The Devil and Tom Walker

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.

“The Devil and Tom Walker” is full of characters grotesquely pledged to little more than pursuing their insatiable greed: the long-dead pirate Captain Kidd, the socially powerful but nonetheless hell-damned buccaneer Absalom Crowninshield, and, of course, the miserly Tom Walker and his even more miserly wife. In the background of these characters, and their logical end in Irving’s story, stands the figure of the slave trader, who takes greed to the extreme…

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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…

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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

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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…

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