The Devil and Tom Walker: Human Intent and the Aftermath of ItWashington Irving, in writing “The Devil and Tom Walker”, and StephenVincent Benet, in writing “The Devil and Daniel Webster” illustrate to thereader the consequences of man’s desire for material wealth and how a person’smotivation for a relationship with the devil affects the outcome of the “deal”.In these two different, yet surprisingly similar narratives, the authors presenttheir beliefs about human intent and motive.In “The Devil and Tom Walker”, the story is seen of a stingy man and hisnagging wife who “..
.were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat eachother” (128). In the story, one sees a man make a deal with the devil, who inthe story is known as “Old Scratch”, for the sole purpose of personal gain.
TomWalker, seeing only the possible wealth that he could achieve, bargains with thedevil and finally reaches an agreement which he sees to be fair. Tom does notsee the danger present in bargaining with such a powerful force for so littlegain. There is a note of humor present in the narrative, which adds to thesense of danger that is present making deals that one does not intend to keep.Commenting on the story, Larry L.Stevens notes that “This tale,..
., comicallypresents the results of valuing the dollar above all else.” This story does avery good job of conveying a message to the reader about human values.
In the story Tom is seen as a very self-centered man who cares only forhimself and his own well being. He is not even phased when he discovers theremains of his wife hanging in a apron in a tree; “Tom consoled himself for theloss of his property with the loss of his wife” (132).Tom is portrayed inthe story as being typical of many of the citizens who lived in the town, manyof who’s names Old Scratch had carved into the bark of a tree near the IndianFort. When the devil shows Tom a tree for a greedy townsperson, he fails to seethat he is very much like that tree when he “looked in the direction that thestranger pointed and beheld one of the great trees, fair and flourishing without,but rotten at the core” (130).As time passes after Tom has made his deal with the devil, and he isworking as a usurer in Boston, squeezing every last cent out of the unluckyspeculators that walked through his door, Tom begins to wonder whether he madethe right choice when he dealt with Old Scratch: “He thought with regret on thebargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat himout of the conditions” (134). Tom’s decision to attempt to cheat the devilbecomes his downfall.
Tom now begins a routine of attending a Church serviceand praying loudly for everyone to hear, and he outfits himself with two Bibleswhich he thinks will protect him to the end. In a great irony Irving tells ofhow Tom will put down his Bible for a few minutes while he forecloses a mortgageof some poor borrower, and the resumes his reading when he is finished. Stevensrecognized this irony and noted that “Irving has a keen eye for the ironies andcontradictions of human behavior.” Irving presents the reader with thedifficulty that can arise when intentions are based solely on personal gain. Inthe story, one sees how Tom Walker’s actions contradict each other in theirmeaning and purpose. It is seen in the story how Tom walker would show hisdevotion to the Church and to God, when he was truly only trying to protecthimself from when the devil came to collect what was due.
Stevens summarizedTom’s actions by noting that “…
the tale clearly satirizes those who make apublic show of devotion while retaining meanness of spirit”.Irving does a very good job of demonstrating the ill consequences that canand most likely will be a result of man’s lack of caring, and possibly ignorance.Had Tom Walker thought upon the deal more thoroughly, instead of jumping rightinto it, he most likely would not have suffered the terrible outcome of the deal.If he had realized that the wealth that he would achieve would be useless tohim in the end, he would probably be living in his old house, unhappy andwithout a wife, but at least he would have had his dignity, for he could knowthat he did not sink to such lows as to give up his soul for a few years ofunhappy wealth. The humor present in the tale does help to add a bit ofliveliness to the narrative, keeping it from being completely dreary and havinga melancholy-like mood. “While the selling of one’s soul and the inhumaneconsequences of greed are significant, they become subjects for laughter throughIrving’s character portrayals and his use of ironic understatement”,insightfully noted Stevens of this, one of Irving’s finest works.In “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, the reader learns the story of anextremely unlucky New England farmer named Jabez Stone, who like Tom Walker,makes a deal with the devil for personal gain.
In the narrative, Jabez isfrustrated with the illness of his wife, the condition of his animals, and hisunproductive crops. Jabez inadvertently summons the devil and makes a deal withhim, stipulating that Jabez would have great success in all his undertakings,and that in seven years time, he would relinquish his soul to the devil, knownin this story as “Scratch” or “Mr. Scratch”. However when the time comes forJabez to give the devil what is legally his, he manages to bargain for a threeyear extension. When that time is almost over, Jabez employs the services ofthe notes speaker Daniel Webster, who, in the end, wins for Jabez stone hisfreedom and makes the devil put in writing that no New Hampshireman will bebothered by him again until “doomsday”.There is one striking difference present between the two stories, and it isa very significant factor when analyzing the outcome of each character’sseparate bargains.
That is the intentions that each one had when they madetheir deals. In “The Devil and Tom Walker”, Tom Walker bargains with the devilstrictly for personal gain, without considering the needs of others. He doesnot see how his miserly ways are ruining him and he suffers severe consequencesbecause of it.
In “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, Jabez Stone signs a contractwith the devil to save his family from starvation. He was thinking of otherswhen he signed the contract, and not himself. That is what leads to Webster’sstrong point for his defense of Jabez Stone, “Then he turned to Jabez Stone…anordinary man who’d had hard luck and wanted to change it.
And, because he’dwanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity” (641).The story is truly a credit to the true Daniel Webster, as David Peckeloquently noted: “The story tapped America’s love for folklore and legend,…,it re-created the story of a genuine American hero.” A “genuine American hero”is what Webster is truly portrayed as in this narrative. Peck also noted that”The story is praise not only for Daniel Webster, however, but also for hiscountry, for the two are inextricably intertwined.
” This story also hints tothe fact even though people may seem to be cruel and hard on the outside, theycan be truly caring and compassionate. The political and spiritual lessons tobe learned from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” are those which are veryimportant to the existence and survival of every human being alive today.Both “The Devil and Tom Walker” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” both arebeautifully written masterpieces of American literature that will undoubtedly becherished for generations of readers to come. This beauty comes from eachauthors uniquely different American heritage which adds a certain flavor to eachof the works. This is all summed up by Edward Wagenknecht in his “WashingtonIrving: Moderation Displayed”, in reference to the book in which “The Devil andTom Walker” was published: “‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ is,..
., the finestnarrative in this part of the book”.Works CitedAdventures in American Literature. Ed.
Fannie Safier et al. Athena Edition.Austin:Holt, 1996. Benet, Stephen Vincent. “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. inAdventures in AmericanLiterature.
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“The Devil and Tom Walker”. in Adventuresin AmericanLiterature. Ed. Fannie Safier et al.
Athena Edition. Austin: Holt,1996. 128-135.
Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Ed. Frank N. Magill.Vol. 2.
Pasadena: SalemPress, 1989. Peck, David. Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Ed.Frank N. Magill.
Vol. 2.Pasadena: Salem Press, 1989. 575-578. Stewart, Larry L.
Masterplots II:Short Story Series. Ed. Frank N. Magill.
Vol. 2.Pasadena: Salem Press, 1989. 579-581. Wagenknecht, Edward. “WashingtonIrving: Moderation Displayed”.
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