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In his short story, “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” Nathaniel Hawthorne explores such fundamental themes as good, evil , sin, family, pride, and penance. However ,from the onset he warns us, “my tale is not of love”(Hawthorne 25). This is instead a tale of the depths of the human psyche and an explication upon the horrors of a tortured soul. Hawthorne uses the afflicted heart of Reuben Bourne as a medium to promulgate on the consequences of not following one’s own conscience. For from his story we can surmise, as he makes it quite apparent, that the retribution for not following one’s innate sense of right and wrong is severe and to be suffered intensely. Furthermore, it is a sin that must be expiated.
To begin to understand Hawthorne’s message, it is vital to examine his primary vehicle, and main character, Reuben Bourne. Bourne is introduced to the reader as a lighthearted youth on the brink of being “born” into manhood. On his way home from battle his real journey begins. What initially appears to be slightly ironic about this section is Hawthorne’s description of the surroundings, “The early sunbeams hovered cheerfully upon the tree tops”(18). This seems unexpected here because he goes on to describe the wounded nature of the soldiers. However, this is a reflection of the moral state of Bourne, which at present is innocent and pure. As the story progresses Bourne, against his better judgment, leaves Malvin to die alone in the forest. Here we gain some further insight into Bourne’s character. We know that he has a sweetheart at home, Malivn’s daughter, and we can see that intrinsically he wants to do what is right by Malvin, “I will dig a grave here by the rock, in which is my weakness overcome me we will rest together”(18). In spite of this, he lets Malvin convince him that it would be more reasonable for him to leave. “Tarry not, for a folly like this, but hasten away, if not for your own sake , for hers who will else be desolate”(20). Here is where Bourne’s internal strife is conceived, the moment he lets his intellectual reasoning over take his inherent sense of what is right. This is over come by his ” desire of existence and hope of happiness…”(22).
As he leaves the forest, it begins to represent isolation and despair. Here, isolation from oneself, despair at the death of Malvil. Hawthorne also continues his weather metaphor, “On the second day the clouds gathering densely over the sky, precluded the possibility if regulating his course by the position of the sun”(23). This is merely the beginning of a series of references to light and dark representing good and evil that will gauge for the reader the moral temperature of Bourne.
Upon reaching home Bourne exacerbates his guilty sentiments by avoiding the truth of what happened to Roger Malvin. He does this out of “pride, fear of losing her (Dorcus, his love), affection, the dread of universal scorn forbade him to rectify this falsehood”(25). This fear of isolation is paradoxical because by evading it he ultimately creates it. The remorse he felt for leaving Malvin, though justifiable, was the impetus for this concealment, which caused him to suffer “the mental horrors which punish the perpetrator of an undiscovered crime”(25). Once again Hawthorne employs light, which is manifested good, as something unbearable to contrast the sinfulness of Bourne’s soul, “…tottering from his sick chamber to breathe the sunny air, experienced from every tongue the miserable and humiliating torture of unmerited praise”(25).
As Reuben continues his life he is an unhappy man consumed by his shame “he was finally a ruined man” (26). He now has a son, Cyrus, is it apparent from annotation in the text that this name is an allusion to the biblical Cyrus who would save Israel, while Reuben is an allusion to the biblical Joseph’s brother who left him to die though his heart told him to do otherwise (26). Cyrus also seems to embody all that was virtuous in Reuben, “whatever was good and happy in his own nature had been transferred to his child..”(26). Once again in the month of May, eighteen years after Malvin’s death, a month of spring, of rebirth, and of new life, Reuben returns to the forest. The tremendous gravity of this experience is foreshadowed by his intentions, “He was to throw sunlight into some deep recesses of the forest”(26). Reuben’s sunlight has faded, any good he had can now be found in his child. Once again he returns to the place of isolation, which this time is not only representative of the isolation with himself but with his family and with his community. This time the symbolism of death is not only relevant to Roger Malvin, but to Cyrus as well.
The pine that had been cheerful the first May are now described repeatedly as “gloomy” (28, 29), serving as a reminder of Reuben’s internal strife and how he has changed in these eighteen years past. The climax of the story occurs when Malvin is “unable to penetrate the secret place of his soul where his motives lay hidden,” here “he believed that a supernatural voice called him onward and that a supernatural power had obstructed his retreat”(29). Faced with reason versus intuition he chooses the latter, and in doing so, makes the irreparable mistake that will ultimately expiate his sin. He unwittingly sacrifices his only son, much in a biblical fashion, and through this he is redeemed. This is also apparent in the sapling, which Reuben stained with his blood years prior and is now grown strong, though like Reuben is dead at the top. By returning his innocence in the form of his son to the forest, and dying, as he was perhaps intended to do all those years ago, he has been saved.
Hawthorne utilizes a variety of references, symbols, and ideas to convey his message that the retribution for not following one’s innate sense of right and wrong is severe and to be suffered intensely. Through the development of the main character, Reuben Bourne, Hawthorne makes apparent the harrowing affects of going against the core of one’s being, the conscience. The torment of the human psyche is only the beginning of the sorrow. The price of peace, he shows us, is not a simple one to pay.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Ed. James McIntosh. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales. Ontario: Norton, 1987.17-32
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