Character Analysis in The Devil and Tom Walker

The characters in “The Devil and Tom Walker” are consumed by greed to the point of self-destruction. They are spiritually and morally blind to the consequences of dealing with the devil because they are so focused on money and their own personal gain. Neither Tom nor his wife are very likable characters as they cheat others and have no regard for one another. However, while readers are privy to Tom’s and his wife’s repugnant natures, many of the townsfolk view Tom’s success favorably. This helps drive the tension throughout the tale as Tom tries to scheme his way out of his deal with the devil.

The Devil and Tom Walker 16
"for whom he had professed the greatest friendship..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

One of the reasons Tom has been so effective at driving people into inescapable debt is that he pretends to be their friends and have their best interests at heart. While the land jobber and others are not entirely blameless in their attempts to get rich quickly, Tom has actively manipulated his relationships with others to maximize his profits.

"This, however, is probably a mere old wives' fable...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

If this fable were to be taken seriously for a moment, it illustrates just how "crack-brained," obsessed, and misguided Tom had become with death. To save himself, he needs to genuinely repent and change his ways. Instead, these actions represent how spiritually blind he truly has become.

"out of parsimony..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

"Parsimony" means an extreme unwillingness to part with one's money. Tom may have a higher quality of life than he did prior to becoming a usurer, but he remains a greedy miser who doesn't even use the wealth he's acquired.

"but the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Even though Tom appears to not have any moral qualms about dealing with the devil out of greed, he refuses to engage in the slave trade. This suggests just how morally outrageous and awful such a profession is, and it is one of the story's most obvious moral accusations. Interestingly, Tom's refusal here is also his only act of grace in the tale.

"Being of the same fearless temper as her husband..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

The narrator has described Tom and his wife as fearless when facing the devil. However, this does not mean that they are heroic; rather, it is further evidence of how unaware they are of spiritual matters and how little they value their own lives.

"she urged her husband to comply..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Tom's wife is perfectly content to allow her husband to sacrifice himself for the sake of financial gain, and she pressures him to do it. This willingness to let her husband damn himself represents a complete lack of concern for morals or spiritual well-being and reinforces the dangers of greed and moral corruption.

"I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Since the Quakers and Anabaptists are particularly strict sects of Christianity, the devil would find it amusing to see these groups persecuted by other Christians because they would be some of the least likely to commit sinful offenses. The devil's pleasure at this persecution emphasizes how hypocritical the actions of Christians against one another are, because they only serve the devil's evil will rather than the good of the community.

"Deacon Peabody be damned..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

While Deacon Peabody may own the physical swamp, it's clear that the devil has spiritual ownership of the accursed grounds. The devil reveals that Deacon Peabody actually belongs to the devil because of how he hypocritically scrutinizes his neighbors’ sins and doesn't look after his own. The tree with Peabody's name on it demonstrates how on the outside the man might appear successful while on the inside he is rotten and corrupt.

"He was exceedingly surprised..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Tom's surprise is a good example of irony since he has lived his whole life in sin and shouldn't be so startled to see the devil, the very embodiment of sin, in front of him. His surprise also conveys the idea that either Tom has very little self-awareness about his own spiritual self, or he simply doesn't care.

"a meagre, miserly fellow, of the name of Tom Walker...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

The character of Tom Walker is established from the very beginning as someone who is first and foremost extremely, even to the point of self destruction, greedy. The use of the adjectives "meagre" and "miserly" further illustrates how Tom Walker not only values wealth above all else, but that he also does not spend it, preferring simply to possess wealth.

"his great house took fire..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Tom earned his wealth and house through sinful and greedy behavior, and so the burning of his house serves as a symbolic reminder of Tom’s eternal damnation in the fires of hell.

"and every portable article of value...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

The devil has Tom’s wife sacrifice the things that are of the highest value to her: the household’s silver and other valuable items. In another darkly humorous example of greed corrupting one's morals, Tom cares not for his wife's well-being and misses the silver far more than his wife.

"the more resolute was Tom not to be damned to please her...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

The dark and humorous irony in this passage is that normally nobody would willingly wish to sell her soul to the devil, and that the only reason Tom does not go through with the deal is simply to spite his wife rather than any concerns for his own welfare. Greed and spite have made these two characters completely perverse in their actions and motives.

"He's just ready for burning!..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Irving depicts the devil as a woodsman who cuts down living sinners like trees to burn them in the forge and fires of hell. Many of these trees that represent the sinners and "great men" of the area appear strong on the outside, but on the inside they are corrupt and rotten, demonstrating the moral corruption in their lives and the power that the devil has over them.

"He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church-goer...."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

In his old age, Tom finally fears the devil. However, instead of becoming genuinely remorseful for his sins, Tom becomes a violent church-goer who makes brash displays in church and criticizes others rather than looking after his own sins. In this way, Irving satirizes those who turn to religion and make public shows of devotion while retaining their meanness of spirit. Tom's selfish reasons for becoming a church goer represent the hypocrisy of his actions.

"green spectacles..."   (The Devil and Tom Walker)

Irving's choice of "green" here is deliberate. The color green often has associations with envy, money, and avarice, or greed. The fact that Tom literally looks at the world through green lenses reinforces Tom's moral corruption and lust for wealth.