Well, I lost my flash drive that had about 6 amazing paragraphs on it for the start of this analysis and all of my notes. So I rushed to rewrite everything and edit it before class in one day. I am really unhappy with this essay...so this is what I wrote in a rush:

Lee Bernier
Dr. Mosser
Transatlantic Literature
April 13, 2011

“The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving: Symbolism and the Black Comedy of Characters

There have been many stories, songs, films, and art portraying the classic tale of man vs. the devil. The old German legend of “Faust,” which is believed to be the main influence for Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker”, was used as a lesson to scare people from wrongdoing. However, Washington used the general theme of bargaining with the devil for a richly symbolic and entertaining story with incredible detail and style of popular gothic fiction in Europe, where he lived at the time it was written. Irving’s dark descriptive style and three wicked characters conveyed the moral message of Faust throughout by using symbolic rhetoric and black comedy.
The setting depicted in the story was described through vividly dark imagery of a gloomy and ominous forest with a murky swamp over what was once an Indian fort used to protect the Native American’s children from attack during conflict with the colonists of America. Every description of setting or character in the story was of a negative and sinister connotation. In 1727, the time in which the story was said to have taken place, was historically a harsh time for Boston. Earthquakes and insolvent difficulties caused the people to believe the bad events were acts of god brought on in response to their sins. New England, only 100 years before the story was claimed to have taken place, was involved in much scandal, including the Salem Witch Trials. The history of colonization, witchcraft, and other occult activities consumed the New England area with folklore and rumors, one of which was the story of “The Devil and Tom Walker”.
The narrator of the story, who was actually a fictional character described in the collection of Irving’s book of collected short stories Tales of a Treveller, was telling a story he had heard and has been passed along by oral tradition of storytelling and gossip. This, however, makes the narrator unreliable. Though he mentioned several times that he was not sure of any truth to the story, he also contradicted himself in some areas by stating that certain facts were true. He is unreliable because he was telling a story that has been manipulated, buy others, including him. He tried very hard to stay objective throughout the story, but gave slight glimpses into his personal beliefs of the facts that were relayed to him. The narrator used words, demeanor and slightly humorous, but twisted, ideals to portray the characters of the story.
Tom Walker, the main character of the story, was a wretched man unhappy with his life. He lived with his wife, his main source of misery, in a house described as a desolate and dreary place. It appeared to look like a haunted house with lifeless and gloomy sensation. Again, the setting was portrayed with a sense of sinful misery like that of the worries and fate of sinners. Tom was discontent with his home and had a strong desire to acquire money and material possessions. He constantly fought with his wife and even displayed remnants of their disputes with bruises on his face. Tom met the devil, who he had heard referred to as “Old Scratch,” in a swamp that he crossed through on his way home. He liked the devil and was even thankful to him for killing his wife. Though he was obviously a horrible character by standard norms, his comments about his wife and actions throughout the story toward her induces humor and discomfort from the readers, a classic form of black comedy. Because of this humor, readers may feel somewhat sympathetic to Tom.
Tom’s wife, whose name was never given, was of similar likeness to Tom. She was a miserable and angry woman. She hated her life, home, and husband. She was described as having a violent temper directed toward Tom. She hid possessions from him and wanted everything for herself. She was selfish, hateful, and ultimately sinful. Her wickedness was proved by her attempt to make her own deal with devil in jealousy of the offer he extended to her husband. The only physical description of Tom’s wife was of her tall stature, this with the many descriptions of her personality allows the reader to visualize a picture of an unsightly woman with a face wrinkled from long years of angry expression and a masculine and overpowering frame.
The devil or Old Scratch as he was known to the people that live in the area surrounding the swamp, was described the most by the narrator. He was dark skinned and Tom referred to him as “black man,” and said that he was “neither negro nor Indian.” He described him as wearing dirty Indian clothing and looking “as if he had been accustomed to toil among fires and forges.” He had red eyes and dark black hair. He never actually said that he was the devil, but he alluded to it. Old Scratch carried an axe over his shoulder and pointed out the dead trees, in the area of the old Indian fort where sacrifices were once made to him, engraved with the names of many patriarchs of the past and present.
The setting and all three of these characters were presented with many symbolic descriptions throughout the story. The trees of the wooded and swamp area symbolized the land owners, slave drivers, and colonists that have taken the land from the Native Americans. They were all sinners that had made deals with the devil for their own greed and material desires. The trees were branded with their names, and after falling to the ground the devil used them for firewood, symbolizing the devils collection of their souls to hell. The trees, described by Tom, were “fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core” like that of the societal patriarchs that on the outside appeared to have everything, but on the inside they were evil spirited sinners. The trees fell when the men’s souls were claimed and taken by the devil.
Greed was symbolized throughout the story. One of the early examples of this was of the skull that Tom discovered buried under the ground with a tomahawk in its skull. It showed the greed and destruction of the colonists that conquered the land and how they had warred with the Native Americans. Tom also displayed throughout the story his immense greed and selfishness. His humorous display of greed was especially shown when he went looking for his wife after she had been missing for days. He wasn’t concerned for her, but he was concerned for the silver tea-pot, spoons, and other expensive items from their home. When he found her apron containing her heart and liver, he was instantly saddened over the loss of his property, not his wife. A subtle symbolism for greed occurred at the end of the story when Tom set his “green spectacles” on his bible to mark his place while he turned around to “drive some usurious bargain.” Green spectacles, the color of American notes and symbolic for greed, was used to enhance his sight. Tom was driven to make money for him and the devil, yet ironically he was reading the bible with those glasses, another example of the black humor displayed in the story.
There were many symbolisms of hell, the devil, and sin throughout the story. When Old Scratch put his finger print on Tom’s forehead to prove who he is, Tom was unable to wash the print off, and it appeared as if it was burned into his skin. This was the mark of the devil as he resided in the flames of hell. After putting the fingerprint on Tom’s forehead, the devil gradually disappeared down into the ground, presumably to the depths of hell. The devil was also referred to in many ways as dark, black, dirty looking and he rode upon a black horse. The dark imagery was symbolic of the darkness of evil, hell, and sin.
Tom, after he made a deal with the devil to become a usurer and obtain the pirate treasure in exchange for his soul, became scared and regretful of his contract with the devil and became very religious and worrisome. The story concluded with Tom’s soul being claimed by the devil after having made a hefty profit by charging high rates from his customers and taking all of their earned money with the advantage of the harsh economical times. This regret may gain sympathy from the readers until the very end of the story where he refused to help a friend when he was about to foreclose on his mortgage. It was then that he cried out, in response to the man’s comment on his gained wealth from his misfortune, saying “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” and he does. Tom was carried off by the devil and his black horse into the swamp and the forest was set ablaze. His wealth and belongings were gone. Within the story, with its dark humor and satire, the moral was maintained from Faust. The conclusion to the story states “Let all gripping money-brokers lay this story to heart.”


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