Point of View
This Washington Irving story is narrated by Geoffrey Crayon, a fictional character created by Irving who appears in a number of the author’s works. The story’s status of “legend” or “tall tale” is enhanced by Crayon’s comments and the fact that he places the year it takes place, 1727, nearly a hundred years before the date he is writing Tales of a Traveller. Crayon refers to the rumors of treasure near Boston as “old stories” and states that the fate of Tom’s wife “is one of those facts which have become confounded by a variety of historians.” Through this secondhand narration, Irving shows that the tale has a long, local history, a primary characteristic of a folktale. Furthermore, the narrator states that “the story has resolved itself into a proverb, and is the origin of that popular saying, so prevalent in New England, of ‘The Devil and Tom Walker.'” Such first-person narration adds to the feeling the reader has of being told a story in the oral tradition, the way most folktales are handed down from generation to generation.
Many folktales are allegories. In an allegory, characters and actions are symbolic of larger conditions of human nature. In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the character of Old Scratch personifies evil or temptation. The murky woods full of quagmires in which Tom meets the devil are symbolic of his conscience, which, clouded by his greed, falls easily to the devil’s temptation. Tom Walker, an unscrupulous moneylender, makes a pact with the devil and only later professes religious beliefs. Through these actions, Tom represents religious hypocrisy, which Irving shows will be punished.
Irving sought to spearhead the establishment of literature that was uniquely American. To that end, he set “The Devil and Tom Walker” in the New England area near Boston. In the early eighteenth century, this was one of the largest and most established metropolitan areas in the growing United States. Irving describes the landscape of bluffs and swamps that were familiar to the area’s inhabitants and made the site of Tom’s meeting with the devil an old Indian fort that had been a stronghold during a war with the Europeans, providing a further uniquely American context. Furthermore, the New England setting highlights Irving’s interest in Tom’s morality. The region was populated by Puritans, Quakers, and Anabaptists, all strict Christian orders that were highly concerned with church members’ moral consciousness. The murky morass in which Tom meets Old Scratch is also symbolic of Tom’s character. Through this setting, Irving suggests that if one’s heart is full of mud and quicksand, one is likely to encounter and succumb to temptation.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.