The Devil and Tom Walker

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Old Scratch’s Swamp Symbol Analysis

Old Scratch’s Swamp Symbol Icon
The swamp near which Tom Walker and his wife live is a complex symbol for the world of matter (gold and silver), as well as worldliness (the base pursuit of earthly riches), and moral corruption. Before the action of the story proper begins, Captain Kidd buried his ill-gotten treasure here, and in one sense that treasure reveals the fate of all human wealth: gained only through vicious predation and spiritual ignorance, it gives no real pleasure in this life and in the next causes only an eternity of suffering, just as Tom’s wealth buys him only an unfinished, unfurnished mansion, two skeletal horses, and damnation. Old Scratch guards Kidd’s treasure and uses it to tempt people into selling their souls, and also claims to own the swamp in which the treasure is hidden. Consequently, we might say that in this sense the swamp itself is a symbol for the material world in which we live, a world of growth and decay, of violent life and violent death, and the pirate’s treasure is the illusion that one can profit by going deep into the swamp, when really in digging up the treasure one merely digs one’s own grave.

Old Scratch’s Swamp Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker

The The Devil and Tom Walker quotes below all refer to the symbol of Old Scratch’s Swamp. 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

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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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.

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Old Scratch’s Swamp Symbol Timeline in The Devil and Tom Walker

The timeline below shows where the symbol Old Scratch’s Swamp 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
...Boston, Massachusetts, is a deep inlet that winds for miles inland and terminates in a swamp. This inlet is flanked by a beautiful grove on one side and a ridge on... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
One day Tom Walker is taking an ill-conceived shortcut home through the nearby swamp; it is gloomy with pines and hemlocks and owls, full of pits and boggy areas... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
...Scratch) demands to know what Tom is doing on his grounds; Tom retorts that the swamp belongs not to the black man but to Deacon Peabody. The black man says that... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
...a long and serious conversation together as the former makes his way home through the swamp. Old Scratch tells Tom of Kidd’s buried treasure, and offers to place it within Tom’s... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
...it. This news reminds Tom of the hemlock he had been sitting on in the swamp earlier that evening with Crowninshield’s name carved into it, and he becomes convinced that all... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Tom shares with his wife all that transpired in the swamp, and mention of Kidd’s hidden gold awakens the miserly woman’s greed. She urges her husband... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
...that she met Old Scratch hewing at the root of a tall tree in the swamp, but he would not come to terms with her. She is resolved to make him... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
...befell Tom’s wife, but many theories circulate: some say she got lost in the mazy swamp and fell into a pit; others say that she ran off with the household’s silver... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
...and probable story, however, holds that Tom went out searching for his wife in the swamp, when owls and bats were on the wing. Soon enough his attention was drawn by... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
...to anything, he meets the Black Woodsman again one night, at the edge of the swamp. (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
...never returns to foreclose the mortgage. A man who lives on the boarder of the swamp reports that during the thunderstorm he heard the clattering of hoofs and saw from his... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
...hole under the oaks which Tom dug in recovering Kidd’s treasure, and even now the swamp and old Indian fort are haunted on stormy nights by a gowned figure on horseback,... (full context)