Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

When Reuben Bourne kills his son Cyrus, he believes that he has atoned for his sin: “His sin was expiated—the curse was gone from him; and in the hour when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne.” The question remains to challenge readers, as it has done for many decades: Of what sin is Reuben guilty?

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The narrator takes great pains in the beginning of the story to show the sense in Malvin’s proposal. Reuben in fact makes the only rational choice. If he stays behind with Malvin, he will die with him; he cannot save his friend. The narrator presents Malvin’s arguments at length and clearly expects the reader to accept them. Some critics have condemned Reuben for abandoning his friend, but most have thought that his leaving was the right decision. Why, then, does Reuben feel so guilty about leaving Malvin behind?

It is a difficult choice to make, of course, and it is to be expected that Reuben will not walk away from his dying friend with a glad heart. His own feelings fluctuate rapidly. He is afraid to stay, afraid to go (not at all unusual for men in combat); at times he feels that he has done nothing wrong, and at other times he almost believes himself a murderer.

True, he does break his promise to return and bury Malvin, but by the time he recovers from his own injuries and is able to fulfill his pledge, it is likely that there would be little left to bury. He lies to Dorcas when she asks him if he has dug a grave for her father; however, is either offense serious enough to sever his relationship with God, or to demand he give up his own dear son in payment?

Probably the reader will not think so, and the narrator strives to create sympathy for Reuben. Certainly he is not a murderer; if he has sinned, it is a sin of omission, not of commission. The important thing, Nathaniel Hawthorne believes, is what Reuben thinks he has done. This is not a story of absolute moral guilt, but of the psychological effects of guilt. Hawthorne is not concerned with whether Reuben has sinned in the eyes of God, or in the eyes of his fellow men. The only thing that matters is that he has sinned in his own eyes.

The theme of the story is what happens to a man who feels guilty, and how he may recover from his guilt. In this story, Hawthorne creates a situation in which the reader can examine these questions without the distractions of moral judgment.

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