Critical Evaluation

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Robert Louis Stevenson directed many of his works to young readers in deference to nineteenth century Romanticism’s idealization of the innocence of childhood and the fecundity of children’s imaginations. He believed strongly that youngsters were an important segment of the reading public. Kidnapped was originally published as a serial in a boys’ magazine, and Stevenson first won fame as a novelist with the children’s adventure story Treasure Island (1881-1882, serial; 1883, book). A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) also falls in this category.

A large part of the popular appeal of Kidnapped lies with the historical-romantic nature of the plot. The novel revolves around a historical incident, the murder of Colin Campbell, the Red Fox of Glenure, and other historical figures appear, among them King George. Thus the nonhistorical but pivotal events of the plot—David Balfour’s trials and Alan Stewart’s escapades, which constitute the largest part of the novel—are tied to actual history. This intertwining of history and fantasy has the effect of personalizing history and making fantasy credible.

Another factor that enhances the verisimilitude of Kidnapped is Stevenson’s narrative technique. David tells his story in the first person. As a consequence, the reader develops a close rapport with the narrator and sympathizes with his plight. Most important, the first-person narrative makes the story highly plausible.

To some extent, Stevenson emphasizes plot over characterization; his goal is above all to entertain, to transport the reader from mundane, daily existence to a believable world of excitement and adventure. To create this effect, Stevenson combines the extraordinary with the commonplace. David’s kidnapping, Alan’s rescue, and the shipwreck combines with such more commonplace occurrences as family hostilities, the life of sailors, and Scottish feuds. This combination produces an exceptionally convincing tale.

Stevenson does not ignore the impact of character development, however. By juxtaposing David, the canny Lowlander, with Alan, the proud Highlander, he brings two opposing value systems together into a compatible relationship. David and Alan have contradictory points of view and antithetical sociopolitical commitments; yet they work together and form a lasting bond on the basis of friendship and loyalty that transcend their differences. Here Stevenson the novelist is at his best, forsaking dogma and ideology in favor of humanistic values.

Stevenson is a master storyteller. He weaves this tale around the great and the small, the rich and the poor, virtuous men and scoundrels, and each character is truly drawn. A stolen inheritance, a kidnapping, a battle at sea, several murders—these are only a few of the adventures that befall the hero. It is easily understood why Kidnapped is a favorite with all who read it.

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