Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
This novel of seventeenth century Scotland has a driving psychological as well as a political, a religious, and a social determinism. The conflict between Presbyterian (Lord Ashton and family) and Episcopalian (Edgar) is influential in the plot. So, to a lesser degree, is the political-social turmoil that involves disintegration of old-order Tory values before the energetic ambitions of the Whigs. Popular superstition thus thrives upon the inevitable confusion, disorder, and decay resulting from these changes. This power of the supernatural—manifest in omens, dreams, hidden fears, prophecies, visions, specters, and other phenomena—directs the thoughts and actions of both major and minor characters.
Sir Walter Scott, however, does not impose such superstitious paraphernalia directly upon the story; he employs them more subtly, so that they seem the result of psychological conflicts within the characters. The young master of Ravenswood, deprived of his castle and hereditary rights, can only, by submerging his proud loyalty, ally himself with the Ashtons, who usurped all he holds significant in life. In his own eyes, his sudden, almost unconscious love for Lucy Ashton, although a solace and partial fulfillment of loss, still demeans him. He knows he cannot betray the values of the past, yet he has within him youth and ardor, which force him into an engagement with Lucy. All the characters in the novel, and the reader as well, know that such an alliance will lead to doom. Old Alice tells him this, and Caleb Balderstone, Ravenswood’s faithful, ingenious manservant, also warns him about the marriage. The apparition at Mermaiden’s Fountain confirms Ravenswood’s fears; even Lucy’s passive affection and terror of her mother all underline the young man’s own perception, but he remains psychologically divided, unable to free himself emotionally from what he realizes intellectually is a disastrous union.
The schism within young Ravenswood, a truly Byronic hero, finds its dark expression in the ugly prophecies of the village hags, the superstitious talk of the sexton, the mutterings of the peasants, and Henry Ashton’s shooting of the raven near the betrothed couple at the well. However, step by step, Ravenswood almost seeks his fate, driven relentlessly by factors deep within his personality.
Lucy is equally torn. She loves Ravenswood but is paralyzed before the dominating force of her mother. She submits to marriage with Bucklaw, but her divisive emotions drive her to murder, insanity, and death. Lord Ashton also has commendable motives in spite of his political chicanery, but he, like Lucy, is rendered ineffective by his wife’s mastery.
To keep the novel from sinking into grotesque morbidity and gothic excess, Scott provides comic relief through specific character action. Caleb in his bizarre methods of replenishing the bare tables of Wolf’s Crag and the rallying of all in the village to provide adequately for the marquis during his visit furnish this needed humor. Scott’s sense of timing and his ability to tie supernatural elements to psychological divisions within personality manage to hold the novel together and to make it a controlled and well-structured work.