Roger Malvin’s Burial begins with historical background on warfare between Indians and settlers in 1725. Lovell’s Fight, he describes, was well remembered because it broke the strength of the Indians, though few settlers survived the battle to tell their tale. The battle described in the tale is a fictionalization of Lovewell's Fight, which occurred in present-day Maine.
Two weary, wounded men – an old man, Roger Malvin, and a youth, Reuben Bourne - are resting by a great rock after days of walking in the woods. Roger encourages the youth to leave him behind to die, and take advantage of his greater chance at surviving the wilderness. At first, Reuben maintains that he will stay to watch by the old man. His companion, however, commands him to leave with a “father’s authority”. He asks the youth to marry his daughter, Dorcas, and bring to her the truth about her dying father’s entreaty, seeking to “wile [Reuben] to his own good”. Reuben finally decides to leave, only half-convinced that his acts are noble, pressed on by an egotistical motive for survival and a future with Dorcas. He leaves the old man with a supply of herbs and ties a bloody handkerchief to an oak sapling nearby, promising to return and bury his friend.
After some wandering, Reuben is discovered and taken to the nearest settlement, where he recovers from his wounds. When he awakens, nursed to health by Dorcas, he is too cowardly to tell Dorcas that her father died alone. Instead, he allows her to assume that Reuben buried Roger in the woods. Later, the two happily marry. Reuben, afraid to lose Dorcas’s affection and hoping to avoid her scorn, never tells her the truth of her father's death. These lies, along with superstitious fears about leaving a companion to die in the woods, leave him both continually impelled to complete the promise yet perpetually unable to do so. The praise lavished upon Reuben - that he was faithful to Roger's end - eats away at his conscience. Throughout the years, he is wracked by guilt and haunted by visions of his father in law.
Reuben inherits Rogers farm, and becomes a relatively rich man. Yet, in time he neglects his lands and his prosperity declines along with his souring character. After some time, Reuben finds himself a ruined man, and decides to take his family – Dorcas, and their fifteen-year-old son Cyrus, to a new home.
Reuben recognized his son, Cyrus, as a reflection of himself. While journeying through the forest, Cyrus noticed that his father was not adhering to the course they had determined the year prior. The boy brings this up, but each time, Reuben again strays from the path. After five days of travel, on the anniversary of Roger’s death, the family camps down. Dorcas busies herself preparing a meal, while the father and son venture into the woods in search of game.
While searching for game, Reuben is overtaken with thoughts and memories, as if under the sway of a supernatural power. He senses a rustling in the forest and shoots at the sound. As he approaches the area of his kill, he sees that it is the very place where Roger died, and notices the oak to which he had tied the handkerchief. While the rest of the oak is alive, the branch on which the handkerchief was tied is dead.
At the same time, Dorcas, upon hearing the shot, at first rejoices that her son has slain a deer. But, after Cyrus does not return for some time, Dorcas goes in search for him, and wanders upon the same spot Reuben has found. They discover that Reuben has shot Cyrus, and Dorcas shrieks, sinking beside her dead child, as the dead branch of the oak falls in soft fragments upon the rock. Reuben’s heart was stricken; the vow that he had made to the old man had come to redeem. His sin was purged, the curse was gone from him, and he prayed to Heaven for the first time in years.
Throughout the story, guilt attaches itself to the character of Reuben Bourne, who is driven almost to insanity by the fear and regret of not only failing to stay with and bury his companion, but also for living with a lie.
His deed - or sin - manifests itself in physical and psychological symptoms, transforming him into a selfish and irritable man. The curse affects his relationship with Dorcas and his command of the farm. Ruined by his sense of guilt and his continuous concealment of the truth, he feels removed from those most loved and trusted.
The oak sapling to which the bloodied handkerchief was tied holds significance as well, symbolizing bloodshed and the need for “blood dearer to him than his own” to be shed for the sin to be atone for and the curse lifted. Roger grows as the tree does; while he physically matures, he is always psychologically handicapped by the memory of the past. At the same time, while the broader base of the sapling grows, that particular branch remains perpetually withered.
The circularity of the story, which begins and ends at the same spot, provides an interesting point of discussion. Some believe that Reuben found the spot by accident, or fate, while others believe some psychological pressure led him there, almost by a repressed or subconscious will. Further debate surrounds whether his killing of his son was truly accidental, or if it was an act not entirely conscious but nevertheless forced by his troubled psyche. By killing his son, some argue, Reuben is sacrificially killing the “guilty” side of himself.
Whether driven to murder by accident, guilt or by fate, Reuben’s expiation was a necessary and inevitable payment for his sin. In the end, when Rueben utters a prayer, it is unclear whether the cancellation of his debt to Roger Malvin has freed his mind to make peace with God, or whether the severity of the situation moved him to spiritual piety.
As in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux", Hawthorne frames "Roger Malvin's Burial" within a historical event, sharing with the reader the true event or events that inspired his tale. Hawthorne uses these events to expand upon text-book history by employing themes and emotions not readily available in historical accounts. This also serves to root his fiction in fact, urging the reader to consider the real-world implications of his characters' actions. (Scoppettuolo)