Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE: A WINTER’S TALE is considered by many to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s best novel, although it probably is not as well-known as TREASURE ISLAND or KIDNAPPED. The story is engrossing, moves with commendable speed, and generally does not seem incredible. Although marred by a weak setting and an uneven plot, the novel is nevertheless a remarkable study in human insufficiency. Stevenson structures his moral fable around a tragic view of man’s proclivity for evil, evidenced first and most powerfully in the person of James Durie, and, later, in his once-virtuous brother, Henry.

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It would be incorrect to term the novel an allegory; it is nothing so firm in either its moral or narrative patterns. Rather, it is an intricate ethical exemplum that borrows richly, even indiscriminately, from biblical legend and from PARADISE LOST. Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, the Prodigal Son (here unrepentant) are all obvious references as is the splendor of Milton’s Satan, made radiant in the character of James. (Throughout the tale, he is almost an archetypal Satan.)

The book’s first part locates its ethical absolutes in the two brothers—one good (Henry), one bad (James). Directed by Ephraim Mackellar’s irresolute judgments, the reader has little difficulty establishing the moral natures of the two men, but beginning with Henry’s presumed slaying of James, the novel takes on an imposing moral obliquity. In a gradual, then more sudden fashion, Henry becomes a villain in his own right and possibly a madman, if the narrator can be believed. For the reader familiar with THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886), this turnabout, of course, is no novelty, for Stevenson repeats the notion of a man destroying what is (by implication) part of himself. The human...

(The entire section contains 470 words.)

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