The Devil and Tom Walker

The Devil and Tom Walker Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In what sense did Tom Walker make a Faustian bargain?

    "The Devil and Tom Walker" has all the makings of a traditional Faustian bargain tale. In the German legend, Faust, a scholar, makes a deal with the devil to sell his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge, the thing he desired most in the world. In this story, Tom Walker agrees to sell his soul to the devil and endure eternal damnation in exchange for a vast sum of wealth, the thing he desires most in the world. Just like Faust, Tom realizes the consequences of his actions far too late.

  2. 2

    How does the story use imagery early on in the story to characterize Tom Walker and his wife?

    At the beginning of the story, author Washington Irving paints a picture for readers full of rich detail. He describes a forlorn forest with sterile trees, a decrepit, unkept house, and emaciated, unhappy horses. The miserable setting immediately aids in characterizing the property's owners, Tom Walker and his wife, as undesirable, unpleasant people who readers will root against for the duration of the story. Using the qualities that he and his wife both have to describe the setting around them is an extra way to add to their characterization.

  3. 3

    How do Tom Walker's morals decay over the course of the story?

    Tom Walker is by no definition a moral person at the beginning of the story, but the morals he does have still show evidence of decay throughout the novel. He is hesitant to agree to the terms of Old Scratch's bargain, at first; here, he shows some restraint. He claims that not even the devil can turn him into a slave trader, which displays some form of a conscience. However, as he first claims that the loss of his wife was a good thing, then goes on to cheat hundreds of people out of their money, and finally tries to cover up for his actions by carrying around a bible, it becomes clear that Tom Walker has passed the point of no return.

  4. 4

    Why is the title of the story, "The Devil and Tom Walker," significant?

    The title reveals right away who the two primary characters in this story are going to be, so readers have no question who Old Scratch is the moment he makes his first appearance. The title adds a sense of foreboding and cautious anticipation, and even foreshadows interaction between these two figures. Above all, it places both characters directly next to each other almost as equals, which is fitting because at the end of the story, Tom succeeds in becoming as morally corrupt as Old Scratch himself. By the end of the story the two are indistinguishable, just as the title suggests.

  5. 5

    How does the story condemn religious hypocrisy?

    Early on in the story, Irving condemns the persecution of different groups on the grounds of religious intolerance. Later on in the story, however, he more explicitly denounces the hypocrisy present in so many religious figures. Old Scratch claims that Deacon Peabody is going to be damned unless he starts worrying about his own sins as much as he worries about the sins of others. At the end of the story Tom Walker is a religious zealot by day, but still continues his corrupt business practices. Irving clearly believes that, where religion is concerned, it's essential to practice what you preach.

  6. 6

    What is the major lesson that readers are meant to learn from this story?

    Readers are meant to come away from this story with a full understanding of the negative effects of greed. Tom Walker's major fault—though he has many—is that he is greedy, and his greed commences a snowball effect of unfortunate events until finally he is carried away to hell, just as Old Scratch promised. This story also teaches a lesson against materialism; Tom's obsession with material wealth, even after he has been given a huge amount of money, ultimately causes his downfall. Readers are meant to learn that there are more important things than money and possessions; at the end of the story all Tom's possessions vanish, emphasizing this point.

  7. 7

    In what ways is this story a satire?

    A satire is a piece of work that criticizes some element of human folly, and "The Devil and Tom Walker" does exactly that. The story satirizes societal greed and hypocrisy, particularly that of the Puritans, the religious group that settled the Charles Bay during the time period in which this story takes place. Though Tom Walker is definitely unlikable, he is also easily comparable to others who let greed, stinginess, and frugality blind them to the point where they (figuratively) have sold their souls.

  8. 8

    Discuss the ways Old Scratch manipulates Tom Walker into agreeing to his deal.

    At first it seems that the devil is being fairly straightforward with Tom, promising him treasure at a price and marking him with his fingerprint to ensure that the promise is genuine. Later on, though, it becomes clear that he is using clever manipulation tactics to get what he wants from Tom. He does not immediately tell him the terms of the deal; he merely hints at them. He does not allow Tom's wife to make the bargain, and instead disposes of her in order to lure Tom back to him. He acts reserved and indifferent when Tom returns to find him, and it is only with much apparent coaxing that he agrees to bargain once more with Tom. All of these tactics increase Tom's greed and desire for the treasure.

  9. 9

    How does the framing of this story as a narration add to its effect on readers?

    Because this story is presented as an old fireside tale told by an outside narrator, it enhances the idea that this is a folktale meant to teach readers something. It also creates an air of timelessness to this story; since it is said to have been passed down from generation to generation, it obviously has an enduring message meant to be heeded. At the end of the story, the narrator says that this tale has become a proverb and is the origin of the popular New England saying, "the devil and Tom Walker," which reminds readers that there is something to take away here.

  10. 10

    Why is Tom Walker's final line, "The devil take me if I have made a farthing!", the one that seals his fate?

    With this line, Tom Walker outright asks the devil to come and take him at last; obviously he has made more than his fair share of money off of the poor land-jobber to which this line is directed, so this is a blatant lie. This final lie confirms that Tom Walker's morals have decayed past the point of any redemption, and he has lost all traces of his humanity; because of this, his soul is completely sold to the devil and the bargain has been fulfilled. It is now time for Tom to face the eternal damnation that he himself agreed to, and, of course, that he certainly deserves.