Many critics have considered The Heart of Midlothian to be Sir Walter Scott’s best novel. The reasons for its success are different from those of most of the author’s Waverley series. The novel does not have the usual gothic props of ruined abbeys, specters, prophesying old hags, and lonely, windswept castles. Only one scene, where Jeanie Deans meets George Staunton at moonrise in Nicol Muschat’s cairn, is reminiscent of the wild, picturesque settings so frequent in Scott’s fiction.
The plot of this novel is based on authentic historical events. The Porteous Riot of 1736 in Edinburgh’s famous Old Tolbooth prison, which was commonly called “the heart of Midlothian,” sets the action on its course. The story, however, is not one of social history or justice, nor is it a study of Scottish Presbyterianism. Long debates on both of these issues take up significant portions of the work, but Scott comes to no clear conclusions. It is not these issues that provide the unifying force that holds the story together. The binding element is, instead, the novel’s strong moral theme.
Most of the main protagonists of The Heart of Midlothian are caught in dilemmas of conscience. Jeanie Deans must decide between telling a lie to save her sister Effie’s life or speaking the truth and thereby condemning her to execution. Effie herself has the choice of attempting to live virtuously as she was taught or being faithful to her dissipated, criminal lover. Their father, stern David Deans, must decide whether to adhere to his Presbyterian principles or to come to terms with the human condition and forgive Effie. George Staunton, alias Robertson, is forced either to follow his wild inclinations and stay with his desperate associates or to reform and assume the responsibilities of his position and inheritance. He must also confront his obligation to marry Effie, whom he has wronged. These varied dilemmas of conscience constitute the texture of the novel.
The heroine is the one strong character in the novel, but she differs strikingly from the usual Waverley heroine, who tends to be tall, beautiful, exceedingly well bred, romantic, and wealthy. Jeanie Deans is unusual for being a peasant heroine, plain in appearance, not trained in social deportment, and lacking a romantic, gothic background. The moral seriousness of The Heart of Midlothian and the fact that Scott drew his heroine from the lower classes not only helped make the novel popular but also gave it a coherence and unity unusual in his fiction.
In most of Scott’s novels, minor characters are largely drawn from Scottish rural life and humble occupations and are more real than upper-class figures. When dealing with them, Scott has a more energetic and colorful style. Critics often remark that the strength of his work lies in such characters as Caleb Balderstone of The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), Edie Ochiltree and Maggie Mucklebackit of The Antiquary (1816), and Callum Beg and Widow Flockhart of Waverly (1814). Scott reproduces their speech faithfully and with obvious relish.
In The Heart of Midlothian , however, although he still opposes the upper-class culture with that of the lower class and exploits the resulting tensions, Scott elevates a dairyman’s daughter to the status of heroine. Furthermore, in spite of the unyielding virtue of her character and the contrived situation in which she becomes involved, he not only makes her believable but also enlists readers’ sympathies on her side. Jeanie has common sense, and the rough, matter-of-fact elements in her daily life leave no doubt that she will conquer all adverse forces to triumph in Effie’s cause. The law of retribution is at work here as in Scott’s other novels, but Providence has a fresh, indefatigable agent in Jeanie....
(The entire section is 920 words.)