The Devil and Tom Walker

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Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Devil and Tom Walker, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon

The narrator of “The Devil and Tom Walker” is clear in his purpose: this is a cautionary tale, meant to wake up predators and usurers like Tom to the harms that their activities wreak on human society, and also to the dire consequences the greedy and miserly face not only in this life but in the next. For this reason, we know that this is a didactic story, that is, a story which has as one of its central purposes the moral instruction of its reader.

But Irving’s didacticism is more sophisticated than mere sermonizing. This is especially clear in those points in the story when the narrator interrupts himself to provide multiple, mutually exclusive accounts of the same event, tending in these cases also to select the account he finds most probable. Two patterns emerge: the narrator favors accounts that underscore the moral of his story, but also accounts that are darkly humorous and entertaining. For example, when Tom’s wife disappears into the swamp, the narrator entertains four versions of the story: 1) that Tom’s wife got physically lost in the swamp; 2) that she ran off with the Walker household’s silver to some other province; 3) that Old Scratch tricked her into a boggy part of the swamp into which she sank; and 4) that Old Scratch won the wife’s soul only after quarreling and fighting and wrestling with her, suffering some pulled-out hair himself. The first version ignores the otherworldly, spiritual implications of the wife’s greed, and the second doesn’t match the story’s moral of the costs of greed. However, the third and fourth versions do underscore the story’s moral in terms of the life of the human soul—so how does the narrator decide which is most probable, as he says? It seems that he simply picks the most entertaining account: a devilish trick is considerably less fun to imagine than a nagging woman picking a fight with the devil himself. Indeed, even though the narrator dismisses as an old wives’ tale the story that old Tom buried his horse upside down so as to ride away from the devil on it come Judgment Day, it is included in the narrator’s story nonetheless, first and foremost because it calls to mind a darkly humorous and absurd image of a monstrously misguided attempt to save one’s soul. Irving seems to be implying in such moments that moral instruction and entertainment are not mutually exclusive in a work of art, but prompt and promote one another.

Finally, it should be added that the narrator provides many accounts or versions of the same event in his story also to suggest to his reader that he is not making up what he’s recounting in his story, but serving more as a historian, whose function it is to consider legends and rumors as matters of historical fact, to weigh them against one another to determine which seems more true. This historian’s tone in turn makes the uncontested events of the story—like Tom making a deal with the devil and becoming a usurer—seem all the more real to us as readers. If the devil is as much a part of our world in reality as he is in Tom’s, the ethical stakes of living by the story’s moral of resisting greed and leading an honest, God-fearing life, become all the higher.

Storytelling as Moral Instruction ThemeTracker

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Storytelling as Moral Instruction Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker

Below you will find the important quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker related to the theme of Storytelling as Moral Instruction.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” Quotes

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.  


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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. 

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. 

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.