The Devil and Tom Walker

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Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Analysis

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Greed Theme Icon
Usury Theme Icon
Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Theme Icon
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In the swamp, Old Scratch directs Tom’s attention to the nearby trees, flourishing on the outside but rotten on the inside, and we later learn that these trees represent the men whose names are carved into their trunks, one name per tree. It is implied, moreover, that the men who are named on the trees—men like Deacon Peabody, who made a fortune trading shrewdly with the Native Americans, and Absalom Crowninshield, who made his fortune buccaneering—are all corrupt sinners, soon to be axed from life by Old Scratch and used as kindling in hell. It is one of the story’s most insistent ironies that those named on the trees also happen to be some of the wealthiest, most powerful, most respected men in the colony. The irony is twofold: first, that to achieve worldly success seems to require spiritual failure, that prospering in this life means damnation in the next; and second, that common people blindly worship wealth such as Tom gains from the devil without ever thinking about its likely sinful origins or its social harms—harms that usually effect common people most intensely. Might doesn’t make right, the story implies, and regularly leads to damnation—but you wouldn’t know that based on how Bostonians esteem the Peabodies and Crowninshields and Tom Walkers of the world.

In the story, people respect the wealthy and powerful in part because it is precisely the wealthy and powerful who are most conspicuous in religious life, albeit hypocritically. Deacon Peabody, as his title suggests, is no less than a Puritan official. Similarly when Tom gets older and feels his death near, even he becomes a militant Christian, loud in prayer in proportion to his sinfulness, sternly and magisterially judgmental of his neighbors, and zealous in persecuting so-called heretics like the Quakers and Anabaptists. But as much as Tom feigns genuine contrition for his sins and faith in God, he never really changes his ways. He reads the Bible one minute, only to violate the spirit of religion the next by carrying out some usurious transaction. He thinks that by merely overcompensating for his sinfulness with prayers and having a Bible at hand, he can cheat Old Scratch—but his worldly depravity never leaves him, as is exemplified by his habit of thinking about salvation as a matter of credits, debts, and loans, terms relevant to the usurer but certainly not to the good Christian. Of course, Tom’s hypocrisies fool no one but Tom, and the devil takes what’s his.

A question remains: who in this world of getting and spending isn’t hypocritical in religious observance? There are in Tom’s congregation a few quiet, inconspicuous Christians traveling steadfastly “Zionward,” that is, toward heaven. But there are also the story’s Indians, who Irving portrays as living violent war-mad lives and sacrificing white men to “the evil spirit” of human viciousness, Old Scratch himself. Of course, these Indians’ practices have a great deal less to do with the historical Native Americans than with the racist stereotype of Native Americans held by New Englanders in Irving’s time, but their presence in the story also reveals the extent of white Christian hypocrisy: at least Irving’s Indians are honest about the fact that they worship Old scratch; the whites in the story on the other hand claim to worship the Christian God, but their greedy, predatory actions suggest that Old Scratch is more truly their spiritual guide. As the Indians sacrifice white men to Old Scratch, so too do whites like Tom sacrifice themselves by selling their souls to him not only eagerly but willingly.

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Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy 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 Wealth, Religion, and Hypocrisy.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” Quotes
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. 


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“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. 

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.