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A Teller of Tales:
Further Thoughts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped

Christopher MacLachlan
ScotLit 38/39, Spring 2010

Treasure Island,
& Catriona
I would like to try not to repeat here things I have said about Kidnapped in the Scotnote. Instead there are some reflections that I left out of the Scotnote, partly because I couldn’t find a place for them, which I’d like to expand, and I hope that by mentioning these I may offer you some ideas of different ways of reading Kidnapped, slightly different, more speculative approaches to it than the ones used in the notes.

I begin with a point I make in passing in the notes. Towards the end of the discussion in the Scotnote I refer to the way that ‘the underlying structure has a fairy-tale element, with the young hero, helped by a faithful friend, triumphing over his wicked uncle to achieve wealth and success at the end’. I go on to argue this fairy-tale element away by referring to the realism of Stevenson’s presentation, ‘the particularity of the people and places in the novel’, but I’d now like to speak up for this aspect of the novel. I’m actually very interested in the way a novelist like Stevenson uses fairy-tale structures. Many nineteenth-century novels seem to me to have a deep underlying debt to common fairy stories and I suspect that it is from these that they get a lot of their power. I think of the constant use of variations on Cinderella in Jane Austen’s novels, and in Great Expectations, and the Beauty and the Beast aspect of Jane Eyre. Not just the deep structures of these novels but very often also their main characters and key scenes are modelled on fairy tale, as though these are the myths the novels are recreating. This recreation, however, is disguised by the surface appearance of realism.

The opening of Kidnapped seems to me like this. As you know, the story begins with David Balfour’s departure from Essendean, the small village where he was born and brought up. The chapter is entitled ‘I set off upon my journey to the House of Shaws’. The first part of that title is of course a common metaphor, even a cliché, for describing a young person’s beginning on adult life, setting off on life’s journey. Stevenson adds a note of realism by naming a specific destination for David’s first adult journey, the House of Shaws, but even here there is a fruitful ambiguity, since the House of Shaws is not just a place but also a symbol of a family. Indeed, in an eighteenth-century setting we hear in the phrase ‘House of Shaws’ an echo of the dynastic titles ‘House of Stewart’ and ‘House of Hanover’, making David’s destination a matter not of a building but of a heritage, a succession, a family destiny. When he reaches his uncle’s house more and more of these aspects will become apparent to the reader, though by implication as much as through direct statement.

But let us step back a bit from the actual opening of the novel to consider what happens before it begins. Stevenson in fact conceals this back-story from the reader until almost the end of the novel. It will not be until we reach David’s second interview with the lawyer Mr Rankeillor in Chapter 28 (entitled ‘I go in quest of my inheritance’) that we are told the starting-point of his family history. Rather typically, Stevenson relays this to us through the medium of Rankeillor’s dry, legalistic prose, with its Latin tags and pawky asides on the follies of human nature, and this may distract us from the nature of the story itself. It is in essence a very romantic one: how both David’s father and his uncle Ebenezer fell in love with the same woman, the quarrel between them and then the agreement that one would marry her while the other inherited the estate. One takes love, the other takes the money, a stark choice, too stark for realistic fiction, perhaps. Yet it is very like the choice which marks the beginning of Stevenson’s later novel, The Master of Ballantrae, again involving two brothers, James and Henry Durie, who choose between joining the Jacobite Rebellion and staying at home. There is a woman in that case, too: Alison, who is in love with the dashing James, the brother who goes off with the Prince and is then presumed lost. Alison then marries the stay-at-home Henry, to be faced with a powerful dilemma when James returns after all. There are strong similarities between the situation of the brothers in The Master of Ballantrae and the back-story of Kidnapped. This suggests that Stevenson had a particular interest in situations where two brothers are driven to make a choice, despite the fact that he himself was an only child. But the basic structure of this narrative surely owes a lot to myth and fairy tale, and even to the Bible. A choice between brothers has a long tradition as the starting point for stories in our culture, a tradition which pre-dates the realistic modern novel. The roots of the plot of Kidnapped, then, lie in a kind of story different from the appearance of the text at the level of character, setting and dialogue, the typical features of the novel as a form.

The first chapter of Kidnapped ends with David crossing the ford and climbing the hill away from Essendean, of which he takes a last look before the chapter closes. The ford-crossing is a typical narrative action in the novel. It is the first of many similar crossings of boundaries in Kidnapped. There are so many that they seem fundamental to its structure and its effect. David will cross the sea to board the Covenant, he will cross it again when the brig is wrecked and he is washed ashore, and he will cross it a third time when eventually he gets off the half-island of Earraid and on to Mull itself. Then he has a ferry journey to Morven, and another to Appin, and finally he will be rowed across the Firth of Forth back to South Queensferry. You’ll notice that I have been leading the argument here by choosing a series of examples of sea-crossings to illustrate the idea that Kidnapped is full of movements across boundaries. I’ll come to some another kinds of crossing in a moment but I do think it is striking how often David is made to cross water, not just the sea, but also, for example, the Highland torrent in Chapter 20, a key moment in which Alan Breck makes David master his fears and act like a man. That I think is the general point of all these crossings. They mark stages in David’s life, the steps on that journey referred to in the title of Chapter 1. Of course, anybody making a real journey across Scotland from the Hebrides to Edinburgh would have to make similar water-crossings and on one level we read them as part of the realism of Kidnapped, but they also function, I suggest, in a more metaphorical way, influencing our feeling of the book’s shape and the shape of the development of its main character. The crossings are not always good steps or simple progress but they take David, and the reader, on to the next stage. Why Stevenson marked so many of these stages by making them crossings over water is not easy to say. Perhaps he had in mind his own crossing of the Atlantic in pursuit of Fanny Osbourne, the woman he married, expecting the disapproval of his family and friends. Again, however, there are plenty of precedents in myth and fable for treating the crossing of water as significant (think of Julius Caesar at the Rubicon, or Tam o’ Shanter).

There are other sorts of boundaries than water in the novel, as I said earlier, and some of these are more literally to do with thresholds. There are key moments in Kidnapped when David stands on a doorstep or at the entrance to somewhere, trying to get in. The novel actually ends with David on a doorstep, about to go into the British Linen Company’s bank in Edinburgh to claim some of his inheritance. The most crucial of these threshold scenes are however the matched pair at the door of the House of Shaws, in Chapter 2 and 3, when David first meets his uncle Ebenezer, and then in Chapter 29, when Alan, before witnesses, makes Ebenezer confess his involvement in the kidnapping. Stevenson of course arranged these scenes in parallel, placing them at near equivalent distances from the beginning and ending of the novel to give it much of its shape. Both happen in darkness and Ebenezer’s attitude is similar in both. Both even have the same outcome, with Ebenezer in effect driven to admit, in both senses of the word. The title of Chapter 29, ‘I come into my kingdom’, adds to the sense of an entrance being made, both in the physical sense and a metaphorical one to do with entering adult life and responsibilities. Again the chapter title nudges us towards a more general significance. I want to avoid calling this kind of thing symbolism. David’s entrances to the House of Shaws are not symbolic acts. I’d prefer to call them emblematic. The various crossings of boundaries in Kidnapped are emblems of the moments of transition or progress in the life of a youth heading towards manhood. The repetition and accumulation of these emblematic movements bind the novel together.

But I think the effect of these threshold or boundary crossing scenes is more than just a kind of formal dividing of David Balfour’s narrative into stages suggesting his progress in the world. The actual nature or texture of the crossings carries meaning. Let me try to explain by looking for a moment at one of the scenes I have already mentioned, that of the crossing from Earraid to Mull in Chapter 14 ‘The Islet’. That it takes David a whole chapter to cross this boundary seems surprising, as other chapters deal with much more action than this. You will recall that he arrives on Earraid after the wreck of the brig and is washed ashore alone. This is virtually the only episode in the book in which David is on his own; even when travelling alone he usually meets somebody along the way. Chapter 14 therefore seems marked out from the rest of the novel as a special one for the hero, one in which he is the sole centre of attention. Also this is his first landfall since the kidnapping and his entrance to the Highlands, a part of Scotland of which he knows virtually nothing but what Alan Breck has told him on the ship. Here then is an important turning-point in the novel. One might say that having a whole chapter about the first place David lands in this new world is for that reason appropriate. Yet the incident itself is presented as anything but solemn and auspicious, and in fact very little happens. Indeed, the point of the chapter is that the island is barren and empty. It is a kind of blank or vacuum in David’s career, and David’s fear that his life will end in nothingness is a strong message of the chapter.

Believing himself to be trapped on a small, barren island without shelter, David rapidly succumbs to a despair that is eventually made ridiculous when he realises that he could have crossed to the main island of Mull at any low tide. There is a farcical contrast between the reality of the situation and what David imagines it is, although even the reality is disturbing. David’s account of his stay on Earraid is full of the squalid and uncomfortable. He is cold and hungry. He makes himself sick eating limpets and buckies. It rains all the time and then David finds there is a hole in his pocket and he has lost most of his money through it. This adds to the sense that he is not just unlucky but also incompetent; it has taken him days to realise that his guineas are running out of his pocket. There is a message here about experience and insight. David is too easily satisfied with his first assumptions about his situation and these prevent him from seeing the truth. When he does see it, and leaves the island, it is as though he has also learned not to take things at face value or let his feelings overwhelm his judgment. In this way the Earraid episode is like a paradigm for the novel and that I think is another reason it is worth a whole chapter. Stevenson is showing us how and what David will learn at each stage of his journey.

Stevenson adds further irony to the situation by reminding us of the obvious literary parallel. Near the beginning of Chapter 14 David says: ‘In all the books I have read of people cast away, they had either their pockets full of tools, or a chest of things would be thrown upon the beach along with them, as if on purpose.’ The obvious reference here is to Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), in which Crusoe retrieves plenty of supplies from his shipwreck and sets himself up on his desert island with all sorts of conveniences. Stevenson’s half-allusion to Robinson Crusoe here sets up a literary contrast that adds to our sense of David Balfour’s hard luck. There is also a sense, which David articulates, that his experience of island life is more realistic than Crusoe’s. And yet I think the parallel works in the other direction, too, and this brings me back to the emblematic nature of scenes in Kidnapped. Just as Crusoe on his island is an emblem of a man alone with himself and nature, making the best of things, so David’s spell on Earraid becomes a model for his existence, how he faces existence and what it will be like. The episode tells us about David and his life: that he won’t find things easy, that he will have his share of bad luck as well as good luck, that left to himself he can survive, but he is better off with a companion; that he has some determination and ingenuity, but not to the almost superhuman extent of a Robinson Crusoe; that for the most part the world around him is indifferent and rather inhospitable to him and he must work to improve his lot. Above all, of course, the chapter on the islet teaches us the irony of existence, that what we think is the case from our point of view may not be true at all. Eventually, and ridiculously, the men in the boat that return to speak to David get through to him, despite his lack of Gaelic and their lack of English, that Earraid is a tidal island and he can wade off it at low tide. Feeling a fool, he escapes to Mull and begins his journey home, but I think we feel that, although he has learned something about coping with life, his life will continue to set him problems to solve. The quality of David’s experience on Earraid contains a message about the nature of the world and our relations with it. Behind that lies Stevenson own experience, I think.

So not only is Kidnapped deeply structured by emblematic narrative elements but also the actual presentation of these elements conveys aspects of meaning, particularly about the hero and the nature of life. This layer of meaning in the novel is in a way separate from its realistic meaning, what it says about the world of everyday. I suspect that for Scottish readers like me the deeper, emblematic way of reading the novel is obscured by what we perceive to be its Scottishness. For Scots, Kidnapped is about Scotland, its history and geography, and we can hardly avoid that impression because the text so easily triggers familiarity in us Scottish readers. When in Chapter 5 David arrives at the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry I for one immediately picture the inn as I so often see it from the train crossing the Forth Bridge. When he takes the ferry from Mull to Kinlochaline in Chapter 16 I recall making the same journey with my brother in the 1960s, not to mention many another pleasant sail in the Sound of Mull, thanks to Caledonian MacBrayne. Like most Scottish readers, I believe, I look at the map usually printed with the text of Kidnapped to find places I know, and I then picture the characters in the scenery I have seen myself. I assume of course that the map is not fiction, unlike the map in Treasure Island, though why I make that assumption might be debated. Similar assumptions lie behind my reaction to the historical side of Kidnapped. My Scotnote has a note on Jacobitism which assumes that the way to read the novel requires a knowledge of the causes and consequences of the ’45 Rebellion. Just as with the place-names, the personal names in the novel have associations for Scottish readers, names like Stewart and Campbell, Macpherson and MacGregor. You may well know people with these names or others found in the novel, names like Balfour, or Rankeillor, or Riach. But there are names in the novel with other kinds of association and perhaps we miss these, we Scots, because we tend to read all the names as real, historical ones. What, for example, did Stevenson mean by naming a character ‘Ransome’ in a novel called Kidnapped? Or a sea-captain Hoseason? And Uncle Ebenezer surely owes his name to Charles Dickens. These names suggest a different kind of reference from the Scottish place-names and the names of clansmen.

There is then a layer or even layers of meaning in Kidnapped below or beside the traditional historical-geographical-realistic one that is usually the focus of attention, especially for Scottish readers. Perhaps it is this other kind of reading that attracted foreign readers of Stevenson such as the Italian novelist Italo Calvino and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, who both praise Stevenson as a major writer of fiction without I think relating this praise to his depiction of Scotland and the Scots as such. Calvino and Borges are both writers who moved beyond the realism of nineteenth-century fiction and yet they were willing to see in Stevenson’s fiction things consistent with their own, modernistic writing, implying that he is not a conventional nineteenth-century realistic novelist after all. This is perhaps an aspect of Kidnapped that we ought to be more aware of as readers, and also as teachers, of the novel.


Buy the Scotnote on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona.


Copyright © Christopher MacLachlan 2006


Last updated 18 August 2010.