Literature Lesson Ideas: Financial Symbols in The Devil and Tom Walker
How to Teach the Devil and Tom Walker
In Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker," the devil offers Tom Walker great sums of money in exchange for “certain conditions,” one being the opening of a broker’s office in Boston where Tom lends money at exorbitant rates and unfair terms.
Students enjoy the story, yet consider the premise mere nonsense, until of course I show them examples of unethical and predatory lenders, unscrupulous usurers, and a multitude of businesses who thrive on consumer debt; in other words, I teach financial literacy by uncovering modern day Tom Walkers and the conditions that allow such characters to thrive.
The story is best taught over several class periods, allowing enough time to explain financial concepts, and to incorporate activities. This article gives an overview of the symbols in the Devil and Tom Walker that may prove useful. Subsequent articles explain important concepts on how to teach the Devil and Tom Walker in regards to financial literacy. For background information, check out this series on the financial crisis.
Financial Symbolism in The Devil and Tom Walker
Although there is a lot more symbolism in the Devil and Tom Walker than the symbols I've listed here, these should be enough to get started.
- The Devil: temptation
- The shortcut through the swamp: "shortcuts" to wealth
- The morass (swamp): where the "shortcuts" to wealth usually lead
- The rotted trees in the forest: the moral decay of society
- The tallness of the trees: the pride of the people
- Tom Walker: greed
- The Bible buried under mortgage papers: greed and moral decay
- Tom Walker's new house: ostentation and false appearances, "trying to keep up with the Joneses"
- Tom Walker as an evil broker: Loan officers who dupe people into bad loans, cars they can't afford, and consumer credit cards with unreasonable terms; predatory lending institutions; unscrupulous credit card marketers.
Tom Walker, the Literary Figure
This “meager, miserly fellow” one day takes a shortcut through the swamp and discovers buried pirate treasure over which the devil presides. Walker must use the treasure to open up a broker’s shop, catering to those “driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices," at 4% monthly interest. The more distressed the applicant, the more harsh the terms. By foreclosing on farms and homes, Tom becomes a rich and mighty man, yet lives his life in fear that the Devil will show up and exact payment.