Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Scotland. Scott’s novelistic portrait of Scotland as a country, The Heart of Midlothian deals with the east and the west of Scotland, with Highlands and Lowlands. The novel presents the people of Scotland from many regions and classes, and the Scottish landscape in all its variety is described with great force and vividness. Scott sees Scotland as a country of beauty, independence, religious passion, courage, and, sometimes, violence and disruption. The finest qualities of Scotland are embodied in Jeanie Deans, who is virtually a national symbol in the novel.
*England. Scotland’s rich and powerful neighbor to the south. The novel is set early in the eighteenth century, shortly after Scotland and England have been united under one crown; however, it is still an uneasy union. Scott shows an England that is more civilized than Scotland but also more corrupt. The Scottish heroine Jeanie Deans’s simple honesty forms a striking contrast to the social facades and political intrigues of England. Also, England’s attitude toward Scotland tends to be impatient and dismissive. Its intrusion into Scottish matters of law produces at least in part the legal injustice and cruelty that are at the novel’s center. Jeanie Deans’s most memorable encounter with England comes at Richmond, where she sees the luxuriant beauty of southern England but expresses a preference for Scotland. There, she also...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In discussing this novel, one should keep in mind the importance of setting: the special significance of Jeanie's moral choice and Effie's dilemma, among other matters, can be found largely in terms of the time and place of the action. Some background on the situation in Scotland after the Act of Union and the Stuart rebellions would be useful and worthy of comment. While no plot takes place in a vacuum, the cultural and historical surroundings of The Heart of Midlothian are particularly relevant to a clear appreciation of the book.
1. Do you agree with Dorothy Van Ghent that the moral problem that Jeanie faces—" to lie to save a life, or not to lie"— is "a problem of no trivial interest" and, "because of a loss of a common moral code" in today's society, "is a question of potentially profound interest for the modern reader"? Does Jeanie do the "right" thing, given the situation in the novel—and would it be the "right" thing now?
2. Does the plot indeed progress too long? Is the working out of the destinies of George, Effie, their son, and others really helpful in gaining a sense of completeness from the novel? If not, where should Scott have ended the story?
3. A friend of Scott's, Lady Louisa Stuart, wrote to Sir Walter in August of 1818, shortly after the novel was published and complimented him on the unusual and difficult task of "making the perfectly good character the most interesting." Is Jeanie really of...
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The three main areas of technique that have attracted attention are plot, characterization, and style. Of these, plot is the most often discussed. One of the standard criticisms of Scott's novels is their languid openings (though some critics earnestly defend them, noting the need for the historical and other background information for the story to be clear).
In the case of The Heart of Midlothian, however, the action commences early in the story. After the first chapter (indeed tiresome, to many readers), which is part of the introductory material to the "Tales of My Landlord," the second chapter immediately takes up the situation that leads to the Porteous riot, introducing key characters Wilson, Robertson, and Porteous himself. The violent action of the riot and hanging of Porteous by the mob is told in a lively and brilliantly scenic fashion (a few critics have noted Sir Walter's skillful use of color to enliven important scenes). As the grim procedure continues, Reuben Butler is brought into the plot; and, shortly thereafter, Scott provides information on the early years of Reuben and Jeanie Deans—as well as the beliefs her father inculcated in Jeanie that motivate her to refuse to commit perjury and then to save her sister's life by a heroic action. Thereafter, the story line moves on with reasonable pace, marked now and then by Scott's modernistic tendency to shift time frames, so that an event in one frame is followed (and often...
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The principal social concern in The Heart of Midlothian, one of Sir Walter Scott's best works, is a remarkably modern one. The chief moral issue concerns the admirable heroine of the story (perhaps the best drawn female character in the entire range of Scott's fiction), Jeanie Deans. She must decide whether to commit perjury in order to save her sister's life. That the "lie" would be a relatively minor one—just a matter of whether the sister, Effie Deans, had told Jeanie that she was pregnant—is of no real consequence to Jeanie; she has been brought up to believe that the truth must prevail—any truth, all truth. Jeanie's alternative is to admit that Effie never told her of the pregnancy. This situation developed because of the strict Scottish laws concerning child murder—a matter that calls to mind the furor over abortion today.
Effie's conviction stems from the fact that the baby has disappeared and that she told no one of its existence; the legal presumption is that she killed the infant to avoid the shame of being an unwed mother and the burden of caring for the child. This stern judgment reflects the social climate of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, when large numbers of children were murdered. Further, insofar as the law relates to society, Jeanie's decision to tell the truth, no matter what the cost, is relevant. Strictly speaking, she could not have been convicted of perjury, since Effie certainly would support her sister's...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Criscuola, Margaret M. “The Porteous Mob: Fact and Truth in The Heart of Midlothian.” English Language Notes 22, no. 1 (September, 1984): 43-50. Concludes that the reality underlying this historical episode illuminates Scott’s use of history and the ways in which he transformed fact into fiction.
Davis, Jana. “Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian and Scottish Common-Sense Morality.” Mosaic 21 (Fall, 1988): 55-63. Common sense, morality, and Calvinism interact in the novel, as characters must choose between the law, their religion, and what their moral sense tells them is right.
Kerr, James. “Scott’s Fable of Regeneration: The Heart of Midlothian.” English Literary History 53, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 801-820. Sees the novel as a political admonition, and Jeanie Deans as a model of virtue. Deals more fully with the last quarter of the novel than many other commentaries do.
Millgate, Jane. “Scott and the Law: The Heart of Midlothian.” In Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, edited by M. L. Friedland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Investigates legal aspects of the plot. Scott was a lawyer, a sheriff, and sometimes a judge. Millgate asserts that no other novelist deals more often with the effects of law on human destiny...
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