Robert Louis Stevenson has long been relegated to either the nursery or the juvenile section in most libraries, and his mixture of romance, horror, and allegory seems jejune. In a century where narrative and well-ordered structure have become the facile tools of Harlequin paperbacks and irrelevant to high-quality “literature,” Stevenson’s achievement goes quietly unnoticed. To confine this technique of “Tusitala” solely to nursery and supermarket, however, is to confuse Stevenson’s talents with his present audience.
Stevenson’s crucial problem is the basic one of joining form to idea, made more difficult because he was not only an excellent romancer but also a persuasive essayist. In Stevenson, however, these two talents seem to be of different roots, and their combination was for him a lifelong work. The aim of his narratives becomes not only to tell a good story, constructing something of interest, but also to ensure that all the materials of that story (such as structure, atmosphere, and character motivation) contribute to a clear thematic concern. Often Stevenson’s fictional talents alone cannot accomplish this for him, and this accounts—depending in each instance on whether he drops his theme or attempts to push it through—for both the “pulp” feel of some stories and the “directed” feel of others.
“A Lodging for the Night”
Appearing in the Cornhill Magazine for May, 1874, an essay on Victor Hugo was Stevenson’s very first publication. The short stories he began writing soon after demonstrate a strong tendency to lapse into the more familiar expository techniques either as a solution to fictional problems or merely to bolster a sagging theme. A blatant example of this stylistic ambiguity is the early story “A Lodging for the Night.”
The atmosphere of the first part of the story is deftly handled. It is winter, and its buffets upon the poor are reemphasized in every descriptive detail. Paris is “sheeted up” like a body ready for burial. The only light is from a tiny shack “backed up against the cemetery wall.” Inside, “dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks,” the medieval poet François Villon composes “The Ballade of Roast Fish” while Guy Tabard, one of his cronies, sputters admiringly over his shoulder. Straddling before the fire is a portly, purple-veined Picardy monk, Dom Nicolas. Also in the small room are two more villains, Montigny and Thevenin Pensete, playing “a game of chance.” Villon cracks a few pleasantries, quite literally gallows humor, and begins to read aloud his new poem. Suddenly, between the two gamesters:The round was complete, and Thevenin was just opening his mouth to claim another victory, when Montigny leaped up, swift as an adder, and stabbed him to the heart. The blow took effect before he had time to utter a cry, before he had time to move. A tremor or two convulsed his frame; his hands opened and shut, his heels rattled on the floor; then his head rolled backward over one shoulder with the eyes wide open; and Thevenin Pensete’s spirit had returned to Him who made it.
Tabard begins praying in Latin, Villon breaks into hysterics, Montigny recovers “his composure first” and picks the dead man’s pockets. Naturally, they must all leave the scene of the murder to escape implication, and Villon departs first.
Outside, in the bitter cold, two things preoccupy the poet as he walks: the gallows and “the look of the dead man with his bald head and garland of red curls,” as neat a symbol as could be for the fiery pit of hell where Villon eventually expects to find himself. Theme has been handled well, Stevenson’s fiction giving us the feeling of a single man thrown by existence into infernal and unfavorable circumstances, being pursued by elements beyond his control, the gallows and...
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- Critical Essays