The Devil and Tom Walker

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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

The devil presided at the hiding of [Captain Kidd’s] money, and took it under his guardianship; but this, it is well known, he always does with buried treasure, particularly when it has been ill-gotten.

Related Characters: Old Scratch, Captain Kidd
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

The short story opens with a description of Old Scratch's Swamp (Old Scratch is what Tom calls the Devil later on). Here we learn that this swamp is the hiding place for Captain Kidd's gold. This description reveals the themes of secrecy, trickery, and greed that the story will go on to explore. 

Old Scratch guards the gold so that he can use it to tempt greedy souls like Tom and his wife to sin. In this way, he himself is an usurer (someone who lends money, often at high interest) just like Tom Walker - he offers people gold to tempt them into bankrupting their souls.

Captain Kidd is representative of all of the greedy characters in the story. Their efforts to accumulate money serve only to ruin them in the end, because, as we know from this quote, all "ill-gotten" treasure eventually ends up back under the Devil's guardianship. 

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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. 

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.  

His face was neither black nor copper-color, but was swarthy and dingy, and begrimed with soot, as if he had been accustomed to toil among fire and forges. He had a shock of coarse black hair, that stood out from his head in all directions; and bore an axe on his shoulder.

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

This passage describes Old Scratch's first appearance, which surprises Tom utterly. He is described as a "black man," but here Tom thinks with confusion that his skin's dark color does not appear to be natural. Instead, it looks as if he has been "begrimed with soot" from a life spent toiling "among fire and forges." This last image evokes the fires of hell, Old Scratch's true home. The chaos of his hair and the axe on his shoulder further Old Scratch's embodiment of sin and danger. The axe is for cutting down trees and, metaphorically, men—as he will soon cut down Tom Walker. 

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. 

“I am he to whom the red men consecrated this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice. Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists! I am the great patron and prompter of slave-dealers, and the grand-master of the Salem witches.”

Related Characters: Old Scratch (speaker)
Related Symbols: Old Scratch’s Swamp
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the text, Old Scratch reveals himself as the devil. He is behind the bloodiest and most reprehensible of human actions. He begins by telling Tom about how the "red men" worshipped him. This is consistent with the racist perception of Native Americans at the time this piece was written. The stereotype of the violent Indian is further pursued when the devil tells Tom that the Native Americans burnt white men alive to please him. Of course, the story also reminds us that white men sacrifice themselves to the devil when they sell him their souls in return for material gain. The only real difference between the Native Americans and the "white savages" who supplanted them is that the latter are more self-deceiving about their immorality. 

Since the Native American genocide, Old Scratch says, he now amuses himself by creating absurd divisions between Christians. He orchestrates the slave-trade - that most wicked form of human greed. And he presides over the Salem witches (Salem was famous for its witch trials, in which many innocent people were accused of witchcraft and burned alive). In short, his hand is behind every major social evil in Tom's world. After this revelation, Tom recognizes him as the devil. 

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.

All her [Tom Walker’s wife’s] avarice was awakened at the mention of hidden gold, and she urged her husband to comply with the black man's terms and secure what would make them wealthy for life. 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.

Related Characters: Tom Walker’s Wife
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

After he reveals himself in the swamp, Old Scratch tells Tom about Captain Kidd's buried gold. Tom returns home and tells his miserly wife about it, and here she responds accordingly, with sudden and frantic greed.

In another moment of dark humor, however, Tom refuses to sell his soul to the devil just to spite his wife. He has become so miserly that he will even cheat himself out of buried treasure just for the pleasure of cheating his wife out of happiness. In doing so, he ironically preserves his soul for the moment. 

His wife, however, does not hesitate at the opportunity to trade her soul for gold. She will go out and try and make a deal with Old Scratch herself. Greed has warped both Tom and his wife's motives. 

Tom now grew uneasy for her [his wife’s] safety, especially as he found she had carried off in her apron the silver teapot and spoons, and every portable article of value.

Related Characters: Tom Walker’s Wife
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom's wife goes in search of Old Scratch without Tom. She takes with her the most valuable things in the house - "the silver teapot and spoons," along with whatever else might be tempting to the devil. 

This is another darkly comic passage - as Tom's wife fails to return home he becomes "uneasy" for her, "especially" when he discovers that she's stripped the house of valuables. Tom misses his household goods much more than he misses his wife. Greed has destroyed their human relationships. It has made Tom's wife strip her family home bare in an attempt to attract the devil's attention, and it has made Tom mourn those same valuables more than he does his own wife. 

What was her [Tom Walker’s wife’s] 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.

Related Characters: Tom Walker’s Wife
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Irving's short story is meant to act as a moral lesson and a warning to readers, and especially to predators and usurers like Tom, describing the possible consequences of their actions. 

In this passage, the narrator reveals himself with surprising clarity and offers up several possible options for what happened to Tom Walker's wife in the swamp. The options range from the accidental (maybe she got lost in the swamp) to the wild (she and Old Scratch wrestled with one another and she pulled out some of his hair). The narrator ultimately chooses the latter story, presumably because it is the most revealing of the wife's character, and also because it is the most exciting. 

Here, the narrator suggests that moral instruction and entertainment are not mutually exclusive in a work of literature, and in fact can promote and prompt one another. 

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.  

In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing. As usual the fever had subsided; the dream had gone off, and the imaginary fortunes with it.

Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we see that Tom Walker is not the only greedy man in his area. In fact, most of New England has been overtaken by "the great speculating fever." People are trying to get rich quickly - they want to make "sudden fortunes from nothing," and they don't care about the possible moral cost. 

But these turbulent times have led to an economic depression, which works out perfectly for Tom. Everyone is strapped for cash, and they are desperate to borrow money from him, regardless of the high interest rates he charges. The fact that Tom lends money to these desperate people is deeply immoral. Just as Tom became desperate to make a deal with the devil, his neighbors are frantic to make a deal with Tom, who comes to them as "a friend in need."

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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