The Devil and Tom Walker

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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.
Usury Theme Icon

Irving targets in “The Devil and Tom Walker” a particular institutionalization of greed that does, from the story’s perspective, large-scale social harm: namely, usury, or the practice of lending money at interest, especially at excessive or illegal rates Just as greed breeds greed, so does usury permit money to breed money in turn without need of labor or the creation of new value. Tom Walker himself becomes a usurer in the second half of the story, a respected man who employs in his counting house many clerks. It is of course ironic that the usurer, whom Old Scratch judges to be second only to the slave trader in terms of social and moral destructiveness, should be permitted to operate in society at all, much less be respected by society as Tom is. For one thing, usury enables people to act more easily on their greed, taking out loans for various enterprises as so many speculators do in the story, with disastrous economic consequences in their case. Second, usurers like Tom tend to have as their clientele desperate people—indeed, Tom lends money to people in a community foundering on economic depression. And, because desperate people are generally more willing to take desperate measures, usurers can charge them outrageously high interests rates and, ultimately, bleed them dry, as Tom does with the land jobber. (It’s worth noting that the modern world financial system rests on the practice of lending money at interest—on usury—but in earlier times it was considered sinful, especially among Christians – see The Merchant of Venice. That Tom could be a socially respected person while openly practicing usury, and being damned for it, captures the tension as the economy shifts toward our modern system even as Christian religious qualms about money-lending still held some sway.)

However, it is not Tom but Old Scratch himself who imposes the highest interest rates on his loans: in exchange for Captain Kidd’s treasure, he expects something infinitely more valuable in return: Tom’s immortal soul. Just like the hard-up people he loans money to later, Tom is so desperate to sate his greed that he takes the devil’s abominable offer, blinded to the afterlife of the soul by mortal passion and mere gold. From this perspective, usury becomes a larger metaphor in the story for how sinners must, at last, pay for their sins with their souls, and only do so because they are so fatally limited in their vision of the divine scheme of virtue, vice, and salvation. Of course, the Devil, as the world’s ultimate usurer, is just as doomed as Tom, for he can never repay the infinite debt of his rebellion from God, whereas men and women can attain to salvation in the story’s world, if only they first escape from the prison of their own bad desires.

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Usury ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Usury appears in each chapter of The Devil and Tom Walker. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Usury 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 Usury.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” Quotes

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."


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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. 

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. 

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.