The Devil and Tom Walker
How does Irving use satire to create humor in his story ‘’The Devil and Tom Walker’’?
Washington Irving, American novelist and short story writer, mastered the use of satire in his works. Through this literary device, he was able to ironically criticize institutions with the purpose of improving society. Nevertheless, the author’s subtlety plays an important role in hiding these humorous statements all along his master pieces. Irving’s short story The Devil and Tom Walker is no exception to this satire-use pattern. The tale narrates the story of a stereotypical American man named Tom Walker who trades his soul for money with the devil. The novelist creates humor in his story by satirizing the institution of marriage and human ambition.
One of the first things Irving satirizes in the short story is the institution of marriage. He creates this humor by mocking scolding women and exaggerating Tom’s dysfunctional marriage. An example is clear when he describes the relationship of the couple: ‘‘Tom’s wife was a tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm. Her voice was often heard in wordy warfare with her husband; and his face sometimes showed signs that their conflicts were not confined to words.’’ (Irving, p. 322). The author accentuates Tom’s arguments with his wife, and subtly exaggerates how they hit each other. Furthermore, marriage is criticized by Tom’s inability to agree with his wife. When Tom narrates to his wife the Black Man’s offer, she petitions him to accept the pact: ‘‘…she urged her husband to comply with the black man’s terms, and secure what would make them wealthy for life. However Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife; so he flatly refused, out of the mere spirit of contradiction.’’ (Irving, p. 327) Even though Tom was considering the devil’s offers, he decides to reject the deal only out of spite for his wife. Finally, a third example in which Irving satirizes marriage is present in Tom’s reaction to his wife’s death: ‘‘Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodman, who, he considered, had done him a kindness.’’ (Irving, p. 328) Not only does Tom show disinterest when he finds his wife’s remains, but he also feels grateful to the devil for having freed him from such a scolding woman. These three passages markedly depict Tom’s dysfunctional marriage and demonstrate Irving’s disapproval of the institution.
Human ambition is also an important theme satirized in the short story. The author begins his sequence of mocks with the account of Tom’s wife desire to accept the devil’s money. After Tom decides to reject the devil’s proposal, his wife sets off to make the deal herself: ‘‘At length she determined to drive the bargain on her own account, and if she succeeded, to keep all the gain to herself. Being of the same fearless temper as her husband, she set off for the old Indian fort toward the close of a summer’s day.’’ (Irving, p. 327) This quote exemplifies the novelist’s intention of depicting Tom’s wife as an ambitious and not-cautious woman. Furthermore, it also describes her as a person who believes that it is worth the risk to meet the devil if there is money in between. Ambition is satirized once again when Tom is described as greedy. After the character finds his wife’s organs lying in the forest, he decides to complete the pact with the imp and get his hands on the treasure: ‘‘At length, it is said, when delay had whetted Tom’s eagerness to the quick, and prepared him to agree to anything rather than not gain the promised treasure, he met the black man one evening in his usual woodsman’s dress, with his ax on his shoulder, sauntering along the swamp, and humming a tune.’’ (Irving, p. 328) This quote demonstrates how Tom sets aside precaution and allows his ambition to control his actions. Irving, once again subtlety mocks Tom’s avaricious desire, by making it seem as if he considered his wife’s death a fortunate event. Finally, by the time that Tom becomes a wealthy settled moneylender, his ambition has done nothing but grow. The author satirizes Tom’s greed through his dialogue with a desperate humble man: ‘‘The poor land-jobber begged him to grant a few months’ indulgence. Tom had grown testy and irritated, and refused another day. ‘My family will be ruined and brought upon the parish’, said the land-jobber. ‘Charity begins at home,” replied Tom; “I must take care of myself in these hard times.’ ’’ (Irving, p. 331) In the passage, Irving emphasizes on Tom’s claim- ‘charity begins at home’-, to show the reader how the character is still the same greedy man from the beginning. No matter how wealthy Tom may be, he will always give an excuse to refuse the pay day extension. These previous quotes evidence how the author subtlety taunts on philanthropists all throughout the story by criticizing human’s inability to overcome ambition and to care for others.
Washington Irving uses his incredible skill of satire in this short story to mock on dysfunctional marriages and human ambition and to generate in the reader a sense of humor and self-reflection simultaneously. The reader is led to believe that religious institutions and philanthropic ideas of human perfection are deceitful and mistaken. Irving’s mastery of satire and subtleness combine to make ‘‘The Devil and Tom Walker’’ an incredible work of literary art.