The Devil and Tom Walker Summary

Washington Irving

The Devil and Tom Walker

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The Devil and Tom Walker Summary

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Washington Irving is one of the most renowned authors and essayists ever to contribute to the American era of Romanticism, and his works Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are known by many and studied in schools around the world. However, it is some of his lesser known works that tend to provoke some great discussion and pensive reflection. An example of which is The Devil and Tom Walker, a brooding short story written under the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon and published alongside many other great works within a collection titled: Tales of a Traveler.

The Devil and Tom Walker is the story of the two titular characters: the money-grubbing Tom Walker, a cheap and stingy “miser,” who lives with his equally greedy, but more abusive wife, and the Devil, who in this story takes the form of a lumberjack, chopping wood in a deep swamp near an old Indian fortress left over from King Phillip’s war. The story begins as a continuation of another story from the collection, where an old legendary pirate, William the Kid, hid a treasure deep in a forest in Massachusetts and made a deal with the devil to protect his money. William the Kid ended up dying and never claimed his merchandise, but the devil continues to protect it long after he is gone.

The tale of Tom Walker begins one day, when taking a walk into the swamp, to get away from his poor and dilapidated house, he runs into the Devil incarnate, who with his new form, has a new name, and is called “Old Scratch,” or sometimes “The Black Man.” At this run-in, Old Scratch offers Tom full access to William the Kid’s hidden gold, years after his death, and in return, Tom must give the devil his soul. After Tom returns home to think about it, his wife thinks it is a simple decision, and takes it upon herself to agree on her husband’s behalf, heading to Old Scratch to tell him this, however now he requires an offering. She returns home to bring all their valuables back to Old Scratch, and that was the last time she was seen.

Tom Walker returns home later to find their valuables gone, and his wife’s apron hanging from a tree, holding her liver and heart, and because she had been so abusive, Tom considers his wife’s mutilation a good thing, and agrees to Old Scratch’s terms, part of which is that Tom would become a money lender (loan shark).

Three to five years later, Tom’s business appears to be thriving. The way he lives, from the outside it is clear that he has riches – he has a large house, and many horses. However, upon a closer look – his home has no furniture and his horses are thin from malnutrition – it is also clear that he is still very greedy, despite having what seems like everything. Furthermore, after years of dealing in such an unscrupulous business, cheating and swindling people, Tom gradually grows more fearful of the afterlife. He suddenly becomes God fearing and religious, keeping two bibles at hand at all times, knowing that his end is near. Although, even as a now seemingly pious man, his actions still have an aura of shiftiness, as he considers other peoples’ sins a benefit, as it makes him seem a lot more virtuous.

Later one evening, an old customer who has lost it all, comes to Tom Walker, begging for leniency and wonders why a man who makes such a profit couldn’t be more merciful. To that Tom responds by saying that may the devil himself take him away if he had made a fraction of the profit the man was talking about – of course, this being a flat out lie, Tom immediately hears three knocks on his door. Old Scratch approaches Tom, dressed as Death, in a dark cloak, and Tom realizes this is over, and regrets that he did not have his bibles with him at the time.

Old Scratch takes Tom with him on his horse, and they ride off together back to the swamp and disappear into the storm, and Tom is gone forever. His large home burns, his horses turn into skeletons, his money and gold all transform into wood shavings – causing Tom’s old life to become worthless and his home to become haunted by his ghost.

The short story of The Devil and Tom Walker is more than just a tall tale – it lives on in multiple forms, with “The Devil and Tom Walker” being a famed New England saying. Author Steven Vincent Benet credits Washington Irving’s tale as the inspiration for his short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” And if nothing else, this story reminds us of the famous German Folklore of Faust, in which a man makes a pact with the devil and exchanges his soul for limitless worldly pleasures, a legend which Irving drew his own inspiration from to write this classic piece of literature.