In Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” set in New England in the early 1700s, a narrator relates a story he has heard about a local man’s dealings with the devil. The narrator never claims that the stories are true, only that they are widely believed.
According to local legend, a treasure is buried in a dark grove on an inlet outside of Boston. It is said that Kidd the Pirate left it there under a gigantic tree and that the devil himself “presided at the hiding of the money, and took it under his guardianship. ” Since the pirate Kidd was hanged, no one has disturbed the treasure or challenged the devil’s right to it.
In the year 1727 a local man, the notorious miser Tom Walker, finds himself in the dark grove alone at dusk while taking a shortcut back to his house. Tom is well known among the townspeople for his pitiful horse, his loud wife, and the couple’s miserly habits in which they “conspired to cheat each other.” Unaware that treasure lay nearby, Tom stops to rest against a tree outside the remains of an Indian fort. Despite local legends of the evil goings-on at the site, Tom ‘ ‘was not a man to be troubled with any fears of the kind.”
After absentmindedly digging up an old skull, Tom is suddenly reprimanded by a gruff voice. The voice belongs to a man who is blackened by soot and grime and who introduces himself as the black woodman. Soon enough, Tom realizes that he is in the company of the devil himself. After a brief conversation, “Old Scratch,” as Tom calls him, offers Tom the treasure in exchange for a few conditions. He declines. Back home, he tells his wife what transpired in the woods, and she is outraged that he passed up the opportunity for them to gain great wealth in exchange for his soul. She takes it upon herself to seek out the devil and strike a bargain on her own. After several trips to the fort in the woods, she becomes frustrated by the devil’s unwillingness to appear to her. One day, she gathers the couple’s few possessions of value in her apron and heads off for the woods. She never returns. Eventually, Tom wanders to the woods to find out what happened to her and discovers her apron hanging from a tree. It contains her heart and liver. Hoof-prints and clumps of hair at the base of the tree hint at a fierce struggle. “Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!” he remarks. Nevertheless, the next time the devil appears to Tom, he is eager to strike a deal now that he will not have to share anything with his wife.
Balking at the devil’s suggestion of becoming a slave-trader, Tom decides that he will become a usurer, or a moneylender, since gaining the treasure is contingent upon being employed in the devil’s service. Tom immediately sets up shop in a “counting house” in Boston and attains great wealth by cheating people out of their money and charging them outrageous interest. He builds a luxurious house but refuses to spend money to furnish it properly. He buys an expensive carriage but fails to maintain it, and his horses he only begrudgingly feeds.
When Tom grows old, he begins to worry about the terms of his deal with the devil and suddenly becomes a “violent church-goer” in an effort to cheat the devil out of receiving his soul. He reads the bible obsessively and prays loudly and long in church each week. Among the townspeople, “Tom’s zeal became as notorious as his riches.” Nevertheless, one morning the devil comes calling and instantly whisks Tom away on a black horse in the midst of a thunderstorm to the Indian fort in the woods, never to be seen again. Town officials charged with settling Tom’s estate discover his bonds and money reduced to cinders, and soon enough his house burns to the ground as well.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.