'The Devil and Tom Walker' Summary and Study Guide

Washington Irving's Faustian Tale

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

Washington Irving, one of early America's greatest storytellers, was 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 and greedy man.

Historical Context

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 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.

Plot Summary

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.

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 deal-making with the devil.

Main Characters

Tom Walker, the protagonist of the story, is described as "a meager miserly fellow" and is probably Irving's most despised (or least likable) character. Despite his many unsavory characteristics, he is also memorable. Initially, Walker rejects Old Scratch's offer, but he eventually gives into the devil's conditions. Walker has been compared to Faust/Faustus, a character who has appeared in countless works through literary history, from Marlowe, Goethe, and beyond.

Walker's wife is such a minor character that her name is never given, but she can be likened to her husband in her miserly nature and volatile temper, as Irving describes: "Tom's wife was a tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm. Her voice was often heard in wordy warfare with her husband; and his face sometimes showed signs that their conflicts were not confined to words."

Old Scratch is another name for the devil. Old Scratch is described as a dark-skinned man. Washington Irving wrote, "It is true, he was dressed in a rude, half Indian garb, and had a red belt or sash swathed round his body, but his face was neither black nor copper color, but swarthy and dingy and begrimed with soot, as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires and forges."

The actions of Old Scratch are similar to other tales where he is the tempter, who offers the protagonist riches or other gains in exchange for the character's soul.

Major Events and Setting

"The Devil and Tom Walker" may be a short story but quite a bit takes place in its few pages. The events—and the locations where they take place—really drive the overarching theme of the story: avarice and its consequences. The events of the story can be divided into two locations:

Old Indian Fort

  • Tom Walker meets Old Scratch: Tom takes a shortcut through tangled, dark, and dingy swamplands, which are so dark and uninviting that they represent hell in the story. Tom meets the devil, Old Scratch, at an abandoned Indian fort hidden away in the swamplands.
  • Old Scratch offers Tom Walker great sums of money in exchange for "certain conditions." The conditions are, of course, that Walker give his soul in his deal with the devil.
  • The devil offers Tom riches hidden by Captain Kidd if Tom agrees to sell his soul to Old Scratch. Tom agrees.
  • Tom's wife confronts Old Scratch. She goes into the swamplands, twice, hoping that Old Scratch would make a deal with her instead of her husband. Tom's wife absconds with all of the couple's valuables for the second meeting, but she disappears into the swamplands and is never heard from again.

Boston

  • Bolstered by the ill-gotten riches offered by Old Scratch, Walker opens a broker's office in Boston. Walker lends money freely, but he is merciless in his dealings and ruins the lives of many borrowers, often repossessing their property.
  • A ruined speculator asks for a debt he owes to Tom to be forgiven. Walker refuses, but the devil rides in on a horse, easily sweeps Tom up, and gallops away—and Tom is never seen again. After that, all the deeds and notes in Walker's safe turn to ash, and his house mysteriously burns down.

Key Quotes

The legend of a man who sold his soul to the devil and its devious consequences has been retold many times, but Irving's original words truly reveal the story.

Setting the scene:

"About the year 1727, just at the time when earthquakes were prevalent in New England and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees, there lived near this place a meager miserly fellow of the name of Tom Walker."

Describing the protagonist:

"Tom was a hard-minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil."

Describing the protagonist and his wife:

"...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."

Laying out the potential moral consequences of greed:

"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."

The community's state of mind regarding the death of Walker and his wife:

"The good people of Boston shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, but had been so much accustomed to witches and goblins and tricks of the devil in all kinds of shapes from the first settlement of the colony, that they were not so much horror struck as might have been expected."

Study Guide Questions

Once students have had a chance to read this classic tale, test their knowledge with these study questions:

  • What is important about the title? Had you ever heard the phrase before reading the story? 
  • What are the conflicts in "The Devil and Tom Walker"? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) do you see?
  • Does Irving reveal character in "The Devil and Tom Walker"? 
  • Who was Faust (in literary history)? How could Tom Walker be said to have made a Faustian bargain?
  • How does greed factor into this story? Do you think the Walker family's financial situation plays a factor in their choices?  
  • What are some themes in the story? How do they relate to the plot and characters? 
  • Compare and contrast Tom Walker with Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens 
  • Is Tom Walker consistent in his actions? Is he a fully developed character? How? Why? 
  • Do you find the characters likable? Are the characters persons you would want to meet? 
  • Discuss some of the symbols in "The Devil and Tom Walker." 
  • How are women portrayed in this story? Is the portrayal positive or negative?  
  • Does the story end the way you expected? How? Why? How did you feel about the ending? Was it fair? Why or why not? 
  • What is the central or primary purpose of the story? Is the purpose important or meaningful? 
  • How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else? 
  • What supernatural or surprising events are employed by Washington Irving? Are these happenings believable? 
  • How do you think Irving's Christian beliefs impacted his writing?  
  • What would you trade your soul for? 
  • Do you think Tom and his wife made the right choice?