Sir Walter Scott Essay - Sir Walter Scott World Literature Analysis

Sir Walter Scott World Literature Analysis

Because late twentieth century literary fashions made Scott’s kind of writing unfashionable, his status has slipped; like most of the top Victorian writers— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—he has fallen from favor in the audiovisual age. That is unfair. Scott not only altered the course of nineteenth century literature but also profoundly influenced Western culture. He developed an image of the popular hero that became standard, and this image continues to affect both behavior and education, to shape the values of both individuals and nations.

This influence occurred not just because he was, by any standard, the best-selling novelist of his time and one of the most reprinted of the nineteenth century. Scott was the first English writer to realize a comfortable living from writing; he would have been rich, had he not invested badly. Furthermore, he reaped profits before the passage of any international copyright act protecting him from foreign reprinting and translations. Imitators materialized everywhere; within five years, every nation, and practically every region, boasted of its own Scott—the United States, for example, celebrated James Fenimore Cooper.

The cult of historical fiction that he pioneered transformed novel writing in far-reaching, yet often unperceived, ways. For example, after Scott, practically every major novelist in England adopted the historical point of view. Thus, Dickens has only two professedly historical novels, but all except one are set at least in the previous generation. The same is true of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and most of Joseph Conrad. The major exception is the Anglo-American Henry James, and even he began by using the historical frame. Elsewhere in America, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville all wrote explicitly historical works, as did those who at first sight apparently did not—such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and even William Faulkner. In France, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Victor Hugo are unthinkable without Scott. It seems unlikely that Scott could have affected the very different Russians Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, but both record their allegiance to him, and the emphasis on the psychology of human behavior and on history in both Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) and Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) derive from Scott.

Scott made the Western world conscious of historical precedence in a way that it had not been. In this respect, he helped consolidate the idea of national self-consciousness, which had been expanding since the Renaissance. He also introduced a modified image of the hero and of heroic behavior, which dominated the nineteenth century and still prevails. He helped create an ideal image of behavior, which became incorporated in educational systems. Because of his influential ideas, several generations were indoctrinated with this ideal, and it influenced major political and social policies, in his time and afterward.

This image runs parallel with the common neoaristocratic and colonialist attitudes of the time. It generated most nineteenth century social and political practices and doctrines, including the colonization of Africa, the migration westward in the United States—fueled by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny—and the Germanic movement to the east in Europe and Asia. It is not a radically different image from that of the traditional hero in Western male-dominant, aristocratic society. That is, the hero is primarily the idealistic, intrinsically noble good guy, protector of women, children, and the underprivileged. Typically, he finds himself and his class threatened by those who abuse the law for their own profit. Yet because his loyalty is to the honor of his cause, he does not withdraw. At the collapse of all civilized order, he discloses unexpected reserves of courage, prowess, and chivalry, even of athleticism, and obtains victory by allying himself with the forces of right.

This describes the archetypal Scott hero from Waverley, a figure that came to represent the conventional hero. With some variations, this figure continues as the stock hero of popular fiction and entertainment, appearing every night on television. It has become a powerful cultural force, instilling principles of behavior that people often accept without thinking. It may, for example, predispose people to chose confrontation or violence when responding to apparent threats; it may reinforce a win-at-any-cost policy or an us-versus-them mentality, or, finally, it may cause one to sacrifice individual freedom for the sake of solidarity.

Perhaps Scott emphasizes one side of a complex picture. Yet he simply wanted to revive the principles of heroic chivalry endangered by modern incivility and crassness. Besides, although many of his heroes can be readily stereotyped, others cannot. The hero of The Heart of Midlothian, for instance, is female. In any case, Scott usually pays little...

(The entire section is 2099 words.)