See Old Scratch
Old Scratch is the guise for the Devil, who appears in “The Devil and Tom Walker” as a dark-skinned man. Readers are told, however, that he is neither Indian (Native American) nor white. He has deep red eyes, wears a red sash, and carries his axe on his shoulder. He is the one who tempts Tom Walker with the proposition of wealth and who ultimately condemns him to ride a horse through the swamp where they made their bargain. The Devil’s actions are similar to those he exhibits in other stories in which he is a featured character. In the Faust legend, as retold by Johann Goethe from German folklore, the Devil also strikes a deal with a man who desires wealth. It is the Devil’s usual place in literature to tempt other characters, often by providing some hapless character a deal”too good to refuse.” In “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” written by Stephen Vincent Benet almost a century after Irving’s story, a farmer who is down on his luck sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for seven years’ prosperity. In Benet’s tale, the Devil is also known as Scratch. In “Tom Walker,” Old Scratch personifies temptation, which has existed ostensibly since the Garden of Eden, providing a colorful and dramatic way to present a character’s conflict between choosing good and evil.
Tom Walker is considered one of Washington Irving’s least likeable characters. As described by Geoffrey Crayon, he is eccentric and miserly. The only thing that initially prevents him from striking a deal with Old Scratch (also known as the Devil) is his loathing for his wife. Walker states that he might have felt compelled to sell his soul to the Devil if it would not have pleased his wife so much. After confiding to his wife that Old Scratch would help him become rich beyond his wildest dreams, he decides against this partnership because Old Scratch wanted Tom to become a slave-trader. After his wife disappears and he finds her liver and heart wrapped up in her apron, Tom gives in to Old Scratch and accepts a job not as a slave-trader, but as a usurer, someone who lends money at outrageous interest rates. He becomes quite successful. He is still blunt, brusque, and unforgiving. His newfound wealth has not changed his basic attitudes, he still treats everyone with disrespect.
When Old Scratch approaches Walker to collect on his own promise, Walker realizes that he must pay up and be responsible for his own promissory note. Only then does Walker become pious and churchgoing to prove to the Devil that he has seen the light. Unfortunately, his religious conversion has not helped him one bit because he is critical of everyone in the church, quick to judge them, and refuses to see the error of his ways. But Walker has achieved his wealth through greed, and as a result he becomes a prisoner of his own doing.
Tom Walker is considered the “New England Faust” by some critics, a reference to the tale of soul-selling Faust by the German writer Johann Goethe. The primary difference between the two tales, however, was that Walker craved only money, whereas Faust craved a number of things, including love. At the time Irving wrote the story he was living in Germany and had become enthralled with folktales of the region, particularly with the Faust legend. Some critics have suggested that if “The Devil and Tom Walker” is interpreted as an allegory, then the character of Tom Walker represents the evolving business ethic of the young, industrial United States.
Tom’s wife is a tall “termagant” woman, one who is fierce of temper, loud of tongue and strong of arm. She is as equally miserly as her husband, and they both plan ways to cheat each other. She has a minor role in the story, but her death sets the action in motion. When she finds out that her husband has declined the offer from Old Scratch, she takes it upon herself to go into the forest and bargain on her own behalf. The only time Tom ever confides in his wife is when he tells her of the deal set forth by Old Scratch and how he turned it down. Her greedy side overcomes her and they quarrel constantly about it. But, “the more she talked, the more resolute was Tom not to be damned to please her.” She ventures out to the swamp to bargain with Old Scratch and when she doesn’t return, Tom goes in search of her. When he finds her heart and liver wrapped up in her apron, he suddenly feels liberated and immediately goes off to bargain with the Devil. Her greedy ways helped aid Tom in his decision to go back and visit Old Scratch; however, this time he is going of his own free will. In a way, Mrs. Walker helped him to keep his distance from the Devil because of her constant nagging and his need to go against her wishes.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.