In both “Roger Malvin's Burial” and “The Minister's Black Veil,” Nathaniel Hawthorne centralizes the themes of sin, guilt, and repentance. Both are very much set in terms of what defines sin and, in turn, what would constitute action leaving an opening for forgiveness, and both leave many a question unanswered in the story being told. The main question for us becomes, then, one of applicability. Does either story hold a message, if so, what? In considering the two, it may be that they do indeed hold a message, but maybe that message is not one that Hawthorne himself could ever have intended. In this paper I will deal with the themes of guilt, sin, repentance and how Hawthorne developed them in both stories.
Considering first “Roger Malvin's Burial,” the reader is immediately caught off-balance in terms of the presentation of the background to the story. A battle has been fought and won. This, in the introduction, is presented in a fashion when Hawthorne tells us that “The battle, though so fatal to those who fought, was not unfortunate in its consequences to the country; for it broke the strength of a tribe and conduced to the peace which subsisted during several ensuing years” (20). In this lack of empathy for the Native Americans protecting their own homeland, we may realizes from the beginning that we are dealing with a writer whose sensibilities we may not ourselves share. As the story develops, this tends to be confirmed.
Two men, Reuben Bourne and Roger Malvin, have survived the battle and are trying to make their way back home. Both are wounded. As they stop in a forest by “…a young and vigorous sapling stood…,” Malvin entreats Bourne to abandon him and save himself (20). The men are familiar with one another and, at first, Bourne refuses to do so, stating that “I will dig a grave here by the rock, in which, if my weakness overcome me, we may rest together; or, if Heaven gives me strength, I will seek my way home” (21). However, Malvin insists on Bourne's departure, enlisting the argument. The argument is that Bourne should return to his betrothed, Dorcas, Malvin's own daughter to make account of his passing should that be the case and that, in any case, it may be that Malvin has overestimated the severity of his wound and may survive. Thus Bourne, in departing, may be able to bring help.
Bourne, Hawthorne makes clear, is “susceptible” to the argument when considering Dorcas, inclined to give acceptance to the argument given Bourne “selfish motives” in wishing therefore to return in order to be with her. Malvin finally prevails in his argument when he recounts an earlier experience he himself had in which he left another in just such a state, returning in time to save him. Bourne does indeed decide to leave, but not before collecting what meager food he was able from his surroundings for Malvin's sustenance, after which he “... bent the oak sapling downward, and bound his handkerchief to the topmost branch,” the better to guide any...