Greed is one of the most important themes of “The Devil and Tom Walker” Tom is approached by Old Scratch and offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. Initially, Tom is so greedy that he declines because he would have to share the fortune with his wife. Eventually, however, Tom is duped by the false kindness of Old Scratch and blinded by his own greed. As Irving writes, Tom “was not a man to stick at trifles when money was in view.” Once established as a moneylender in Boston, Tom is described ironically as a “universal friend of the needy,” even though “In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms.” Though he becomes wealthy, Tom still remains parsimonious: he refuses to furnish his mansion or feed his horses properly. Still, he denies his greed. When accused by a customer of taking advantage of his misfortune, Tom answers ‘ The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Of course, immediately Old Scratch appears at the door. Irving’s moral is clear:”Such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth. Let all griping money-brokers lay this story to heart.”
Hypocrisy is evident throughout “The Devil and Tom Walker.” When agreeing to the terms of the deal, Tom refuses to become a slave-trade because he claims to have a conscience. Yet has no problem becoming a moneylender who will profit by impoverishing others through unscrupulous business practices. In a further example of hypocrisy, Tom insists on keeping his deals with customers, which drive them to ruin, but then he conspires to cheat the devil on the terms of their own deal. Thus, his public display of religious fervor has nothing to do with his belief in God but is rather an attempt to save himself from hell. In his final moment of hypocrisy, Tom denies that he has made a penny from an “unlucky land-speculator for whom he had professed the greatest friendship.” When the devil comes knocking, Irving makes it clear that Tom’s hypocrisy has caught up with him.
Though Tom Walker is presented as an individual who has always been morally corrupt, the action of “The Devil and Tom Walker” presents how moral corruption breeds more moral corruption, escalating to the greatest corruption of all, a pact with the devil. Described at the beginning of the story as a “meagre, miserly fellow,” Tom’s “house and its inmates had altogether a bad name.” For one with few morals, becoming a corrupt moneylender presents no crises of character. In acquiring great wealth, Tom feels that the ends justify the means. Selling his soul to the devil presents a crisis to Tom only when he pauses to consider the afterlife. His conversion to religion, made specifically for the sake of his own personal interest rather than his faith in God, is a further act of moral corruption. Nevertheless, Tom cannot escape his fate, and Irving makes it clear the consequences of such “ill-gotten wealth.” Though the narrator refers to the tale as a “story,” he also states that “the truth of it is not to be doubted.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.