Social Concerns / Themes

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Of all of Stevenson's works, The Master of Ballantrae is the only one which he repeatedly referred to as a tragedy. While many of the earlier titles emphasize success as a result of heroic endeavor, this book seems to suggest that any such endeavor is bound to fail. While many readers view it as Stevenson's finest completed work, others find the grimness of both the plot and the nature of several of the characters (most importantly James Durie, the Master) depressing. That the man who wrote in one of his essays, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy" could pen so gloomy and pessimistic a work causes some readers to reject the novel — although many critics explain that this work finally reveals Stevenson's real attitude toward life.

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The parallel between the brothers' conflict;— James representing the spirit of rebellion and witdness and Henry standing for peace and responsibility — and the external struggle between the forces of rebellion (the Jacobites) against the retention of the House of Hanover on the throne of Great Britain and those who opposed the return of the Stuarts to the throne is a key thematic element in the novel. As the Jacobites came to grief at Culloden (but with great losses on the English side), so James, the Master, seems to "lose" to his more sedate, responsible brother. Having gone off to fight for the Stuart cause and being reported dead, James reappears several times, only to cause Henry and his wife, Alison Graeme Durie, who had been betrothed to James, almost infinite grief. This brother-versus-brother opposition occupies most of the text — the conclusion, in which both brothers die, strongly suggests the futility of such attempts to achieve ascendancy, especially in the troubled context of Scottish political and military affairs.

Although the story has been criticized for the weak and contrived ending, the somewhat supernumerary character, Secundra Dass, the untidy plot, which has James traveling to a bewildering number of far-flung...

(The entire section contains 510 words.)

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