has plenty of money. 

Tom is able to build a "vast house" for himself out of "ostentation," (a vulgar display of wealth, meant to inspire envy in those who see it). However, Tom continues to live like a miser on the edge of a swamp even in his new mansion. He starves his new horses and refuses to grease the wheels of his new carriage. He can not bring himself to pay to keep up the grand house he has had built for himself. 

The fact that his carriage wheels screech like "the souls of the poor debtors [Tom] was squeezing" is also important. This detail reveals how little distance Tom can get from his immoral actions - the laments of those he's bankrupted follow him each time he leaves the house. 

As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next. He thought with regret on the bargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent churchgoer. He prayed loudly and strenuously as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom, in his old age, is finally beginning to fear the devil and damnation, as he should have been doing all along. This fear leads him to become a "violent churchgoer," which is a darkly humorous contradiction. Indeed, his newfound zeal for religion is pure hypocrisy on Tom's part, meant to "cheat" the devil out of the soul he promised him. This is the highest form of hypocrisy and greed - we see that although Tom claims to be a pious, God-fearing man, he actually only believes in the devil, and is just trying to make himself rich in the "next world." 

He even goes so far as to suggest renewing the persecution of Anabaptists and Quakers, which we will remember was one of Old Scratch's favorite pastimes. It is telling that Tom is trying so hard to be a pious man that he overshoots and ends up arguing on the side of the devil. 

He [Tom Walker] had also a great folio Bible on his counting-house desk, and would frequently be found reading it when people called on business; on such occasions he would lay his green spectacles in the book, to mark the place, while he turned round to drive some usurious bargain.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we see a brutally funny example of Tom's religious hypocrisy. Frightened of being damned, Tom takes to carrying around a small Bible, and keeping a larger one in his office. He reads from the Bible when he is not working at bankrupting his neighbors, and when he is interrupted by a client, he marks his place in the holy book and "turn[s] round to drive some usurious bargain." 

This moment in particular highlights the tension between Christian values and capitalist ambitions in New England at the time. Tom is a successful, respected man who openly practices usury, but at the same time he is being damned for the practice. In earlier times, usury was considered sinful, especially in Christian belief (see The Merchant of Venice or Dante's Inferno). In reading the Bible between dealing usurious bargains, Tom finds himself smack in the middle of these two competing systems of belief. 

Just then there were three loud knocks at the street door. He [Tom Walker] stepped out to see who was there. A black man was holding a black horse which neighed and stamped with impatience.
“Tom, you're come for,” said the black fellow, gruffly. Tom shrank back, but too late. He had left his little Bible at the bottom of his coat-pocket, and his big Bible on the desk buried under the mortgage he was about to foreclose: never was sinner taken more unawares.

Related Characters: Old Scratch (speaker), Tom Walker
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene occurs in the middle of Tom's attempt to ruin a man who has taken out loans from him. The man begs for a few more months to pay back what he owes Tom, and Tom refuses. The man then reminds Tom that he has made a lot of money off of him already, to which Tom fatally responds, "The devil take me...if I have made a farthing!" Here, we see the devil arrive at Tom's door immediately following this proclamation. It is fitting that Tom called the devil to his own door - after all, he has been asking for damnation throughout the story.  

It is also symbolic that Tom's Bibles, which he carries around for protection, are of no use to him at the moment he needs them the most. Instead, one is "buried" beneath the mortgage Tom was "about to foreclose." This placement of the Bible reveals Tom's true, sinful priorities. For all his hypocritical attempts to be a pious man, Tom Walker truly only believes in money, greed, and the devil. The final line of this passage, "never was a sinner taken more unawares" is also deeply ironic. If anyone should expect the devil to come to collect their soul, it is Tom Walker. 

Trustees were appointed to take charge of Tom's effects. There was nothing, however, to administer upon. On searching his coffers, all his bonds and mortgages were found reduced to cinders. In place of gold and silver, his iron chest was filled with chips and shavings; two skeletons lay in his stable instead of his half starved horses, and the very next day his great house took fire and was burnt to the ground.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom is carried off by Old Scratch, and never returns to his grand, empty house. The people of Boston correctly assume him to be dead, and so trustees come in to manage Tom's estate. However, they find that all his gold and silver has been reduced to "chips and shavings," and his treasured "bonds and mortgages" are mere "cinders." This passage illustrates the truth of Tom's situation - his earthly wealth has been revealed for the poor trash it always was. Tom's treasure was useless in his life, because he still lived like a miser, and it is even more useless in death. 

Finally, Tom's "great house" spontaneously catches on fire, and it burns to the ground. This mirrors Tom's own fate - all his earthly wealth has come to nothing, and he is (presumably) burning in the fires of hell. 

Such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth. Let all griping money-brokers lay this story to heart. The truth of it is not to be doubted.

Related Characters: Tom Walker
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

The story ends with another reminder that it is a moral tale, meant to teach its readers an important lesson. We learn here that the target audience for this lesson is Tom's fellow "griping money-brokers," who must feel the warning in Tom's inglorious death and damnation. The suggestion is that the lesson of the tale is more valuable than all the "ill-gotten wealth" these readers might gather in their careers. 

The narrator goes on insist that "the truth" of his tale is "not to be doubted," and offers up some physical evidence in the form of the still-visible pit where Tom Walker dug up the buried treasure in the swamp. This story, however, is not meant to be dour and solemn - the narrator offers up his tale of warning with humility and good-cheer. 

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Tom Walker Character Timeline in The Devil and Tom Walker

The timeline below shows where the character Tom Walker appears in The Devil and Tom Walker. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
“The Devil and Tom Walker”
Greed Theme Icon
...starvation about it and a starving horse in the field nearby, a poor miser named Tom Walker, who is married to a an ill-tempered, fierce, loud, strong wife as miserly as... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
One day Tom Walker is taking an ill-conceived shortcut home through the nearby swamp; it is gloomy with... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
At length, late in the dusk of the evening, Tom arrives at a piece of firm ground in which slump the overgrown ruins of an... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Tom lies on the trunk of a fallen hemlock for some time, listening to the cry... (full context)
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Tom lifts his eyes and beholds a great black man (later identified as Old Scratch), seated... (full context)
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Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
The black man (later identified as Old Scratch) demands to know what Tom is doing on his grounds; Tom retorts that the swamp belongs not to the black... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Tom asks the black man what right he has to burn Deacon Peabody’s timber. “‘Prior claim,’”... (full context)
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Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Tom and Old Scratch have a long and serious conversation together as the former makes his... (full context)
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Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Tom arrives home to find a black, irremovable fingerprint burnt into his forehead. His wife’s first... (full context)
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Tom shares with his wife all that transpired in the swamp, and mention of Kidd’s hidden... (full context)
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At the close of one’s summer day, then, Tom’s wife fearlessly treks to the ruined Indian fort herself. She is gone many hours, and... (full context)
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Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Nobody knows what fate actually befell Tom’s wife, but many theories circulate: some say she got lost in the mazy swamp and... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
The most current and probable story, however, holds that Tom went out searching for his wife in the swamp, when owls and bats were on... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Tom consoles himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife, feeling... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
At first, Old Scratch pretends to be indifferent to Tom’s offers for the buried treasure, but soon enough the two begin haggling about the conditions... (full context)
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Usury Theme Icon
So instead Old Scratch proposes that Tom Walker become a usurer (someone who lends money and charges interest, especially at a high... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
A few days pass. Tom is sitting in his counting shop in Boston, with a reputation for lending money already.... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
As such, people are lining up to get a loan from Tom Walker, who acts like “a friend in need” indeed by lending at high interest rates... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
The older Tom grows, however, the more thoughtful he becomes, especially about the afterlife. He at last regrets... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Some people think Tom Walker went a little crazy in his old age. After all, he did have his... (full context)
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Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
That legend goes like this. One hot afternoon in summer, Tom is sitting up in his counting house, wearing his morning gown; he is foreclosing a... (full context)
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Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
The land jobber then reminds Tom that he has already made a great deal of money in interest off of him.... (full context)
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Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Tom Walker never returns to foreclose the mortgage. A man who lives on the boarder of... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Trustees are appointed to administer to Tom’s estate, but all his bonds and mortgages are found reduced to cinders, and all his... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
Such is the end of Tom Walker and his immorally acquired wealth. All money brokers, the narrator says, should heed this... (full context)