Nathaniel Hawthorne creates an intricate and amazing dialog within the short story “Roger Malvin’s Burial”. Reuben Bourne and Roger Malvin, presented with a particular dilemma, are forced to battle each other, as might two lawyers in a courtroom. Here however, the two sides are not against each other, moreover their verbal war rages on in pursuit of what would be best for all others involved. Reuben ignorantly fears that he will choose his best course of action out of selfishness. That being an ignorant fear because Reuben has no other choice but to act out of selfishness. His conscience, not understanding this and failing to grasp that what he did was not wrong, ultimately leads to more death than just that of Roger Malvin.
With Reuben seriously wounded, Roger spends all night awake, in pain and realizing his own wound will prove to be fatal. He no doubt contemplates the wisest plan of action throughout the night, and thus tells Reuben when the boy wakes, “This rock, beneath which we sit, will serve for an old hunter’s grave-stone. …The Indian bullet was deadlier than I thought.
” And thus the verbal chess game began.The argument is a noble one. Both combatants wish to do right by the other, and while Reuben insist that he does not want to act out of selfishness, Roger persist that the honorable course is to do as a man must sometimes, and take the bad over the worse. To leave Roger Malvin alone to die in the woods is bad, all can agree on that. But the crux of the argument lies in what happens if Roger Malvin is not left alone to die.
-He still dies, and Rueben dies, and Dorcas is left without her father or eventual husband. Roger understands this situation very well, and using every persuasive fact or story he can think of, he undergoes the task of convincing Reuben to leave. Their personal relationship, their ages, their families and loved ones, the burial place, personal examples and analogies; even the motives behind which they are saying all these things gets considered. And ultimately, Roger’s good sense prevails and Reuben leaves his friend to die.The real trouble begins not with Reuben’s deeds, but within his conscience.
Dorcas, Roger’s daughter, asks Reuben to tell of what became of her father. Reuben accurately informs her of their struggles “…he was unable to proceed…” Dorcas jumps to the conclusion that her father died; yet Reuben never confirms nor denies this. And when asked if he built a grave, he truly speaks “My hands were weak, but I did what I could. There stands a noble tomb-stone above his head…” All this being true, if not wholly inclusive of all the facts, it still does not contain a single lie. Moreover, in certain cases, such as this one, it is beneficial to restrain from telling the entire truth. The truth hurts, and it would be wrong to bombard Dorcas with the unwelcomed news of her father’s fate.It is written “Reuben felt it impossible to acknowledge, that his selfish love of life had hurried him away, before her father’s fate was decided.
” Here again, Reuben is being too hard on himself. It’s as if Reuben has forgotten the circumstances around the decision he made, and more importantly, that it was the dying wish of Roger Malvin for Reuben to act precisely how he had. And as for those acts being selfish acts, it should be reflected upon that all acts, when committed consciously, are selfish acts. Some selfish acts are more apparent, such as a man taking ninety percent of a cake that was meant to feed twelve people.
All can readily grasp that a man, acting in such a way, would be acting selfishly. Yet, it is also the case that a man who buys a cake, gives it freely, and even hands his share over without eating a bite, is as well, acting selfishly.Personal motives are impossible to avoid. So there’s no sense in trying to, or in weighing down your conscience if you should realize a personal motive or two that crept behind the scenes of an otherwise selfless act.
Even if a man gives a lot of money to a friend in need and says he expects nothing back in return, he’s lying. That man will at the very least expect a good feeling in return, -a raised sense of pride, self-esteem, honor, etc. Giving feels good, and everyone knows it. So, if thought about in the proper light, it can be said that the most selfish man of all is the man that gives, not the man who takes.
And this leads to the realization that being selfish is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on what you’re selfish about. Reuben should have no shame in wishing to preserve his life. Selfish or not, it’s natural, and moreover, it was what was best for Roger, Dorcas, and himself.
Reuben’s problem is a faulty conscience. And it’s this faulty conscience that leads to the tragic end of this story. Reuben can’t ever forgive himself for something he never had to feel bad about in the first place. His conscience weighs on his soul until he becomes just a shell of a man, and his marriage nearly as deteriorated as the farm he works. He let’s his correct decision all those years ago become the wrong one by default.
For what difference would it have made if Reuben too had died, being that he lived his life like a zombie ever since? And would Roger have given his blessing of marriage upon Reuben and Dorcas if he’d had the foresight to see what kind of husband Reuben would be, or if he’d had the foresight to see just how much Reuben’s conscience would smother and kill everything around it? Clearly, Reuben has fallen very short of his potential, and for that reason, he may well have been better off had he stayed with Roger. Roger tried to give Reuben the gift of life, yet Reuben made that gesture a mute point by living his life while only thinking about death.And when the story comes to its dismal close, Reuben ultimately discovers that Roger Malvin did not die alone in those woods. Reuben is there with him; if not his body, then all the rest of him, all that matters…his conscience always debating, his mind always wondering, his heart always broken, his love always tainted, his honor and self respect forever blemished (more-so in the fact that no one ever knew). And ultimately, even Reuben Bourne’s only son lies dead under that “noble tomb-stone”.Bibliography: