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BOOK SUMMARY

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Publisher:
Huntington Library Press
Number of pages:
334

Summary:

The story is set in the mid-eighteenth century in Scotland. David Balfour is a boy who sets out in the world to seek his fortune and undergoes hardship and danger in his travels but returns as a man to claim his rightful inheritance. Planning to cheat him of his inheritance, Davidís uncle had him kidnapped. David strikes a friendship with Alan Breck, a fleeing Jacobite leader, who happens to be on the same ship as David.

At sea, David and Alan become comrades and go through quite a few adventures. There are many suspenseful events like sea battles and perilous chases across the Scottish halls. As John Senior puts it, Kidnapped is a "bonny good adventure, it transports a colonial American boy back to his ancestral highlands and the Scottish honor, poverty, audacity, hilarity and spunk that still flows in his blood."

Note: Kidnapped can be found in many satisfactory current editions. This Huntington Library Press edition, however, is a special one, using the original text exactly as written by Stevenson, including Scottish dialect words. The story is preceded by an introduction and notes by Barry Menikoff, a leading authority on Stevenson. The book concludes with explanatory notes on matters mentioned in the text with which general readers are not familiar, a glossary of the Scottish dialect words used, and a gazetteer identifying the location of places mentioned.

Strong points:

  • The story is rooted in realism in a way that, for instance, Treasure Island or Ivanhoe is not. Stevensonís knowledge of his country is based on observation. The accounts of some events such as the account of being washed ashore near Iona has almost a documentary immediacy fascinating to the reader.
  • The teacher will be able to give to the students some very interesting historical background on the Jacobite wars and the fight of the valiant Scottish Highlanders for the cause of the Stuart Catholic heir to the throne, "Bonnie Prince Charlie."
  • Robert Louis Stevenson was brought up a Presbyterian but as a man of fire and compassion, was drawn to the Stuart cause. David Balfour, a Protestant is attracted by Alan Breck. The Stuart cause is not explicitly supported but shown as gallant and self-sacrificing.
  • It is very interesting to compare the two main characters and to show both their defects and their virtues. David Balfour can be a bit dour, but he has his qualities. Alan Breck is vain and quarrelsome, but also has good points.
  • Kidnapped says as much about Stevenson as any autobiography. In David Balfour and Alan Breck "he gives substance to two sides of his own character, adventurer and rationalist, man of duty and man of passion, restless traveler with a mountain of Calvinist baggage to shoulder."
  • More profoundly, Stevenson writes about two conflicting cultures within Scottish history which have become two deeply battling sets of sympathies within himself: The mercantile Lowland Hanoverian, law abiding and rational and the adventurous Highland Jacobite, romantic and sentimental. Deeper still, there is the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic cultures.

Cautions:

  • Some students may find the Scottish dialect difficult and will need help to understand some words.
  • Stevenson, in spite of his Catholic sympathies (he wrote a pamphlet to defend Fr. Damien), remains a Protestant. The teacher should point out how a Catholic novelist may have written differently on the same theme.
  • G.K. Chesterton wrote (and this is especially true of other novels like The Master of Ballantrae): "There is really and seriously an influence of Scottish Puritanism upon Stevenson; though I think it rather a philosophy partially accepted by his intellect than the special ideal that was the secret of his heart. But every philosopher is affected by philosophy; even if, as in the immortal instance in Boswell, cheerfulness is always breaking out."

Conclusion:

Kidnapped is really one of the best historical novels ever written, and has quite subtle characterization and exploration of mood and motive, as seen especially in the self-analysis by David Balfour in the pages preceding the famous quarrel scene. But central to the success of this novel over a long period of time is its narrative power. It is a great tale superbly told. Without either the absorbing treatment of the post-Culloden theme, or the vivid colour and drama of the narrow escape from death in Uncle Ebenezerís house, the battle of the round-house, the flight across the heather, the encounter with James, of the Blen, or the re-visiting of the House of the Shaws, this novel would not have lasted. It is not theme or characterization alone which make it a perennial favorite, but rather its art of narrative. (Peter Hunt)