Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, the third in the Waverley series, is the novel most nearly contemporary to the author’s own time. Although it is a love story, it is also a novel of manners. Scott admitted that, when necessary, he sacrificed the plot in order to describe more clearly the manners of the characters, particularly those of the lower social classes. His characterizations of the Scottish peasants are much more vivid than those of the upper classes.

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The Antiquary met with unprecedented sales when it first appeared in 1816. Scott remarked that “it has been more fortunate than any of [the other novels] . . . for six thousand went off in the first six days.” It reached a fifth edition within two years and was translated during ensuing years into at least seven languages.

In spite of its being a potpourri of gothic elements—supernatural escapades among abbey ruins at night, scheming tricks of a charlatan magician, romantic rescues up sheer cliffs from a wild and sudden high tide, and the usual genteel and static hero and heroine falling at the end into marriage as well as vast inherited wealth—the novel succeeds for other, more significant reasons. Its lasting value is based on the scenes of Scottish village life and of the lower classes and their colorful dialogue. These scenes have wit and pathos and provide a sane balance to the contrived, unreal plot in which the upper-class characters are involved. The links between the two levels of the tale are the antiquary Jonathan Oldbuck of Monkbarns (who possesses many of Scott’s interests and much of his learning) and the wandering beggar Edie Ochiltree. These two characters move back and forth between the fishing village and country people and the nobility and their estates, providing connections between the two different worlds of the novel.

Scott draws the background of The Antiquary from the historical religious opposition of Catholics and Covenanters and the political conflict between England and France. These issues, however, form only a backdrop and do not affect the suspense and tension of the novel. Scenes such as that in the Fairport post office, where the village gossips speculate about the newly arrived mail, or the pathetic gathering of the Mucklebackit family in their cottage after their son Steenie’s drowning are remarkable because of their vividness. Such scenes constitute the core of the novel, its color and its poetry. Moreover, Scott brings the characters in these scenes alive, perhaps because he draws them from individuals he knew from boyhood. Action and meaning belong to old Elspeth crooning her eerie ballads, Edie Ochiltree maintaining his pride and religious feeling though merely an “auld” beggar, Maggie haggling with Monkbarns over the price of fish, and Mucklebackit Senior trying to cope with his grief. Scott declared The Antiquary to be a novel of lower-class manners; as such, it succeeds.

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