“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 by sacrificing conscience in exchange for profit and treating people like nothing more than property.
It is especially through the characters of Tom and his wife, however, that Irving depicts the moral harms of greed, which sours, corrupts, and ruins the lives of the greedy themselves, and creates strife in the lives of those around them. Tom and his wife love nothing so much as riches, not even themselves; both would rather sell their souls to Old Scratch—the devil—and burn in everlasting hellfire, than miss out on an opportunity to profit. In a revealing irony, Tom and his wife are so greedy that they can’t bear to spend the riches they have. Tom’s life as a rich man is essentially indistinguishable from his life as a poor man: his houses, whether hovel-like when he was poor or vastly ostentatious when he was rich, are neglected and have about them “an air of starvation”; and his horses are little more than skeletons. At the end of the story, Tom’s riches are revealed for what they truly are from a cosmic perspective: cinders, wood shavings, and bones. This echoes the fate of Captain Kidd, who dies poorly, nastily, and brutishly before he can ever enjoy his ill-gotten treasure. And in the process the story shows how the satisfaction of greed only makes greed hungrier, starving all quality of life in turn.
And just as the greedy are incapable of caring for themselves, so too are they incapable of caring for, and living harmoniously with, others. Captain Kidd so trespasses against human society that he is hanged for his crimes of piracy, and Absalom Crowninshield likewise made his fortune through anti-social acts of predation. Tom and his wife make of their domestic life a parody of hell, cheating, quarrelling, abusing and deceiving one another as they do, for no reason other than that they overvalue the external world of stuff at the expense of the inner world of the human soul. The story is unambiguous in portraying the just punishment for greed: the lives of the greedy are not worth living, and upon death are damned to fuel the devil’s forge and fire.
Greed Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker
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.
There lived near this place a meagre miserly fellow of the name of Tom Walker. He had a wife as miserly as himself… They lived in a forlorn-looking house, that stood alone and had an air of starvation.
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…
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
All her [Tom Walker’s wife’s] avarice was awakened at the mention of hidden gold, and she urged her husband to comply with the black man's terms and secure what would make them wealthy for life. However Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so he flatly refused out of the mere spirit of contradiction.
Tom now grew uneasy for her [his wife’s] safety, especially as he found she had carried off in her apron the silver teapot and spoons, and every portable article of value.
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.
Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodman, who, he considered, had done him a kindness.
He [Old Scratch] proposed, therefore, that Tom should employ it [the pirate treasure] in the black traffic; that is to say, that he should fit out a slave-ship. This, however, Tom resolutely refused: he was bad enough in all conscience; but the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.