'The Devil and Tom Walker' Short Story

Washington Irving's Faustian Tale

"The Devil and Tom Walker"
Charles Deas / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Washington Irving was one of early America's greatest storytellers, the author of such beloved works as "Rip van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820). Another of his short stories, "The Devil and Tom Walker," is not as well known, but it is definitely worth seeking out. "The Devil and Tom Walker" was first published in 1824 among a collection of short stories called "Tales of a Traveller," which Irving wrote as Geoffrey Crayon, one of his pseudonyms.

 "The Devil and Tom Walker" appropriately appeared in a section called "Money-Diggers," as the tale chronicles the selfish choices of an exceptionally stingy man.


Irving's piece is a relatively early entry into the many literary works considered Faustian tales—stories depicting greed, a thirst for instant gratification, and, ultimately, a deal with the devil as the means to such selfish ends. The legend of Faust dates back to 16th-century Germany, with Christopher Marlowe dramatizing the legend in his play "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus," first performed sometime around 1588. Faustian tales have been a hallmark of Western culture ever since, the major theme of plays, poems, operas, classical music, and even film and television productions.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, given its dark subject, "The Devil and Tom Walker" sparked a fair amount of controversy, particularly among the religious population.

Still, many consider it one of Irving's finest stories and an exemplary piece of narrative writing. In fact, Irving's piece triggered a rebirth of sorts for the Faustian tale. It is widely reported to have inspired Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which appeared in "The Saturday Evening Post" in 1936—more than a century after Irving's story came out.

Brief Overview

The book opens with the tale of how Captain Kidd, a pirate, buried some treasure in a swamp just outside Boston. It then jumps to the year 1727, when New Englander Tom Walker happened to find himself walking through this swamp. Walker, explains the narrator, was just the kind of man to jump at the prospect of a buried treasure, as he, along with his wife, were selfish to the point of destruction:

"...they were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other. Whatever the woman could lay hands on she hid away: a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg. Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards, and many and fierce were the conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common property."

While walking through the swamp, Walker comes upon the devil, a great "black" man carrying an ax, whom Irving calls Old Scratch. The devil in disguise tells Walker about the treasure, saying that he controls it but will give it to Tom for a price. Walker agrees readily, without really considering what he is expected to pay in return—his soul. The rest of the tale follows the twists and turns one might expect as a result of greed-driven decisions and dealmaking with the devil.


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Lombardi, Esther. "'The Devil and Tom Walker' Short Story." ThoughtCo, Apr. 14, 2018, thoughtco.com/devil-and-tom-walker-short-story-739481. Lombardi, Esther. (2018, April 14). 'The Devil and Tom Walker' Short Story. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/devil-and-tom-walker-short-story-739481 Lombardi, Esther. "'The Devil and Tom Walker' Short Story." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/devil-and-tom-walker-short-story-739481 (accessed May 22, 2018).