The Devil And Tom Walker: Human Intent And The Aftermath Of It Essay, Research Paper
The Devil and Tom Walker: Human Intent and the Aftermath of It
Washington Irving, in writing “The Devil and Tom Walker”, and Stephen
Vincent Benet, in writing “The Devil and Daniel Webster” illustrate to the
reader the consequences of man’s desire for material wealth and how a person’s
motivation for a relationship with the devil affects the outcome of the “deal”.
In these two different, yet surprisingly similar narratives, the authors present
their beliefs about human intent and motive.
In “The Devil and Tom Walker”, the story is seen of a stingy man and his
nagging wife who “…were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each
other” (128). In the story, one sees a man make a deal with the devil, who in
the story is known as “Old Scratch”, for the sole purpose of personal gain. Tom
Walker, seeing only the possible wealth that he could achieve, bargains with the
devil and finally reaches an agreement which he sees to be fair. Tom does not
see the danger present in bargaining with such a powerful force for so little
gain. There is a note of humor present in the narrative, which adds to the
sense 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,…, comically
presents the results of valuing the dollar above all else.” This story does a
very 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 for
himself and his own well being. He is not even phased when he discovers the
remains of his wife hanging in a apron in a tree; “Tom consoled himself for the
loss of his property with the loss of his wife” (132). Tom is portrayed in
the story as being typical of many of the citizens who lived in the town, many
of who’s names Old Scratch had carved into the bark of a tree near the Indian
Fort. When the devil shows Tom a tree for a greedy townsperson, he fails to see
that he is very much like that tree when he “looked in the direction that the
stranger 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 is
working as a usurer in Boston, squeezing every last cent out of the unlucky
speculators that walked through his door, Tom begins to wonder whether he made
the right choice when he dealt with Old Scratch: “He thought with regret on the
bargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him
out of the conditions” (134). Tom’s decision to attempt to cheat the devil
becomes his downfall. Tom now begins a routine of attending a Church service
and praying loudly for everyone to hear, and he outfits himself with two Bibles
which he thinks will protect him to the end. In a great irony Irving tells of
how Tom will put down his Bible for a few minutes while he forecloses a mortgage
of some poor borrower, and the resumes his reading when he is finished. Stevens
recognized this irony and noted that “Irving has a keen eye for the ironies and
contradictions of human behavior.” Irving presents the reader with the
difficulty that can arise when intentions are based solely on personal gain. In
the story, one sees how Tom Walker’s actions contradict each other in their
meaning and purpose. It is seen in the story how Tom walker would show his
devotion to the Church and to God, when he was truly only trying to protect
himself from when the devil came to collect what was due. Stevens summarized
Tom’s actions by noting that “…the tale clearly satirizes those who make a
public show of devotion while retaining meanness of spirit”.
Irving does a very good job of demonstrating the ill consequences that can
and 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 right
into 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 to
him in the end, he would probably be living in his old house, unhappy and
without a wife, but at least he would have had his dignity, for he could know
that he did not sink to such lows as to give up his soul for a few years of
unhappy wealth. The humor present in the tale does help to add a bit of
liveliness to the narrative, keeping it from being completely dreary and having
a melancholy-like mood. “While the selling of one’s soul and the inhumane
consequences of greed are significant, they become subjects for laughter through
Irving’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 an
extremely unlucky New England farmer named Jabez Stone, who like Tom Walker,
makes a deal with the devil for personal gain. In the narrative, Jabez is
frustrated with the illness of his wife, the condition of his animals, and his
unproductive crops. Jabez inadvertently summons the devil and makes a deal with
him, 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, known
in this story as “Scratch” or “Mr. Scratch”. However when the time comes for
Jabez to give the devil what is legally his, he manages to bargain for a three
year extension. When that time is almost over, Jabez employs the services of
the notes speaker Daniel Webster, who, in the end, wins for Jabez stone his
freedom and makes the devil put in writing that no New Hampshireman will be
bothered by him again until “doomsday”.
There is one striking difference present between the two stories, and it is
a very significant factor when analyzing the outcome of each character’s
separate bargains. That is the intentions that each one had when they made
their deals. In “The Devil and Tom Walker”, Tom Walker bargains with the devil
strictly for personal gain, without considering the needs of others. He does
not see how his miserly ways are ruining him and he suffers severe consequences
because of it. In “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, Jabez Stone signs a contract
with the devil to save his family from starvation. He was thinking of others
when he signed the contract, and not himself. That is what leads to Webster’s
strong point for his defense of Jabez Stone, “Then he turned to Jabez Stone…an
ordinary man who’d had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he’d
wanted 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 Peck
eloquently 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 his
country, for the two are inextricably intertwined.” This story also hints to
the fact even though people may seem to be cruel and hard on the outside, they
can be truly caring and compassionate. The political and spiritual lessons to
be learned from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” are those which are very
important to the existence and survival of every human being alive today.
Both “The Devil and Tom Walker” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” both are
beautifully written masterpieces of American literature that will undoubtedly be
cherished for generations of readers to come. This beauty comes from each
authors uniquely different American heritage which adds a certain flavor to each
of the works. This is all summed up by Edward Wagenknecht in his “Washington
Irving: Moderation Displayed”, in reference to the book in which “The Devil and
Tom Walker” was published: “‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ is,…, the finest
narrative in this part of the book”.
Adventures in American Literature. Ed. Fannie Safier et al. Athena Edition.
Holt, 1996. Benet, Stephen Vincent. “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. in
Adventures in American
Literature. Ed. Fannie Safier et al. Athena Edition. Austin: Holt,
1996. 635-643. Discovering Authors. Macintosh. CD-ROM. Detroit: Gale
Research, 1993. Irving, Washington. “The Devil and Tom Walker”. in Adventures
Literature. Ed. Fannie Safier et al. Athena Edition. Austin: Holt,
1996. 128-135. Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Ed. Frank N. Magill.
Vol. 2. Pasadena: Salem
Press, 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. “Washington
Irving: Moderation Displayed”. Oxford UP.
1962. 233. in Discovering Authors. Macintosh. CD-ROM. Detroit: Gale
Research, 1993. 3.
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