Sir Walter Scott

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Sir Walter Scott World Literature Analysis

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Because late twentieth century literary fashions made Scott’s kind of writing unfashionable, his status has slipped; like most of the top Victorian writers— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—he has fallen from favor in the audiovisual age. That is unfair. Scott not only altered the course of nineteenth century literature but also profoundly influenced Western culture. He developed an image of the popular hero that became standard, and this image continues to affect both behavior and education, to shape the values of both individuals and nations.

This influence occurred not just because he was, by any standard, the best-selling novelist of his time and one of the most reprinted of the nineteenth century. Scott was the first English writer to realize a comfortable living from writing; he would have been rich, had he not invested badly. Furthermore, he reaped profits before the passage of any international copyright act protecting him from foreign reprinting and translations. Imitators materialized everywhere; within five years, every nation, and practically every region, boasted of its own Scott—the United States, for example, celebrated James Fenimore Cooper.

The cult of historical fiction that he pioneered transformed novel writing in far-reaching, yet often unperceived, ways. For example, after Scott, practically every major novelist in England adopted the historical point of view. Thus, Dickens has only two professedly historical novels, but all except one are set at least in the previous generation. The same is true of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and most of Joseph Conrad. The major exception is the Anglo-American Henry James, and even he began by using the historical frame. Elsewhere in America, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville all wrote explicitly historical works, as did those who at first sight apparently did not—such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and even William Faulkner. In France, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Victor Hugo are unthinkable without Scott. It seems unlikely that Scott could have affected the very different Russians Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, but both record their allegiance to him, and the emphasis on the psychology of human behavior and on history in both Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) and Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) derive from Scott.

Scott made the Western world conscious of historical precedence in a way that it had not been. In this respect, he helped consolidate the idea of national self-consciousness, which had been expanding since the Renaissance. He also introduced a modified image of the hero and of heroic behavior, which dominated the nineteenth century and still prevails. He helped create an ideal image of behavior, which became incorporated in educational systems. Because of his influential ideas, several generations were indoctrinated with this ideal, and it influenced major political and social policies, in his time and afterward.

This image runs parallel with the common neoaristocratic and colonialist attitudes of the time. It generated most nineteenth century social and political practices and doctrines, including the colonization of Africa, the migration westward in the United States—fueled by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny—and the Germanic movement to the east in Europe and Asia. It is not a radically different image from that of the traditional hero in Western male-dominant, aristocratic society. That is, the hero is primarily the idealistic, intrinsically noble good guy, protector of women, children, and the underprivileged. Typically, he finds himself and his class threatened by those who abuse the law for their own profit. Yet because his loyalty is to the honor of his cause, he does not...

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withdraw. At the collapse of all civilized order, he discloses unexpected reserves of courage, prowess, and chivalry, even of athleticism, and obtains victory by allying himself with the forces of right.

This describes the archetypal Scott hero from Waverley, a figure that came to represent the conventional hero. With some variations, this figure continues as the stock hero of popular fiction and entertainment, appearing every night on television. It has become a powerful cultural force, instilling principles of behavior that people often accept without thinking. It may, for example, predispose people to chose confrontation or violence when responding to apparent threats; it may reinforce a win-at-any-cost policy or an us-versus-them mentality, or, finally, it may cause one to sacrifice individual freedom for the sake of solidarity.

Perhaps Scott emphasizes one side of a complex picture. Yet he simply wanted to revive the principles of heroic chivalry endangered by modern incivility and crassness. Besides, although many of his heroes can be readily stereotyped, others cannot. The hero of The Heart of Midlothian, for instance, is female. In any case, Scott usually pays little attention to the putative hero and heroine, treating them as conventions, much like the obligatory “love interest” in mysteries. They serve merely as pretexts for what he is really interested in: in his “life” books, the scenes, pageants, manners, and characters of his ancestors, caught in moments of high national drama; in his “history” books, the distinctive quality of a moment in the evolution of Western culture. He is primarily intent on contrasting past with present to enliven one and illumine the other.

His lovers also serve as foils to highlight the characters whom he wants to spotlight, and in this respect Scott transcends his limitations and becomes a great comic writer. From the beginning to the end of his work, the supporting players, whether stock or rounded, get most of his attention, and he endows them with superabundant, zestful, loving detail. The lovers, already pallid when met, vanish almost at once; no one remembers Edward Waverley. The bit players, however, especially those of low degree, spring, sprawl, and spill forth from the pages. Scott gives them not only life and color; he also gives them speech. In the Scots novels, he elevates dialect to a new stage of character revelation. Previously, dialect was simply another device for poking fun. Scott makes it a supple, musical element, using it almost as a musician uses harmony. He gives his characters voices that echo in readers’ ears long after they finish the novels.

The Heart of Midlothian

First published: 1818

Type of work: Novel

When her innocent sister faces execution for the murder of her infant, Jeanie Deans travels in 1736 from Edinburgh to London to request the king’s pardon.

Generally considered one of the finest of Scott’s novels—though opinions vary widely—The Heart of Midlothian deals with the social and political difficulties in Scotland of the years after 1736. The 1707 Act of Union, decreeing a common parliamentary government for England and Scotland, was unpopular in the north. Furthermore, the exiled Stuart line, driven from the throne in 1688, continued to agitate for reinstatement. Rebellion broke out on several occasions, notably in 1715 and 1745, when formidable armies mustered, one even invading England.

Scott begins with another insurrection, the Porteous Riots of 1736, when a mob stormed the Edinburgh Tolbooth, the ancient city jail and guardhouse, to seize Captain John Porteous, commander of the Guard, sentenced to death for firing on a gathering. Although sentenced, Porteous had been reprieved, according to rumor, by Queen Caroline herself. The mob, led by an escapee, Geordie Robertson, carries along a young clergyman, Reuben Butler. While they ransack the Tolbooth, Butler observes Robertson trying to persuade Effie Deans, arrested for child murder, to escape. She refuses, as does a thief, Jem Ratcliffe. The mob tracks Porteous down and hangs him. In love with Jeanie, Effie’s sister, Butler tells her what he saw—perhaps Robertson knows about the missing infant. Old Deans, torn between love for his wayward daughter and abhorrence of her crime, refuses to see her. Jeanie vows to save her. She is summoned to a midnight tryst on a haunted moor; there, the hidden Robertson, the father of the illegitimate infant, declares Effie’s innocence, implicates a mentally disturbed woman, Madge Wildfire, and her vengeful mother, and tells Jeanie that only her lying—pretending to have known of Effie’s prospective motherhood—can save Effie.

At the trial, Jeanie refuses to lie, though both Effie and her father urge her to do so. After the sentencing, however, she resolves to walk to London, if she must, to gain a pardon. During the trip, she is kidnapped by Madge and her mother but escapes; as she does, the madwoman is killed by a mob, closing that line of inquiry. Jeanie meets Robertson again, learns he is of good family, and is put in touch with the duke of Argyle, who gains an interview with the queen and the king’s mistress. Jeanie pleads her case with such simple virtue that they grant the pardon.

She hurries back to her family. The pardon is sent ahead; and even before her return she learns that Effie has eloped with Robertson. Jeanie marries Butler. Years later, she discovers that Effie has become the toast of English society. Effie engineers a final meeting, but her husband is killed in a skirmish with outlaws, one of whom is his illegitimate son.

The novel is full of incident and engaging characters and shows sophisticated handling of the romance and the romantic hero.


First published: 1819

Type of work: Novel

A Saxon knight returns from the Third Crusade to recover his estate and his betrothed from a Norman supporter of the illegal ruler, Prince John.

Ivanhoe is easily the best-known Scott novel, probably because it became a celebrated Hollywood epic in 1952. This celebrity reflects Scott’s success in creating a heroic image that remains current. Yet the novel is rich in illuminating detail and is beautifully constructed; and, although research has found it inaccurate, it established the genre of fantasy romance.

The novel portrays the return of the Saxon Wilfred Ivanhoe from the Holy Land to his alienated ancestral estate. It is the early thirteenth century, with King Richard I (or Richard the LionHearted) held captive in Austria. In his absence, his brother John has taken the throne; he uses bribery and extortion to secure his position and intends to suppress the Saxon minority by force.

The first major event is a tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, attended by all the principal nobility. John plans to showcase his power, a propaganda move. Yet events go against him. On the first day, his champions fall in man-to-man combat to a masked warrior, the Disinherited Knight, who awards his winnings to the Saxon lady Rowena. On the second day, in group combat, the Disinherited Knight wins again, though aided by another unknown, The Black Sluggard. Furthermore, a Saxon yeoman archer beats the Prince’s Norman marksmen. At the end of the tournament, Ivanhoe collapses from concealed wounds and is taken for treatment to a rich Jewish merchant, Isaac of York, and his beautiful daughter Rebecca. The other knight, incognito, takes refuge in the cell of a hermit.

Returning home several days later, Cedric the Saxon agrees to protect Isaac’s caravan when he finds it abandoned. Outlaws, however, employed by Front-de-Buf, a Norman baron, capture the train and hold it for ransom. Cedric’s servants appeal to the archer Locksley, who rallies his band of real outlaws, augmented by the monk and Black Knight, to storm the castle.Meanwhile, both Rowena and Rebecca are accosted while imprisoned; Rebecca keeps the bedridden Ivanhoe hidden. From the window, she reports the first assault to Ivanhoe; the attackers gain a foothold on the walls. Ulrica, a Saxon victim of Norman pillagers, sets fire to the bedchamber of the wounded Front-de-Buf; he dies roaring, and the flames threaten the defenders. The assault is renewed, this time overwhelmingly. Ivanhoe and Rowena are rescued, but Bois-Guilbert carries off Rebecca. The brigand and the Knight resettle the ravaged land.

Meanwhile, deLacy, a Norman knight, reports to John that Richard has returned. John plots to waylay him, but deLacy resists. Isaac reports the kidnapping of his daughter to the master of the Templars, to which Bois-Guilbert belongs. She is summoned to a tribunal and tried as a sorceress; in defense, she calls for a champion. Richard is ambushed, but he and the outlaws beat back the attack. After revealing his identity, Richard is regaled by the men. He restores Ivanhoe to his inheritance. The band arrives at the Templars’ tribunal as the trial of Rebecca is recommencing. The weakened Ivanhoe stands as champion and, though wounded, still overcomes Bois-Guilbert and releases Rebecca. He returns with Rowena to his fief.

Although inaccurate in historical reconstruction, Ivanhoe is the prototype of the romantic fantasy novel; still imitated, it has never been surpassed.


Sir Walter Scott Long Fiction Analysis


Scott, Sir Walter (Poetry Criticism)