James M. Barrie’s sensitivity and deep appreciation of human values explain the popularity of this novel. The quiet, reserved humor appeals to the intellect and the heart rather than to a ludicrous sense of buffoonery, and the frequent note of sentiment is delicate and restrained. The LITTLE MINISTER displays Barrie’s gift for character portrayal and his lack of self-consciousness in his whimsical, ironic style.
A master of situation and dialogue, Barrie produced his first best-selling success with THE LITTLE MINISTER, but the mixture of clowning and sentimentality in the overrich prose is perhaps not as much to modern taste as it was to that of his contemporaries. The Scottish dialect also might be difficult for some readers. The characterizations, however, are vivid and original, transcending the other dated aspects of the book.
Babbie is a character of contradictions, fascinating, willful, headstrong, and beautiful, and the mystery lurking behind her presence makes her all the more interesting to both Gavin and the reader. Gavin’s sincerity makes his priggishness bearable, and the intensity of his feelings eventually transforms him into a genuine hero. The minor characters, from Gavin’s mother to old Nanny Webster to Rob Dow and the doctor, are all sharply etched and convey an aura of authenticity. The reader feels that if nineteenth century life in a Scottish village was not as portrayed in this novel, it should have been. A rich vein of humor arises at its best from the characterizations rather than the situations and gives the novel a lightness of tone that makes the sentimentality of the tale more palatable.
The device of having Gavin’s unknown father tell the story is awkward and unconvincing. The little clues placed occasionally into the narration are distracting from the main story line and confuse the reader without preparing him sufficiently for later revelations.
It is the impulsive, generous, and loving character of Babbie that dominates this novel and lifts it above the ordinary. She is one of the great heroines of British fiction; whether she is dropping barefooted from a tree, thrusting a diamond ring at poor old Nanny, or teasing and later loving the rigid young minister, she breathes life and excitement onto every page on which she appears.