Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In The Fortunes of Nigel, Sir Walter Scott surpasses even his former efforts to introduce dozens of characters and plots into one novel. Although the multiplicity of people and events and the use of Scottish dialect may make this novel a difficult one for some readers, the reward in the end is worth the effort. This novel is an exciting tale of intrigue and mystery, one of the great adventure stories in the language. As is also common in stories by Scott, the novel takes much of its romantic atmosphere and dramatic vigor from the author’s use of many characters drawn from the lower levels of society. To balance these, Scott also presents in the figure of James I, king of England and Scotland, his finest historical portrait.

Since most of Scott’s important work was completed in the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, he is often considered part of the Romantic literary movement. Rebelling against the formalism of the eighteenth century, this literary impulse advocated the natural expression of feelings, the value of nature against artifice, and the possibilities of life beyond the strict confines of rationalism. The diverse intellectual and literary trends within the Romantic movement make the classification of most authors problematic; there was a coherent movement, however, and it did stand for certain modes of expression and ideas.

Clearly, many of the features of Scott’s novels and of The Fortunes of Nigel can be considered Romantic. Although he did not always succeed, he was interested in preserving and presenting the rhythms of the natural speech of his countrymen. His willingness to portray all the ranks of society, the loosely knit structure of the novel, the use of the past, the idealization of women, the intense sentiments—all these can be taken as Romantic features in Scott’s work in general and in The Fortunes of Nigel in particular. At the same time, however, principles of rationalism, neoclassicism, and literary realism are clearly apparent in The Fortunes of Nigel. First, in the “Introductory Epistle” Scott attached to his novel, there is a defensive essay (written, significantly, in the form of a dialogue) that supports the didactic views of the literature of neoclassicism.

In fact, Scott’s work stands at one of those junctures in the history of literature where various traditions meet, in mixtures of unpredictable and varying quality, only to separate again as historical and literary circumstances change; it can be said that realists and Romantics may claim Scott with justification. Alexandre Dumas, père, and James Fenimore Cooper were profoundly influenced by him, but so were Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy. In short, whatever the value of Scott’s novels (and there has been much disagreement on that score), Scott is a seminal figure in literary history. Therefore, The Fortunes of Nigel can be judged not only as a historical novel but as a...

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