popular acclaim Stevenson had won for Treasure Island (1883) and other works
was pointedly absent from reviews of his later novel, The Wrong Box (1889),
and in fact the book "...had been particularly savaged, calling forth the
worst critical reaction of his career..." (Letley, 1983 p. 12) It is probable
however, that this disappointment contributed indirectly to the success of the
The Master of Ballantrae by encouraging Stevenson to return to the 'tried and
trusted' formula which marked the success of earlier accomplishments such as
Treasure Island. The Master of Ballantrae is a composite and worldly narrative
involving buried treasure, piracy, romance, high adventure and domestic drama,
and its success is plainly achieved by drawing together the threads of many
of his previous tales to form a heterogeneous and complex novel. It is a story
of a greater maturity and diversity than the simpler narrative technique and
less complicated storyline of Treasure Island. But because of its hybridity,
The Master of Ballantrae becomes problematic in so much that it treads the boundaries
of incredulity and realism through MacKellar's dubious and biased claims of
authenticity. When added to this, the "...instabilities of genre and voice,
,,,,the novel [becomes] somewhat of a puzzle for critics. " (Clunas, 1993,
MacKellar is no adventurer nor a hero, in fact he is a cowardly, dry, staid, character who is at all times is in charge of the narrative even when it switches to Burke's or Mountain's rendition of events. The whole novel is refracted through the lens of Mackellar's "...dogged Puritan sincerity..." (Clunas, p. 58) and he edits, footnotes and omits passages where and when it suits him. Initially, he gives the impression that his narration is going to be an impartial and historically accurate documentation of events, but before the reader has turned only a few pages we see evidence of prejudice in the catalogue of charges he has levelled against James Durie ;
...he sat late at wine, later at the cards; had the name in the country as an "unco man for the lasses" ; and was ever in front of broils. But for all he was usually the first to go in, yet it was observed he was invariably the best to come off; and his partners in mischief were usually alone to pay the piper. (Stevenson. 1924, p. 2)
MacKellar tops this off, under the guise of hesitant reluctance when he lets creep into his corroboration, the secret and scandalous rumour regarding James' "black mark" which attests conclusively to his growing inclination to side against James. Nevertheless, he doesn't just rely on James' idiosyncratic flaws, he is cunning enough to elicit sympathy for Henry by first building his character up as an "...honest, solid sort of lad...[and]...an excellent good horse doctor besides;..." (p. 3), before chronicling a series of events which plainly show Henry to be a man hard done by. For example, Henry as a landlord has an unfounded reputation amongst his tenants as being a "...skinflint and a sneckdraw, ...[persecuting ] poor tenants." (p. 10). His reputation further degenerates when, by family agreement, both brothers fight for opposing kings with only Henry returning hale whilst his brother lies"...amang the Hieland heather." (p. 9) This makes Henry the target of local hatred and he is stoned and called "Judas" in the streets of his own village. Even in his own home Lady Alison accuses him of being a traitor to James "in his heart". When the Master returns from the 'dead', there is little doubt in the reader's mind just how the story is pitched. But in all fairness to MacKellar there appears to be some justification behind his sentiment towards James.
...MacKellar's malice to James is not without motivation; the Master is revengeful, merciless, and perhaps even diabolical in his treatment of his brother. In his early dealings with the Master, MacKellar feels excluded from his usual intimate place in the Durie family, and he is jealous of the newcomer. James does not treat him with much consideration either: he makes the older man carry his luggage, a most degrading chore in the eyes of the professional family employee. (Kilroy, 1967, p. 101)
As we can see, there are
the complex issues of domestic politics, prejudices and half-truths woven throughout
the early parts of the text and deliberately confounded by MacKellar's narrative.
The Master of Ballantrae therefore qualifies largely as a mature work incorporating
more adult themes than its predecessor Treasure Island. This is not to say that
Treasure Island is any less ingenious, but rather that it is decidedly a book
written for a younger readership--a belief supported by Stevenson's original
publication of it as a serial novel in Young Folks(1881).
If we compare the early narration of The Master of Ballantrae with the same in Treasure Island, it becomes clear that there are two different types of storytellers approaching partially similar themes with contrasting sentiments. MacKellar is on one hand, a well educated adult character who draws on long years of experience to create subtle thematic implications and intricacies of plot designed to influence the reader to his point of view, whilst on the other, Jim Hawkins is young and naive and tends to narrate the story with a direct honesty which MacKellar would have us believe he possess. In short, Jim's story is one of 'innocence to experience' ; starting as a boy's daydream and ending with acts of heroism in the face of greed, conspiracy and murder.
There are interesting contrasts and parallels between Jim's initial approval of Silver, and MacKellar's initial rejection of the Master. In both cases Silver and James are incorrigible vagabonds, entangled in duplicity, murder and pecuniary self interest. But they both have a degree of "...compelling and dangerous charm..." (Letley, 1985, p. 21 ) which sets them apart from other 'bad' characters such as Black Dog or the 'glass chewing' Captain Teach. Jim, because of his experiences at The Admirable Benbow, believes that an evil character should look evil, he is pleasantly surprised upon seeing Silver for the first time;
I had seen the captain, and Black Dog, and the blind man Pew, and I thought I knew what a buccaneer was like -- a very different creature, according to me, from this clean and pleasant -tempered landlord. (Stevenson, 1992, p. 79)
Jim's naiveté regarding
Silver is also shared by Dr. Livesey and, to a greater degree, Squire Trelawney,
who has a personality clash with Captain Smollett over the crew's veracity.
Conversely, the Captain has an intuitive belief that the crew are not to be
trusted and stores gunpowder and weapons in the ship's magazine against a future
mutiny. At this stage of the novel the captain appears to be the only 'good'
character on the Hispaniola who has any idea what he may be getting himself
into, and even then he underestimates the "thoroughly honest" Mr Arrow
who mysteriously' disappears overboard, after a prolonged drinking bout.
Jim's narrative clearly shows himself, Dr Livesey and Trelawney to be oblivious to Silver's conspiracy, yet, at the same time he allows the reader certain clues that something is afoot. For example, the ship is supposed to be 'dry' but Jim and co. "...could never work out where [Arrow] got the drink. " (p. 93). Furthermore, Arrow's disappearance hints at more than a drunken accident, it smacks of a murder, committed in order to 'silence' the fact that his drunken presence bears testimony to an illicit store of rum, which in itself exemplifies a hidden conspiracy. It is therefore natural that when Jim overhears the conspiracy from within the apple barrel, "...he can retrospectively and with some justification, say 'it was indeed through me that safety came.' " (Letley. p. 27)
It is at this point in Jim's narration that he reaches the nexus between innocence and experience. When he breaks the news of conspiracy to Livesey, Trelawney and Captain Smollett, their grateful acknowledgement of his deeds and their expectations of his further participation in events as a spy, herald's for Jim a change from a boyhood dreamer into a young man who is being forced to 'grow up'. Jim at best, however, can only stay 'grown up' in parts of his narrative simply because Jim as narrator relates his story as one mainly written for boys who like to daydream of buried treasure and adventures on the high seas. So, he constantly reverts to boyhood games as an analogy for the dangers he finds himself in. A case in point, is his 'win or die' fight with Israel Hands aboard the grounded Hispaniola. He says, "It was such a game as I had often played at home about the rocks of Black Hill Cove; but never before with such a beating heart as now. Still, as I say, it was a boy's game, and I thought I could hold my own at it." (Stevenson, p. 238). Jim during the battle at the stockade is surrounded with images of death and bloodshed, and here he has to be the adult who performs bravely in battle which, to his credit, he does admirably, but as soon as the realisation of reality hits him, he seeks to escape back to boyish daydreams of heroism by taking "French leave" and sets off with "a brace of pistols" to seek out adventure of his own, away from adult supervision.
Both Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae have more than one narrator which serves admirably the purpose of throwing a different perspective on the stories whilst providing a respite from the possible excesses of a single narrative voice. MacKellar, for example, is fortunate enough to receive Chevalier Burke's "highly coloured" memoirs, in which Burke relates in romantic fashion, tales of piracy, drunkenness and murder whereby James is centrally involved as the main protagonist. MacKellar informs the reader that it is a "...very genuine account of some essential matters. ...but a very varnished version..." ( Stevenson, 1924, p. 28). Nevertheless he tries to validate this account with corrective footnoting, as if he is an impartial collator only concerned with the facts. For example, with
...MacKellar's admonitory prefaces and footnotes, another voice enters---a voice and a discourse which is discontinuous with MacKellar's "bald" and summary style and yet is framed by it. If the steward's narrative claims to be a domestic history, then the soldier's tale is a romantic adventure and a mock epic. ... His comic grandiosity emphasizes the element of fantasy in his text and his repeated allusions to non-realistic genre models reinforce the difficulty of receiving his story as empirical report. (Clunas, pp. 62-63)
So, Burke's narrative,
instead of supporting MacKellar's case, quite undermines it. But in spite of
this, it is still a highly incriminating charge against James, and keeping in
mind that MacKellar's story is a 'retrospect' and has in fact been set down
years after the death of the Durie brothers, we can see that there is an intent
of self-serving rationalisation behind MacKellar's choices in his documentation
When stepping outside of the text for a moment to have a look at the narrative roles of MacKellar and Chevalier Burke from Stevenson's perspective, it becomes clear that in order for Stevenson to credibly introduce his favourite literary genre of romantic adventure, and whilst keeping some measure of common-sense in his spatial and chronological diversification, he must represent the "...wish fulfilment dreams..." (Clunas p. 64) of boyish high adventure, as a story within a story. In this respect Stevenson does not suffer the reader to endure 'too much MacKellar' ; he can keep MacKellar as the narrator of a domestic history, firmly at home at Durisdeer and largely in moral control. Stevenson therefore employs Burke's memoirs as a narrative technique which allows the reader to temporarialy experience a worldly adventure befitting of James. In effect, the
...genre shift form MacKellar's framing discourse to Burke's inset romance/adventure story enables the Master to come into being (to enter MacKellar's discourse) as a genre figure. Insofar as he is a function of the genre, the Master challenges the civil, orderly, providential, "real" world which MacKellar attempts to provide...(Clunas, p. 63)
The switch in narrative voice from Jim Hawkins to Dr. Livesey becomes a transformation from the world of the boy-adventurer to one of adult sobriety. By this stage of the story, mutiny and mayhem are well and truly afoot and any pretences to civility by Silver and crew have long since been cast off and replaced by insurrection and murder--it is therefore a situation which calls for the adult voice of reason to counter-balance the growing insanity. Dr. Livesey then becomes
...the mainstay of the sympathetic adults the nearest thing to a voice of sanity, restraint and humanity among them, outshining the spelentic and indiscreet squire and the ramrod stiff Smollett. (Angus 1990. p. 88 )
In a manner of speaking
the Hispaniola before the mutiny represented the corner-stone of the British
establishment-- a microcosm of the English motherland afloat in a sea of treachery--a
'tight ship' captained by the 'stiff upper - lipped' Smollett. Now it is the
property of the pirates, and anarchy has left the only links with English sensibility
wallowing in a overloaded jolly boat. The stockade once again establishes Smollett,
Livesey and Trelawney in the Englishman's proper place; his castle. Stevenson
appears to satirise (through Livesey's narrative voice) the dogma of excessive
and unnecessary jingoism. For example, the stockade is invisible from the Hispaniola
that is, until Smollett raises the British flag and consequently they come under
persistent cannon fire from the ship. Livesey questions the captain's rationality
regarding the raised flag; " "Would it not be wiser to take it in?"
and the captain replies , "Strike my colours!" "No, sir, not
I;"" (p. 166) Livesey then concedes ; "I think we all agreed
with him. For it was not only a piece of stout, sea-manly, good feeling ; it
was good policy besides, and showed our enemies that we despised their cannonade.
" (p. 66) Livesey's narrative thus represents links with law and order
and like MacKellar he serves the purpose of moral and adult restraint in the
face of chaotic anarchy.
Although MacKellar is not cut out for adventure, he eventually crosses the Atlantic with James--a trip on which he attempts to murder James, but fails. This is his only claim to bravery, he is out of his element, not only on board the ship, but later in the hills of Albany where his old cowardice re-emerges, "I could never depict the blackness of my soul upon this journey. I have none of those minds that are in love with the unusual. ...Which I dare say only writes me down as a coward, ..." (Stevenson p. 204) MacKellar's self-confessed cowardice appears to undermine his own credibility as a witness, throwing into doubt his ability to accurately interpret events as they happen. The lead up to the 'night duel' and the duel itself play a major role in MacKellar's narrative. Just prior to the famous confrontation between the brothers, he threatens MacKellar by holding a sword to his chest and MacKellar begs for mercy by falling to his knees.(p 95) But a few minutes later he is a clear- headed witness to the duel and is able to recall fine details, including dialogue. It is therefore plain that,
...MacKellar's narrative is dubious and fissured with uncertainties. His own fear prevents him from taking an objective view. Did James act in a cowardly, underhanded way and thus justify Henry's action? Was James ever apparently dead? MacKellar is so circumspect and halting in his report that we are never quite sure. We are not meant to be; and, in this, lies much of the subtlety of Stevenson's narrative method (Letley. 1983, p. 23)
It is never quite clear why James is determined to blackmail his family or why he plays soul destroying games with Henry, or why indeed he has to die three times. There is supernatural allusion abound in his character which has often been referred to as an Incubus. Stevenson himself has said, "...the Master is all I know of the Devil. I have known hints of him in the world, ..." (Stevenson cited in Letley, 1983. p. 9). Like the Devil, the Master is not only capable of evil, he also has an unearthly charm that often promises to win the reader's heart, which if successful, would undermine the whole moral purpose of the story. With this in mind, MacKellar's relatively ordinary character suddenly gains a greater purpose than being a mere chronicler of events, he helps the reader to avoid "...sympathising with the very attractive villain by reminding us of his immorality ..." (Kilroy p. 105). The Master of Ballantrae is a complex novel of intrigue, where getting to the bottom of the truth is as much a part of the story as the different genres is encompasses. It is tempting to consider that Stevenson did not intend The Master of Ballantrae to become the mystery that it did, but instead, the hybrid of genres created the mystery for him. In any case, "Stevenson has constructed an astute fable on the nature of fiction itself." (Clunas, p. 74) Conversly,Treasure Island is a pure and established genre, and the foundation for the story has long since been laid down in other works such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858). As readers, we don't need to question Jim's integrity, we accept his story as a good yarn for 'boys' with no historical dates needed to verify authenticity or credibility. The schemata for the story already exists, therefore, the reader is more likely to embrace Jim's narrative with a greater ease of acceptance than that of MacKellar's.
Angus. D, 1990. "Youth on the Prow : The first publication of Treasure Island, " Studies in Scottish Literature. Vol. XXV . p.88.
Clunas. A, B, 1993.""A Double Word" : Writing and Justice in The Master of Ballantrae" Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol.XXVIII . pp. 54-74.
Kilroy. 1967. J, F, "Narrative Techniques in The Master of Ballantrae" Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. V issn. no. 2.
Letley. Emma, ed. 1983 . "Introduction" The Master of Ballantrae, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oxford University Press. Oxford New York.
Letley. Emma, ed. 1985 . "Introduction" Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island. The World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stevenson. R, L, 1924. The Master of Ballantrae, London William Heinemann Ltd: England.
Stevenson. R, L 1992. Treasure
Island, David Campbell Publishers Ltd. London.