Sir Walter Scott Scott, Sir Walter (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832

Scottish novelist, poet, short story writer, biographer, historian, critic, and editor. See also Ivanhoe Criticism, Sir Walter Scott Poetry Criticism, and Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since Criticism.

Scott exerted a profound influence on nineteenth-century European literature. During his lifetime he was immensely popular—first as a poet, then later as a novelist. To modern scholars Scott is both the originator of the historical novel genre and the first best-selling novelist. As the anonymous and enormously prolific "Author of Waverley," Scott not only elevated the novel to a status enjoyed previously by poetry but also influenced the way history was written and understood by subsequent generations of historians. In addition, Scott experimented with short fiction, albeit minimally, which has led some scholars to name Scott the father of the modern short story in English literature. Walter Allen, in a study of the short story form published in the March 28, 1974, issue of The Listener, declared Scott's "The Two Drovers" "the story that I recognise as the first modern short story in English." As Richard D. McGhee has observed, "Scott will be known best for his novels and poems, but he will not be forgotten for his short fiction."

Biographical Information

Born in Edinburgh into a middle-class family, Scott was stricken at age two with polio, which rendered him lame for the rest of his life. In spite of his illness, however, he pursued outdoor activities and developed an appreciation for picturesque scenery, a prominent feature of his literary work. Scott also relished Scottish history and literature as a boy, and he nurtured both his enthusiasm and knowledge by befriending several Scottish antiquaries in his neighborhood. In 1783 Scott enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied history and law, and apprenticed at his father's law firm from 1786 until 1792, when he passed the bar. During his apprenticeship, Scott began to travel extensively in the Scottish Border country and Highlands, delighting in the natural settings and its rural inhabitants. Around 1800 he started to collect Scottish ballads, including many that survived only in the oral tradition, which he later published as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03). The positive critical reception of this collection prompted Scott to write The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which garnered him substantial success. Giving up his law practice, he published several extremely popular and financially lucrative poems with Scottish backgrounds and themes, including his perhaps best-known poem, The Lady of the Lake (1810). His career as a poet proved short-lived, however, as he soon devoted himself to writing novels, which he published anonymously since writing novels commanded less respect than writing poetry. Scott's first novel, Waverley (1814), quickly became the most successful novel ever at the time, bringing huge profits to both Scott and his publishers. Buoyed by his popular success, Scott wrote feverishly, producing over the next seventeen years the more than two dozen novels that comprise what has since become known as the Waverley Novels, most notably The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818) and Ivanhoe (1820). Biographers have speculated that Scott's prolific literary production was motivated in part by a desire for a large income to settle excessive debts largely incurred by his improvements to and maintenance of Abbotsford, a modest farm he had purchased with the profits from his poetry. In 1826, when a publishing house in which he was a silent partner failed, Scott resisted declaring bankruptcy by attempting to produce salable writings in a variety of genres, including the short story collection Chronicles of the Canongate (1827). Beginning in 1830 he suffered a series of strokes as he worked to pay his creditors. After an unsuccessful recuperative trip to the Mediterranean in 1831, Scott suffered further strokes that left him paralyzed until he died at Abbotsford in 1832.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Like his novels and narrative poetry, Scott's short fiction features elements of Scottish folklore, legend, and history, revealing aspects of the Scottish national character and often incorporating supernatural circumstances. The bulk of Scott's work in the short story genre, however, must be extracted from the multiple plots and framing devices that constitute his novels. For instance, "Wandering Willie's Tale," widely regarded as Scott's best story, occurs as an episode in the novel Redgauntlet (1824). Set near the end of the seventeenth-century and written almost entirely in Scottish vernacular, "Wandering Willie's Tale" involves Willie's forebear, Steenie Steenson, and Sir Robert Redgauntlet, Steenie's landlord. One night Steenie visits Sir Robert to pay him his overdue rent, but before a receipt is made, Sir Robert suffers a violent seizure and dies, apparently bound for hell. When the rent money is later found to be missing and other mysterious events ensue, Steenie is summoned to hell, where he finally receives his receipt but with the condition that he must return one year later. The three stories that comprise Chronicles of the Canongate—"The Highland Widow," "The Two Drovers," and "The Surgeon's Daughter"—are introduced by the fictional editor of the series, Mr. Chrystal Croftangry, whose own tale has been sometimes referred to as "Mr. Croftangry's Memoirs." These stories represent Scott's sole contribution to the genre in modern terms. In "The Highland Widow" a widow—disappointed that her gentle son joined the army to support her instead of following in the footsteps of her vicious husband who was a marauder of the Lowlands—prevents him from returning to service after his leave is up and pressures him to kill the soldier sent to retrieve him. When the son consequently is executed for murder, the widow wanders the Highlands, terrorizing the inhabitants until she disappears. Dramatizing the differences between the Highland and Lowland cultures, "The Two Drovers" concerns a fight between two long-standing friends, cattle drovers from England and Scotland, respectively, that culminates in the murder of the Englishman and the execution of the Scotsman. "The Surgeon's Daughter" traces the development of a bizarre love triangle between a kindly doctor's only daughter, her foster brother, who entered the family under questionable circumstances, and a good-hearted apprentice to the doctor. Their intertwined fates are resolved eventually in India, during the halcyon days of the East India Company, but only the girl returns home.

Critical Reception

The novelty of Scott's writing style, as well as his compelling subject matter, captivated his early audience. Most early reviewers of his poetry and novels noted the superiority of his works, citing its originality, vivid portrayal of history, and lively characters. Scott's Chronicles, too, met with similar critical enthusiasm, although his readers were somewhat puzzled and dismayed with what they perceived as the collection's dark, pessimistic views. Consequently, his short stories fell into obscurity. Throughout the nineteenth century Scott's reputation among readers and critics alike had progressively declined to the point that by the turn of the century many conceded that Scott no longer was a major literary figure, with many contemporary critics observing such flaws as careless plotting, prolixity, and bad grammar in his short fiction. During the 1930s, however, Lord David Cecil edited a new collection of Scott's short stories, declaring them "the most satisfactory things he ever wrote." Moreover, John Lauber has reported that F. R. Leavis, an influential critic of the 1930s and 1940s, thought that "The Two Drovers" and "Wandering Willie's Tale" were "the only parts of Scott's work that retain any vitality." While modern scholars have acknowledged Scott's seminal influence on the development of the European novel genre, particularly with respect to historical perspective and realizing the effects of social change on the lives of ordinary people, Scott's distinction as a short story writer also has come to be appreciated for similar reasons. McGhee has echoed the opinions of many: "His short fiction is not great in quantity, but it is often powerful . . . [and] there is no loss of craftsmanship."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

*Chronicles of the Canongate, first series 1827

Short Stories by Sir Walter Scott 1934

The Supernatural Short Stories of Sir Walter Scott 1977

Other Major Works

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 3 vols. [editor and contributor] (poetry) 1802-03

The Lay of the Last Minstrel (poetry) 1805

Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (poetry) 1808

The Lady of the Lake (poetry) 1810

The Vision of Don Roderick (poetry) 1811

The Bridal of Triermain; or, The Vale of St. John (poetry) 1813

Rokeby (poetry) 1813

Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since (novel) 1814

The Field of Waterloo (poetry) 1815

Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer (novel) 1815

The Lord of the Isles (poetry) 1815

The Antiquary (novel) 1816

The Black Dwarf [as Jedediah Cleishbotham] (novel) 1816; published in Tales of My Landlord, first series

Old Mortality [as Jedediah Cleishbotham] (novel) 1816; published in Tales of My Landlord, first series

Teles of My Landlord, first series [as Jedediah Cleishbotham]...

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J. Wilson (essay date 1827)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chronicles of the Canongate, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. XXII, November, 1827, pp. 556-70.

[In the following excerpt from a review that reprinted "The Highland Widow" almost in its entirety, Wilson admires the introduction to Chronicles of the Canongate and comments on the linguistic style of the tales.]

It is not till you have read about a hundred and fifty pages of the first volume of the Chronicles of the Canongate, (why were there not four instead of two?) that you come to know the meaning of the title, the very sound of which is so taking and attractive to all ancient Caledonians. You then find that the...

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Coleman Oscar Parsons (essay date 1933)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Demonological Background of 'Donnerhugel's Narrative' and 'Wandering Willie's Tale'," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XXX, No. 3, July, 1933, pp. 604-17.

[In the following essay, Parsons discusses the folkloric and legendary sources that inform "Donnerhugel's Narrative" and "Wandering Willie's Tale."]

Superstitious material often supplied the grist for the literary mill in the early part of the nineteenth century. I propose to illustrate this process of turning folklore and marvelous legends into literature by an analysis of Sir Walter Scott's "Donnerhugel's Narrative" and "Wandering Willie's Tale," short stories included in Anne of Geierstein and...

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Kenneth A. Robb (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scott's The Two Drovers: The Judge's Charge," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. VII, No. 4, April, 1970, pp. 255-64.

[In the essay below, Robb explains the function and effect of the Judge's charge to the jury in 'The Two Drovers."]

Sir Walter Scott's "The Two Drovers" consistently receives high praise. Walter Allen speaks of it and "The Highland Widow" as the two works in which Scott achieved tragedy and as "two great short stories,"1 and J. T. Christie, writing on Chronicles of the Canongate, to which they belong, declares that "The Two Drovers" is far superior to "The Highland Widow" and "might well claim a place among...

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Coleman O. Parsons (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to The Two Drovers, A Short Story by Sir Walter Scott, The Kindle Press, 1971, pp. i-x.

[Below, Parsons supplies both literary and factual sources for narrative elements of "The Two Drovers " and traces the critical reception of the story.]

The way of life of Scott's two drovers would not have seemed strange to his readers. In the fall of the year, drovers from the north and west of Scotland still converged on trysting places. One of these was Doune in Perthshire, which served Skye and the western isles as well as the northwest Highlands. Drovers usually went on foot, covering ten or twelve miles a day, grazing their cattle at midday, and arranging...

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Teut Andreas Riese (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sir Walter Scott as a Master of the Short Tale," in Festschrift Prof Dr. Herbert Koziol zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag, edited by Gero Bauer, Franz Stanzel, and Franz Zaic, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1973, pp. 255-65.

[In the following essay, Riese compares the narrative structure of Scott's short stories to that of his novels, focusing on "Wandering Willie's Tale," "The Highland Widow," and "The Two Drovers."]

Sir Walter Scott's short narratives, though never entirely neglected, have always been overshadowed by his achievement as a novelist whose strength lies rather in breadth of scope and a leisurely unfolding of the plot than in the virtues essential to the art of...

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Seamus Cooney (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scott and Progress: The Tragedy of 'The Highland Widow'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 11-16.

[In the essay below, Cooney examines the blend of historical analysis and emotional engagement in "The Highland Widow" that combine to raise the story to the level of tragic art.]

Lukacs's pages on Scott in The Historical Novel are unsurpassed for their sweep and insight. They were among the first criticism to take Scott's work seriously and to stimulate others to a like approach. But Lukacs was not primarily interested in detailed exegesis, and any reader of his chapter will have noticed the numerous inaccuracies and...

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Neal Frank Doubleday (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wandering Willie's Tale," in Variety of Attempt-British and American Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century, University of Nebraska Press, 1976, pp. 49-60.

[Below, Doubleday analyzes the narrative point of view and the function of the narrator in "Wandering Willie's Tale, " linking the historical sense conveyed by the story to Scott's use of "preternatural" material.]

Washington Irving's Abbotsford, his account of a visit to Sir Walter Scott, is our best record of the typical substance of Scott's oral storytelling. Although Irving does not attempt to reproduce Scott's manner of telling the anecdotes he records, he assures us that Scott "gave the...

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Seamus Cooney (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scott and Cultural Relativism: The Two Drovers'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Cooney reveals a contradiction between the overt and covert meanings of "The Two Drovers " to suggest that a nascent though subconscious ideology of cultural relativism informs the tale.]

Dr. Leavis's critical tip in a footnote to the first chapter of The Great Tradition must have sent many readers to that tale of Scott's which, he said, "remains in esteem while the heroics of the historical novels can no longer command respect."1 Yet "The Two Drovers" has not, in the years since 1948, come in for much...

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W. J. Overton (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scott, the Short Story, and History: 'The Two Drovers'," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXI, 1986, pp. 210-25.

[In the essay below, Overton explores the implications of the "historical short story" as a genre through a close reading of "The Two Drovers, " summarizing the principal points of criticism of the story and relating them to the historical development of the English short story form.]

Sir Walter Scott's distinction as a short story writer has long been appreciated, and it has been marked recently both by reprintings of the stories, including "Wandering Willie's Tale,"1 and by Walter Allen's placing of Scott as the founder of the...

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Christopher Johnson (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anti-Pugilism: Violence and Justice in Scott's The Two Drovers'," in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, May, 1995, pp. 46-60.

[Below, Johnson detects a preoccupation with pugilism in "The Two Drovers, " showing the relevance of eighteenth-century pugilism to the narrative and suggesting that the story may in part satirize topical debates and controversies surrounding the acceptibility of pugilism.]

The structure of Scott's story 'The Two Drovers' depends on repeated acts of violence: the violence of an Englishman towards a Highlander in the first instance, followed by two fatal acts of vengeance, or revenge, first on the part of the Highlander,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Allen, Walter. "The Modern Story: Origins, Background, Affinities." In his The Short Story in English, pp. 3-24. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Identifies "The Two Drovers" as "the first modem English short story," noting that the story "is the nearest Scott ever came to writing tragedy."

Gordon, George. "'The Chronicles of the Canongate.'" In Scott Centenary Articles, pp. 174-84. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Relates the circumstances surrounding the creation and publication of Chronicles of the Canongate.

Hayes, Michael....

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