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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

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In this story, Hawthorne’s main concern is with Reuben’s interior development. Interestingly, he provides little physical description of Reuben himself, or of anyone else in the story. Neither are Reuben’s farm or the settlement in which he lives presented in much detail. Only two elements of the story are described clearly: Reuben’s “interior landscape” and the landscape of the forest where Reuben and Malvin part.

As the story opens, sunbeams filter through the trees to awaken the two men. The narrator describes the setting clearly, both what it looks like and what it feels like. He focuses on the large piece of granite and on a “young and vigorous sapling” near the men. The granite will become Malvin’s symbolic gravestone, and the sapling will function symbolically in the story as a parallel to Reuben’s development.

The sapling stands over the two men as they argue about what Reuben should do. As he is finally leaving, Reuben stands atop the rock and ties one of his own bloody bandages to the highest branch of the sapling. This flag will not help rescuers find Malvin, for the spot is too well hidden. Reuben intends it only as a token of his pledge and promise.

Eighteen years later, when Reuben returns to the spot, the narrator again describes the setting in detail. The contrast is striking. Where the sunlight was “cheerful” before, the forest is unremittingly “dark and gloomy.” Is this the result of years of growth, or has the change occurred in Reuben? The former sapling is now a tall tree, and mostly vigorous and green. However, its tallest branch—the one to which Reuben tied his bloody bandage as a sign of his promise—is withered and dead. Reuben notices this and trembles, for he knows that the branch’s death symbolizes his own spiritual decay.

At the end of the story, when Cyrus is dead and his parents find him, the branch suddenly breaks off and falls “in light, soft fragments upon the rock, upon the leaves, upon Reuben, upon his wife and child, and upon Roger Malvin’s bones.” It does not come crashing down, as one would expect of a dead limb, but falls gently, for this is not a sign of punishment but of atonement. The withered parts are gone now—both Reuben and the tree can flourish again. Roger Malvin has at last had his burial.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

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Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

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