History has shown that the quest for success and wealth tends to take prominence over morality. Seeking prosperity, however, does not guarantee a happy or fulfilling life. Oftentimes, the search for profit leads to corruption and eventual failure. When Irving wrote “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the United States was going through a period of rapid expansion. Washington Irving saw how competition for power and wealth was causing widespread corruption. Irving supported Romanticism, which instead promoted hard work and honesty to achieve success.
Irving wrote “The Devil and Tom Walker” based in Romantic ideals as a cautionary tale of corruption in early 19th century society. Irving effectively demonstrates the consequences of corruption by utilizing Romantic values to demonstrate how Tom Walker and his wife’s hypocrisy, greed, and moral ambiguity lead to their downfall. Tom Walker and his wife’s greed lead them down a path of corruption that results in their demise. Even before the events of the story take place, Walker and his wife were already selfish people.
The narrator states, “that they even conspired to cheat each other,” which often leads to many conflicts between the husband and wife (Irving 229). Their greed is not brought on by the temptation of wealth, but is already an ingrained aspect of their personality. Instead of working together towards their common goal, they are too selfish to cooperate. This desire to cheat one another leads them further down a path of corruption. “Themes and Construction: ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’,” explains how Tom initially turns down Old Scratch’s offer of wealth because he does not want to have to share the fortune with his wife (“Themes”).
The author goes on to state that,”Eventually, however, Tom is duped by the false kindness of Old Scratch and his own greed” (“Themes”). Tom Walker’s own greed betrays him. He is too focused on the possibility of wealth to realize he is being tricked by Old Scratch. After his wife’s disappearance, Walker makes his own deal with the devil. Walker becomes a money lender in Boston, and despite claiming to be a, “universal friend of the needy,” he deliberately cheats his customers out of their money (Irving 236). Despite Walker’s actions, he is still ignorant to his own greed.
This is somewhat understandable, as Walker has never known anything other than selfishness, but he soon learns that his actions have consequences. Tom responds to being accused of fraud proclaiming, “The devil take me [… ] if I have made a farthing! ” (236). Much to Walker’s surprise, Old Scratch appears at his door and takes him away (236). The fate of Tom Walker is not a pleasant one, as the clear assumption is Old Scratch takes Walker to Hell. Irving ends the story with a warning to those who conceal their greed, “Let all griping money-brokers take this to heart” (238).
It is easier to understand Irving’s point of view after taking into account his support of Romantic ideals. Romantics were often inspired by stories of hard-working immigrants who carved out a good living for their families (“Historical”). In his contrasting portrayal of Walker, Irving shows his support for the values of hard-work and honesty. Irving also expresses his belief that these values will result in prosperity and success in both life and death. Although Tom Walker is very wealthy he life, he must suffer the consequences of his greed in death. Tom Walker’s hypocritical ways blind him from noticing the issues of his own corruption.
This is clear from the very beginning of his interactions with Old Scratch. When making a deal with the devil, Tom cannot be tempted by the devil to turn slave trader, but agrees to turn usurer (235). Walker fails to see the hypocrisy in his own thinking. He takes issue with the suffering slavery causes, but has no concern for the suffering money-lenders precipitate when they take advantage of the impoverished. Similarly, Irving purposely portrays Tom as a close-minded Puritan to support the idea that intolerance, even when caused by ignorance, can lead to failure.
Just as Walker has no issue with taking advantage of the poor, he also clearly has no issue with the persecution of any religion that goes against his own Puritan beliefs. The narrator explains how Walker is in favor of the persecution of the Quakers and Anabaptists (237). The Romantic literature that Irving embraced often described tales of common men with strong morals outlining Puritan ideals of good and evil (“Historical”). In this way, Irving is able to support his cautionary tale through the use of Puritanism in his tale.
A vital cause of Tom Walker’s hypocrisy is found in his supposed religious devotion. As Tom Walker gets older, he begins to fear what death would bring him. “Tom was as rigid in religious as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his neighbors, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account became a credit on his own side of the page” (237). Although Walker realizes his deal with Old Scratch will have unfortunate consequences, he is not able to recognize his many other sins. Walker falsely believes religious devotion will save him from the deal he made with Old Scratch.
He also thinks that his devotion can make up for the suffering he inflicts on others through his unscrupulous business practices. Walker, however, makes no attempt to change the way he treats his customers or uses his wealth to the benefit of others. Joyce Moss and George Wilson further support this idea. “Throughout the story, [Tom] remains oblivious to signs of his impending doom. He disregards the fact that the Devil is chopping down trees that represent sinners, and the evidence of his wife’s death does not affect his decision” (“The Devil”).
Tom tries to give the impression that he is a good person, but never changes his selfish ways. Walker’s ignorance and hypocrisy lead him to believe he still has a chance for redemption. In reality, Walker’s fate is already sealed. Tom Walker’s actions demonstrate moral corruption only cultivates further moral corruption. From the very beginning, Tom Walker is immoral and sinful. The narrator describes Tom Walker as a, “meager, miserly fellow” with “a wife just as miserly as himself” (Irving 229). His moral corruption is ultimately the root cause of his other flaws: greed and hypocrisy.
Walker, however, seems to be a product of early 18th century society. Irving gives a description of the attitude of the nation during this time period. “In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing” (236). The strong desire for wealth drove many to moral corruption to find success. Tom Walker is not much different than the rest of the nation. Although the desire for wealth drives most people, Tom is under the impression that despite his actions, he still upholds the ideals of morality.
With this idea, Walker continues his immoral ways. An excerpt from “Themes and Construction: ‘The Devil and Tom Walker” explains Walker’s actions: 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 [… ] For one with few morals, becoming a corrupt moneylender presents no crises of character (“Themes”). Throughout the short story, Tom Walker continually makes bad decisions that ultimately lead to his demise.
Although his immorality is clear, Walker himself cannot see the error in his ways. Irving means this as a warning to the audience, to look carefully at their choices in life. Once again, Irving’s Romantic and humanitarian inspiration is evident, as Romantics believed success came from strong moral and ethical values (“Historical”). Obviously, Walker, does not hold these same values, and he ultimately meets his demise. Immoral decisions may not be extremely obvious, but over time the escalation of corruption may result in failure.
The Devil and Tom Walker” is a tale of the consequences of corruption for 19th century society. By utilizing Romanticism and Tom Walker’s demise as a result of greed, hypocrisy, and moral ambiguity, Irving effectively demonstrates the consequences of corruption. Although Irving’s writing is just a story, the truth of it cannot be ignored. The search for success, wealth, and power often takes prominence over ideals of morality. Irving, along with other Romantics of the era, strived to lead people toward the moral path. Prosperity may be great in life, but only righteousness prevails in death.