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