This story focuses largely on the theme of greed and its negative effects. Tom Walker is known throughout the Charles Bay for his greed, and it is this greed that leads him to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for money. Tom's plight is meant to warn readers not to let greed blind them, for, as is the case in "The Devil and Tom Walker," it can have disastrous consequences.
Tom's choices in this story are reflections of his valuing material wealth and financial prosperity over the well-being of others. He is more concerned with the loss of his valuable property than he is with the murder of his wife by Old Scratch. He shows no sympathy for those who come to him seeking loans, and instead bleeds them dry. Tom's values lie in the wrong place, and in the end he is punished for it.
The theme of religion also figures prominently into this story, particularly at the end when Tom believes he can atone for his sins by playing a devout Christian on the outside, while still continuing his miserly, heartless practices. The story condemns the hypocrisy that often accompanies religion, just as Tom displays in the text. This story also subtly condemns Puritans for their intolerance in persecuting those who do not believe what they do.
When bargaining with anyone—this case in particular, with the devil—caution must be taken, and "The Devil and Tom Walker" makes this extremely clear. Tom does not anticipate the consequences of the deal he has agreed to, and later on faces the fearful prospect of an eternity of damnation because of it. Tom's wife is not cautious when she rushes to agree to the devil's terms, and as a result, she is murdered. It is a clear message to readers to be careful where they tread when making deals with everyone; ensure the terms are understood fully, or one may find himself regretting that to which one has agreed.
In this story, Old Scratch knows exactly what it takes to manipulate Tom into agreeing with his terms: a promise of enough wealth and riches to last him the rest of his life. In turn, Tom manipulates the clients who come to him for loans, playing on their poverty and lust for better lives to bleed them dry of every penny they have. Manipulation can occur overtly or discreetly; in this story, no one realizes they've been manipulated until it is far too late.
Good vs. Evil
As this is a tale about a deal with the devil, the theme of good versus evil naturally comes into play. The story suggests that greed and hypocrisy are the root of evil, and from Tom's fate it is clear that these do not go unpunished. However, this story also implies that this fate is avoidable: with a set of proper values and sound judgment, people can live "good" lives, combat evil, and evade the devil as Tom was unable to do.
Though Tom's morals are certainly not in the right place at the beginning of the story, they continue to decay as time goes on, until eventually Tom has become so immoral that he is akin to the devil himself. At first, Tom is reluctant to agree to Old Scratch's terms, even though money is involved. Slowly but surely, though, Old Scratch chips away at his morality until it has decayed completely, and he can look a poor man in the face, whom he has bled out of money, and claim he has not made a cent off of him.
In most stories involving the devil, the devil incarnate represents temptation; this one is no different. Tom's interactions with Old Scratch illustrate just how disastrous temptation can be, and they warn readers to be extremely cautious before giving themselves over to it. It is a show of strength to be able to resist desire in favor of what is right; Tom was weak, and he paid the price.
The Devil and Tom Walker Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Devil and Tom Walker is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.