'The Devil and Tom Walker' Short Story

Washington Irving's Faustian Tale

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

"The Devil and Tom Walker" is one of the most famous short stories by American writer Washington Irving, though he's best known for "Rip van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820). "The Devil and Tom Walker" was first published in 1824 among a collection of short stories called "Tales of a Traveller," which he wrote 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.

The History of 'The Devil and Tom Walker'

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, and while Christopher Marlowe's play "The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus" popularized the tale when it came out in 1604, a slew of Faustian works came out in the 19th and 20th centuries, among them "The Devil and Tom Walker."

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.

A Brief Overview of 'The Devil and Tom Walker'

The story quickly introduces the theme of greed by mentioning a treasure buried just outside of Boston by Kidd the pirate. It is 1727, and the reader is introduced to New Englander Tom Walker—just the kind of man to jump at the prospect of a buried treasure.

Tom Walker and his wife were selfish to the point of destruction: 

He had a wife as miserly as himself; 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 in the forest, Tom Walker comes upon the devil, called by many names in this story including Old Man Scratch. Old Man Scratch tells Tom Walker about the treasure, saying he controls it but will give it to Tom for a price, to which Tom agrees without really considering what he's paying—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.