The story takes place a few miles from Boston, Massachusetts, inland from the Charles Bay. A fictional narrator of Irving's creation, his persona named Geoffrey Crayon, tells us the story of Kidd the Pirate, who brought a large sum of money ashore here to bury in a swamp. According to these old stories, the devil presided at the burial of the treasure, and took it under his protection until Kidd returned someday to reclaim it. But Kidd never returned; soon after he was seized in Boston and sent to England to be hanged for a pirate.
Fast forward to the year 1727: now a man named Tom Walker lives in a small house near the Charles Bay. He is stingy, greedy, and miserly, as is his wife, and the two often fight. They keep secret hoards of wealth from each other, and they own one miserable horse with its ribs showing. Their antics have given them and their house a bad name.
One day when Tom had ventured to a far part of his neighborhood, he decides to take a shortcut back through a nearby swamp. It was a dark and gloomy route, somewhat treacherous, and the swamp only had one piece of firm land. This piece of land was once a stronghold for Indians during their war with the local colonists, but nothing remains of their former fort except a few embankments. Tom stops at the old fort site to rest for a while, and while leisurely turning up some soil, digs up a cloven skull with an Indian tomahawk buried in it.
When he kicks the skull, a voice tells him to leave the skull alone. It's a tall black man dressed in Indian garb, covered in soot and carrying an axe. He asks what Tom is doing on his grounds; Tom sneers at him that this land belongs to Deacon Peabody, not to him. The man tells him to "look yonder, and see how Deacon Peabody is faring," pointing to a rotting tree that has Deacon Peabody's name scored into it. Another bares the name "Crowninshield." Both of these are men who acquired wealth through dishonest means.
The man says this land belonged to him long before any of Tom's people claimed it. Tom asks who he is, and he says he goes by various names; he is the wild huntsman in some countries, the black miner in others, but here he is known as the black woodsman. He says that Indians consecrated this land in his name, and since "white savages" exterminated the Indians, he is their great patron. He also says he presides at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists. Tom realizes that this is the man commonly called "Old Scratch."
After this introduction, Tom and Old Scratch have a long conversation as Tom walks back to his home. Old Scratch tells Tom of a large sum of money buried here by a pirate, and since he has control over the treasure, no one can find it unless he gives them permission. He offers to place this treasure within Tom's reach, as he has taken a liking to him, but there are certain conditions Tom must follow to receive it.
Tom thinks on this for a while, and demands some kind of proof or promise that this is all true; in answer, Old Scratch presses his finger into Tom's forehead and disappears, leaving a burned black mark where it was.
The first part of this story establishes the setting, introduces us to our main characters, and provides the inciting incident that will lead into the rest of the story. The initial description of Tom Walker focuses heavily on his miserly tendencies, which indicates right off the bat that these are what will cause trouble for him. The negative relationship between he and his wife is an important factor of their characterization as well, as it shows that Tom is not satisfied with his current life situation and, naturally, will seek something greater when the opportunity arises.
In contrast to protagonists of many other short stories, Tom Walker is not a likable character. Readers are not meant to sympathize with him, nor are they supposed to root for him as the story progresses. In fact, the author intends for readers to feel quite the opposite; they are meant to be repulsed by him and hope that he gets his comeuppance. If Tom Walker were likable, readers would not come away from this story having learned the intended lesson.
The story also characterizes Tom Walker through imagery, describing the setting around him using unpleasant diction, suggesting that even the atmosphere surrounding him is undesirable. That this story takes place in a forlorn forest and swamp is reflective of the moral decay Tom undergoes through the course of it. He calls the trees in the woods "emblems of sterility," which is symbolic of the lack of love between Tom and his wife. The house has "an air of starvation," and the horse they keep has "ribs as articulate as the bar of a gridiron." All of these descriptions evoke powerful images in a reader's mind, images that go to characterize the protagonist of this story as someone readers do not want to be.
"The Devil and Tom Walker" is based on the traditional Faustian bargain myth, in which a character is tempted into making a deal with the devil or a devil-like figure. This stems from the classic German tale of Faust, a scholar who makes a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.
In this story Old Scratch is not merely representative of the devil; he is the devil incarnate, the devil in the form of a dark man who roams dismal places such as this swamp near the Charles Bay and seeks to punish those who acquire wealth dishonestly and oppress and persecute other groups.
In the first part of this story, Tom makes his deal with the devil, or Old Scratch, though readers don't yet learn the terms of this deal. As is typical of Faustian bargain tales, Tom has his reservations; the text stresses that Tom, a man who is never hesitant to seek out wealth, is unsure whether or not to take the deal. Eventually, though, as his prior characterization predicted, he accepts, and readers can expect to soon learn what, exactly, he agrees to.
You may have noticed that the devil is portrayed as a dark-skinned man, while Tom, whom he corrupts, is a white-skinned colonist. As established before, Tom is by no means a likable white man, but he is white all the same, and pure evil is portrayed as black. This is highly reflective of racial perceptions during the time period in which this story was published. Author Washington Irving wrote "The Devil and Tom Walker" in the early 1800s, and race relations in America were worse than ever at this time. Irving is remembered today as a somewhat racist author, which is reflected in his portrayal of the devil as a black man. Blacks were considered inferior to whites in all ways during this era, and were still being traded as slaves at the time of this work's publication.
There is a reference to Irving's attitude towards Puritans, the primary settlers of the Charles Bay during this time period, hidden in Old Scratch's introduction as well. Irving clearly condemns their intolerance, as evidenced by Old Scratch, the devil, announcing that he presides at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists and is the patron of the Indians who were once persecuted by the Puritans as well. Much of Irving's work reflects a similar attitude toward this religious group, and this text is one of his most prominent satires of their viewpoints.