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.
Usury Quotes in The Devil and Tom Walker
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.
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.