Roger Malvin's Burial
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"Roger Malvin's Burial" is one of the lesser known short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, included in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse. It concerns two colonial survivors returning home after the battle known as Lovell's Fight.
Following Lovewell's Fight (Hawthorne uses the name Lovell's Fight) in 1725, two survivors of the battle struggle to return home. Roger Malvin and Reuben Bourne are both wounded and weak, and they have little hope that they will survive. They rest near a rock that resembles an enormous tombstone.
Malvin, a much older man, asks Reuben to leave him to die alone, since his wounds are mortal. Reuben insists that he will stay with Malvin as long as he remains alive, but the old man knows that this would mean death for both of them. Malvin convinces Reuben to leave.
Reuben survives. Because he has not honored his promise to bury the old man, he is not at peace. His unease is exacerbated by his failure to tell his fiancée, Dorcas (Malvin's daughter) that he left her father to die. Reuben is considered a brave man by his compatriots, but inside he feels that he has failed them.
Dorcas and Reuben marry, but Reuben's guilt-induced moodiness renders him unfit for normal society. Many years later, when Reuben and Dorcas's son is already grown, Reuben decides that they will move away from the town and settle on a piece of land by themselves. They travel through wilderness. While encamped, Reuben and his son wander into the forest while Dorcas prepares a meal. They become separated. Reuben thinks he hears a deer in the brush and fires his gun, but discovers that he has killed his own son. As he observes the terrain, he realizes it is the same place where he had left Roger Malvin many years before.
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As in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount", Hawthorne combines history and allegory. The background for "Roger Malvin's Burial" are historic events, but the story itself contains highly symbolic elements.
The central theme of the story is guilt, a psychological state Hawthorne explores very frequently. Reuben is driven to the verge of insanity because of the unrelenting state of guilt. One of the questions that might be asked is whether Reuben has a reason at all to feel guilty. On the one hand, he left his companion to die. On the other, the old man has asked and urged Reuben himself to abandon him. The situation is very ambivalent. There is even a possibility that what haunts Reuben is not the very act of leaving Roger to die, but the fact that he did not fulfill the promise to bury Malvin, even though it seems that the old man forced Reuben to promise that in order to convince him to leave. Although "Roger Malvin's Burial" is a tale of guilt and ultimate retribution, it does not draw upon the Puritan heritage, as is the case with many of Hawthorne's treatments of the subject. Instead, like "My Kinsman," this story is set in 18th-century New England and can be interpreted as Hawthorne's contemplation of the roots of the American nation.
In the story certain motives and events repeat, so even as the story's events move forward, it also seems to keep circling back on itself--just as, at the end of the story, Reuben circles the site of Roger Malvin's death, but without realizing it. Throughout the story Reuben re-enacts his personal drama, unable to escape his guilt or his fate (another consistent element of Hawthorne's fiction). The death of Roger Malvin is reflected in the death of Cyrus, Reuben's son. At the end of the story, Hawthorne writes:
"At that moment, the withered topmost bough of the oak loosened itself, in the stilly air, and fell in soft, light fragments upon the rock, upon the leaves, upon Reuben, upon his wife and child, and upon Roger Malvin's bones" There are certain biblical allusions in the text as well. The death of the boy echoes the stories of Abraham and Isaac.
"Roger Malvin's Burial" was first published separately in 1832 and was later included in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).
Adaptations to Other Media
In 1949 the story was adapted to the syndicated radio program The Weird Circle as "The Burial of Roger Malvin".
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Lovejoy, David S. 1954. Lovewell's Fight and Hawthorne's "Roger Malvin's Burial". In: The New England Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1954), pp. 527-531. The New England Quarterly, Inc.
- Mackenzie, Manfred. Hawthorne's Roger Malvin's Burial: A Postcolonial Reading New. In: Literary History, Volume 27, Number 3, Summer 1996, pp. 459-472.