Many critics have considered The Heart of Midlothian to be Sir Walter Scott’s best novel. The reasons for its success are different from those of most of the author’s Waverley series. The novel does not have the usual gothic props of ruined abbeys, specters, prophesying old hags, and lonely, windswept castles. Only one scene, where Jeanie Deans meets George Staunton at moonrise in Nicol Muschat’s cairn, is reminiscent of the wild, picturesque settings so frequent in Scott’s fiction.
The plot of this novel is based on authentic historical events. The Porteous Riot of 1736 in Edinburgh’s famous Old Tolbooth prison, which was commonly called “the heart of Midlothian,” sets the action on its course. The story, however, is not one of social history or justice, nor is it a study of Scottish Presbyterianism. Long debates on both of these issues take up significant portions of the work, but Scott comes to no clear conclusions. It is not these issues that provide the unifying force that holds the story together. The binding element is, instead, the novel’s strong moral theme.
Most of the main protagonists of The Heart of Midlothian are caught in dilemmas of conscience. Jeanie Deans must decide between telling a lie to save her sister Effie’s life or speaking the truth and thereby condemning her to execution. Effie herself has the choice of attempting to live virtuously as she was taught or being faithful to her dissipated, criminal lover. Their father, stern David Deans, must decide whether to adhere to his Presbyterian principles or to come to terms with the human condition and forgive Effie. George Staunton, alias Robertson, is forced either to follow his wild inclinations and stay with his desperate associates or to reform and assume the responsibilities of his position and inheritance. He must also confront his obligation to marry Effie, whom he has wronged. These varied dilemmas of conscience constitute the texture of the novel.
The heroine is the one strong character in the novel, but she differs strikingly from the usual Waverley heroine, who tends to be tall, beautiful, exceedingly well bred, romantic, and wealthy. Jeanie Deans is unusual for being a peasant heroine, plain in...
(The entire section is 920 words.)