Study Guide

David Balfour of Shaws in Kidnapped

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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David Balfour of Shaws

Davie is the be all and end all of Kidnapped – its alpha and omega – its beginning and ending. He's both the main character and the narrator. Not only do we get to watch Davie running around the Scottish countryside doing what he's got to do to avoid trial for a murder he didn't commit, but we also get his commentary on both his feelings at the time and his reflections looking back. There's no part of this story that isn't focused on Davie Balfour, no character presented to us without his opinions coloring our judgment. So who is this kid?

Davie starts out the novel as a seventeen-year-old who has just lost his father and is setting out into the world for the first time. He ends the story as the heir to an estate in the Lowlands of Scotland. The novel is all about how he gets from point A (penniless orphan) to point B (laird of the noble house of Shaws).

We have a lot of sympathy for Davie, given that he is a penniless orphan. When he blunders into the home of his cruel, selfish uncle Ebenezer, and when he's the victim of Captain Hoseason's plot to kidnap him for eventual sale to a plantation, we want him to escape, to win, to triumph over his enemies. Much of the suspense of the novel is given over to working out how Davie is going to escape from each chapter's unpleasant new Davie-torture.

At the same time, as the potential laird of an estate in Scotland, we (or some of us here at Shmoop, at least) want to be Davie. Who doesn't want to wake up one day to find out that they have a legitimate claim to a noble title?

Davie is both the luckiest and unluckiest of characters. We as readers both want to be him (yay, nobility!) and feel sorry for him (boo, almost slavery and shipwreck!). He gets his fortune in the end, but he still feels lingering guilt about his unresolved relationship with Alan Breck and the Stewart clan.

The thing that makes Kidnapped such an enduring adventure novel is the uncertainty that Davie seems to feel about his adventures. This isn't the standard poor-boy-makes-good kind of novel. There's loads of suspense leading up to some kind of positive conclusion for Davie. But his narration leaves us with many questions about whether he is really better off at the end of the novel than at the beginning, and what might be in store for Davie as a character.

Davie's Moral Compass Does Not Always Point North

Speaking of ambiguity: Davie's not always a shining example of virtue. We mean, no one is, right? But Robert Louis Stevenson is particularly interested in conflicted characters whose personalities combine good and bad elements. This preoccupation is probably most obvious in his famous Gothic horror story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), in which a scientist (Dr. Jekyll) manages to make a potion that gives his evil side (Mr. Hyde) physical control of his body. And, for a hero of a coming-of-age story meant for "young folks," Davie is also unusually morally, well, complicated would be a nice way of putting it.

For instance, Davie can be downright hateful and vindictive. After Alan tries to apologize for gambling away his money, Davie won't forgive him. Instead, he insults Alan's family and Alan's own strength, until even he is disgusted with himself:

I found myself only sick, and sorry [. . .] and wondering at myself [. . .] I minded me of all of Alan's kindness and courage in the past [. . .] and then recalled my own insults, and saw that I had lost forever that doughty friend. (24.54)

Davie knows he's in the wrong, but it's like he can't stop himself from behaving badly during this argument. Still, we think that it's safe to say that we can all remember a time when, like Davie, we've gotten caught up in an argument and gone too far. So Davie's imperfections actually make him seem more real to us.

Davie's not some kind of ideal boy whom we're supposed to model ourselves on. He's a three-dimensional character we can identify with. Stevenson is a master of creating imperfect characters and making us like them anyway. Alan Breck Stewart sums this up when he says, "For just precisely what I thought I liked about ye [Davie] was that ye never quarreled, and now [having argued] I like ye better!" (24.69). Davie's many sins – pride, vindictiveness, ingratitude, selfishness – are ingredients in character development that make him an interesting figure.

Still, although Davie's is flawed, he's not too flawed. He never tips over into really bad territory. As our narrator, Davie admits to just enough wicked thoughts and foolish actions that we trust he's telling the truth. He never totally alienates us. He does wind up making up with Alan, after all, and he puts his life and fortune on the line to save James Stewart at the end. Davie may not be a classic flawless hero, but he's still good enough that we can admire him. Davie's morals are a lot like the novel itself: much of what happens in Kidnapped isn't strictly good or bad. It's more complicated than that, which makes the book the more interesting.

Lowland Davie

One of the major themes of Kidnapped is the contrast between the Scottish Lowlands and the Highlands (see our "Themes" section for more specifics). For most of Davie's travels, he's a stranger in a strange land. He's a resident of the Lowlands (the southeast part of Scotland) traveling among the clans of the Highlands.

These two regions of Scotland differ not just in terms of geography, but also in culture, language, and religion. As someone unfamiliar with Highland life, Davie has a plot-level reason to describe all of the local customs and practices he observes with curiosity and interest. We are introduced to the relatively exotic setting of the Highlands along with Davie. Stevenson is writing for an English audience, so it is assumed that we, the readers, are (probably) as ignorant of the Highlands as Davie himself at the outset of the novel.

At the same time, Davie is a Scotsman and a member of the Lowland gentry, so he is able to travel freely in the Highlands in a way that an Englishman couldn't in 1751. He's the perfect bridge between an imagined English audience and the inaccessible Highlands of the eighteenth century. Remember that, even though Davie has grown up in Great Britain, he'd never even heard an English accent until that English soldier's in Chapter 20.

The United Kingdom (England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) functions largely as one unit these days, even though Scotland has its own Parliament and Northern Ireland continues to have an active separatist movement. It's tough to imagine the kind of wildly anti-English sentiment present in Scotland in the eighteenth century.

In fact, as we mention in our "Detailed Summary" of Chapter 9, most of the historical background for this novel rests in the Highland uprisings of 1745 and 1746. The novel starts in 1751, only five years after parts of Scotland were actively at war with England. Davie has to be a Scotsman to be believable as an explorer in the remote setting of the Scottish Highlands.

At the same time, Davie's Lowland background puts him at odds with nearly everyone he meets. He's loyal to the British throne, he's a Protestant, and he doesn't speak Gaelic. These traits make him more recognizable and sympathetic to an imagined late Victorian English audience. They also mean that he can be reincorporated into Anglo society by the end of the novel, once he returns to the Lowlands and recovers his inheritance. The future of rebel Highland outlaws like Alan Breck Stewart can never be as secure as Davie's – which poses Stevenson a serious problem as a novelist, as we mention in our analysis of "What's Up With the Ending?"

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