The Master of Ballantrae (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
James Durie, the master of Ballantrae. Reported dead after the Battle of Culloden, he escapes to America, then goes to France, where he makes heavy financial demands on his brother Henry, now the heir to Durrisdeer, over a period of seven years. As Mr. Bally, James returns to Scotland, where he and Henry fight a duel. James apparently is killed, though his body disappears. Severely wounded, he is rescued by smugglers and taken to India, where he makes a fortune and acquires a native servant, Secundra Dass. When James again returns to Durrisdeer, Henry and his family flee to New York but are followed by James. In America, Henry decides to get rid of his evil brother permanently, but Secundra Dass overhears plans for James’s murder and shortly thereafter reports that his master has died. Henry, determined to satisfy himself that James is really dead, comes upon his brother’s grave just as Secundra Dass is exhuming James, who has not died but has been placed in a state of suspended animation by Secundra Dass as a means of tricking Henry. When Henry sees his brother’s eyes flutter open after a week underground, he drops dead of shock. Despite many hours of strenuous effort, Secundra Dass is unable to revive James fully because of the cold temperature; at last, the brothers, deadly enemies, are buried in the same grave.
Henry Durie, James’s younger...
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As he often does, Stevenson depends on the naive narrator for his plot development. Ephraim Mackellar, of course, knows only what he sees and hears (and, to a degree, what he can deduce from this evidence); so, the reader "sees" the events and the people through the typically sympathetic vision of the loyal old family retainer. Mackellar tries to accept the ungoverned behavior of James, but his fondness for Henry and his admiration for this long-suffering man impel the narrator to take sides (and, he is so fair in his judgments and reports that the reader must agree with him, no matter how "charming" the Master often appears) and to condemn a person to whom he would have been loyal to the death otherwise.
The interpolated reports from Burke do interrupt the flow of the narrative somewhat, but they provide (in an appropriately breezy style) information about James's doings when he is out of Mackellar's sight. The plot is essentially linear, with a minimum of antecedent information; but, the settings are numerous, far apart, and introduced, perhaps, to stimulate reader interest. The journeys to America, for example, may seem gratuitous to many readers. The action, however, is lively; and, the high opinion held by many critics of the characterization seems justified.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Since the principal setting of the novel is Scotland during rebellious, violent times, it might be helpful to study a bit of the history of the two uprisings, especially that in 1745. It may surprise modern readers to learn how many people in that day sympathized with the Stuart cause and believed that it would triumph. Such a study should also reveal the confusion and uncertainty of the era, out of which Stevenson brings some order in his novel.
1. Given the family situation, does the conflict between the Durie brothers seem realistic? Could one brother turn so sharply against the other?
2. Is the character of Alison Graeme developed sufficiently to explain the passion that the brothers seem to have for her?
3. Does Secundra Dass add anything to the story beyond his obvious plot services? For example, is any tonal element enhanced by his presence?
4. Are the piratical activities of James Durie, especially those involving Captain Teach (who Mackellar says is not the Teach known as Blackbeard), truly relevant to the plot, or are they merely entertaining diversions? Do they in any way illuminate the personality of Durie?
5. Douglas Gifford defends Stevenson's use of Mackellar (whom some readers view as an "unreliable narrator") against those who find the device weak. Do you agree that this point of view is valid?
6. Does the Scottish setting emerge as sufficiently detailed to give the gloomy...
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The phenomenon of brotherly antagonism is as old as the biblical Cain and Abel story. Also, the history of Scotland is rife with tales of families that were divided over the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Such familial conflict also reflects the famed intransigence of the Scottish temperament. Further back in English literature, however, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's play The Elder Brother (c.1637) deals with such a fraternal hostility, though in a considerably less violent manner than Stevenson does.
As to the whole subject of the 1715 and the 1745 uprisings, probably the nearest precedent (and very likely a strong influence) was Walter Scott, who treated the subject with remarkable objectivity in such works as Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1818). In accord with Scott's view, Stevenson appears to set forth the thematic truth that all combat, in howsoever good a cause, is fraught with danger and always costly (the same idea that invests much of The Aeneid).
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The film adaptation of The Master of Ballantrae utilized to the fullest the swashbuckling talents of Errol Flynn, who appeared as the Master, shown in a more favorable light than this character was presented in the novel. It was released in 1953, directed by William Keighley and produced by Warner Brothers.
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