Kidnapped: Theme Analysis
Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel
A story about the coming-of-age of a young protagonist is called a Bildungsroman (German for “education story”). The Bildungsroman focuses on the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development of the protagonist, usually from childhood to maturity. Kidnapped falls into this category. The protagonist, David Balfour, starts out as a somewhat naïve young man who readily falls into his uncle Ebenezer’s kidnapping trap. Under the guidance of his mentor, Alan Breck Stewart, he grows more mature and capable of surviving in dangerous situations. He also learns to question some of his earlier assumptions. For example, he comes to appreciate the nobility and tenacity of the Highlander/Jacobite people, although he was brought up a Lowlander/Whig.
Kidnapped is frequently described as a picaresque novel. “Picaresque” is a genre of prose fiction which chronicles the adventures of a usually roguish hero in a series of often satirical or humorous episodes that depict the life of the common people. Often, the hero must live by his wits. While the protagonist of Kidnapped is more naïve than roguish, and the novel’s humor takes second place to the adventure aspects, its episodic nature and rich portrayal of the Scottish countryside and people qualify it as a picaresque work. The roguish element is provided by Alan, leading some commentators to claim him as the hero of the novel.
Kidnapped presents the dual aspects of the Scottish psyche, which are reflected in political divisions: the Highlander Jacobite side, and the Lowlander Whig side. The Highlanders favor Scottish nationalism, and are presented in the novel as fierce and proud warriors, passionate, romantic, and deeply loyal to their own clans and to the Stuart/Stewart cause. They trust their own clan-based system for justice and mistrust the English government-imposed legal system. The epitome of the Highlander character is Alan. Other Highlander characters are James of the Glen, Cluny Macpherson, and Robin Oig. The Lowlanders are shown as pragmatic and materialistic; their loyalties, albeit low-key, are to the Hanoverian King George II’s government in England. The epitome of the Lowlander character is David.
However, Stevenson makes clear that the dividing line between the two aspects is not absolute; it is frequently crossed-over and blurred. Mr. Campbell, though he educated David to be a Whig and loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy, is by origin a Highlander. Colin Campbell of Glenure, King George II’s hated rent collector, is a member of a Highlander family that supports the Hanoverian side. David, teased by Alan for his Whig attitudes, comes to value Highlander nobility; Mr. Rankeillor, the careful lawyer who lives in Lowlander society, does his best to help Alan escape. In the novel Stevenson emphasizes that Highlander and Lowlander, Jacobite and Whig, Catholic and Protestant, are not two distinct qualities, but fluid and interconnected aspects of the Scottish psyche.
Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that the English influence on Highland culture is portrayed in Kidnapped as suppressive and colonialist: Highlanders are banned even from wearing their traditional clothes, and some prefer to go semi-naked rather than wear the alien gear favored by the English.
At the center of Kidnapped is the friendship between David and Alan. The balance of power in this friendship shifts subtly throughout the novel. On board the Covenant, David saves Alan’s life by warning him of Hoseason’s plot to kill him. In the battle of the round-house, both men save each other through their courageous fighting. During their flight through the heather, David endangers them both by falling asleep on his watch and allowing soldiers to come close to their hiding place; nobly, Alan refrains from reproaching David and gets them out of immediate danger. Alan continues to help David by ensuring that they keep one step ahead of the soldiers. David, being the younger, weaker, and less experienced man, is guided, supported, and probably kept alive by his friend on their travels. However, the balance of power shifts again at Cluny Macpherson’s house, where Alan stupidly gambles away all their money. It is left to David to swallow his pride and rescue them both from their predicament. In this instance, David is less gracious than Alan was after having had to compensate for his friend’s weakness. He treats Alan cruelly, even after Alan has apologized.
Significantly, however, it is by calling on Alan’s help once again that David is able to resolve the impasse between them. Alan, as ever, is generous and self-sacrificing in his efforts to help his friend. The two are reconciled after David’s recognition that each man is as flawed as the other: “We’re neither one of us to mend the other – that’s the truth! We must just bear and forbear, man Alan!” (Chapter XXIV). After this reconciliation, David helps Alan one more time, this time, to escape to France.
On several occasions, David considers parting from Alan. From a practical point of view, as Alan is a hunted man and the posters implicating David in the Appin murder only give a vague description, David would be safer alone. But he never follows through with this plan. The reason appears to be that David is conscious of the depth of his friendship with Alan. Finally, he prioritizes this friendship above fears for his own safety.
Money and greed
Money, greed, and the resulting commodification of human life are pervading themes of the novel. Ebenezer sells David to Hoseason for twenty pounds, and Hoseason intends to make more money out of David by selling him into slavery when he gets to the Carolinas. Hoseason is willing to do this in spite of the fact that he is a keen church-goer and opposed to swearing. His hypocrisy is evident; Stevenson’s readers would have been aware of the Biblical story of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus for a bribe of thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26: 14-16). David’s odyssey (journey) begins with being sold for money by Ebenezer, a relative who should be nurturing and supporting him. It ends in similar but opposite fashion when Alan pretends to negotiate a price with Ebenezer for returning David to him or killing him. On this occasion, Alan suggests, Ebenezer must pay, rather than profit, thus evening out the score.
Ebenezer’s own story emphasizes the life-denying qualities of materialism and obsession with money. He loses the woman he loves to his brother Alexander, gaining an estate in the process, which, however, never seems to bring him any joy. He has exchanged love for money, and his mean and fearful existence is testament to the withering effects of materialism.
Other embodiments of greed in the novel are the blind robber and the guide who tries to cheat David out of his money. Both are degenerate grotesques who symbolically caution against excessive materialism.
Whig materialism and greed are throughout the novel contrasted with the more romantic and noble Highlander attitudes to money. (As always in Kidnapped, however, the dividing line is not absolute: there are greedy Highlanders, like the cheating guide, and there are generous Lowlanders, like David and Mr. Rankeillor.) The Highlanders place money beneath the Jacobite cause for which they fight. The Appin Stewarts impoverish themselves by paying two rents - the one that they are forced to pay to King George II’s government, and the one that they choose to pay to support their exiled chief, Ardshiel. David comments on their sacrifice, “I call it noble … I’m a Whig, or little better; but I call it noble.’
The English government’s oppression of Scotland centers on money. The harshness of the English state’s invasion into Scotland is represented by the hated Colin Campbell, King George II’s rent collector among the Highlanders. Campbell must have been doubly repugnant to the tenants because he was himself from a Highland family that effectively turned traitor against Scotland.
The extreme end of Highlander contempt for materialism is represented by Alan’s reckless act of gambling away all his and David’s money at Cluny Macpherson’s house. This act nearly causes a rupture in Alan and David’s friendship, showing the great power of money to unite or divide people.
David’s own story is, of course, one of coming into his inheritance. But David is never likely to allow money to rule his existence and dominate his values. While he was brought up with a pragmatic Whig ethos, he has a generous nature. His first act on receiving his inheritance will be to help Alan escape, a notion supported by that other humane representative of Whig culture, Mr. Rankeillor.