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
Storytelling as Moral Instruction Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker
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.
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.
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.