Study Guide

Kidnapped Exploration

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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"Why, sir," said I, "if I knew where I was going, or what was likely to become of me, I would tell you candidly. Essendean is a good place indeed, and I have been very happy there; but then I have never been anywhere else. My father and mother, since they are both dead, I shall be no nearer to in Essendean than in the Kingdom of Hungary, and, to speak truth, if I thought I had a chance to better myself where I was going I would go with a good will." (1.5)

Davie starts out the novel as a totally naïve kid. He has "never been anywhere" besides his hometown of Essendean, and he has no idea "what [is] likely to become of [him]." This is pretty much how all coming-of-age stories start: with an empty foundation on which Davie's adult self will be built.

There was now no doubt about my uncle's enmity; there was no doubt I carried my life in my hand, and he would leave no stone unturned that he might compass my destruction. But I was young and spirited, and like most lads that have been country-bred, I had a great opinion of my shrewdness. I had come to his door no better than a beggar and little more than a child; he had met me with treachery and violence; it would be a fine consummation to take the upper hand, and drive him like a herd of sheep. (5.2)

Ah, the arrogance of the naïve. Davie thinks he has gotten the upper hand over his uncle and is going straight to the top, to "drive him like a herd of sheep." But it's way too early in the novel for that: Davie has to learn a few things about the world first.

Away I went, therefore, leaving the two men sitting down to a bottle and a great mass of papers; and crossing the road in front of the inn, walked down upon the beach. With the wind in that quarter, only little wavelets, not much bigger than I had seen upon a lake, beat upon the shore. But the weeds were new to me–some green, some brown and long, and some with little bladders that crackled between my fingers. Even so far up the firth, the smell of the sea-water was exceedingly salt and stirring; the Covenant, besides, was beginning to shake out her sails, which hung upon the yards in clusters; and the spirit of all that I beheld put me in thoughts of far voyages and foreign places. (6.7)

Davie gets his first hankering for adventure when he sees the Queensferry harbor, where everything makes him think of "far voyages and foreign places." At this point he's still got a fairly romantic notion of adventure – as, perhaps, do we. But the novel is there to set us straight: the life of adventure is often no picnic!

And here I must explain; and the reader would do well to look at a map. On the day when the fog fell and we ran down Alan's boat, we had been running through the Little Minch. At dawn after the battle, we lay becalmed to the east of the Isle of Canna or between that and Isle Eriska in the chain of the Long Island. Now to get from there to the Linnhe Loch, the straight course was through the narrows of the Sound of Mull. But the captain had no chart; he was afraid to trust his brig so deep among the islands; and the wind serving well, he preferred to go by west of Tiree and come up under the southern coast of the great Isle of Mull. (12.2)

By telling the reader that she "would do well to look at a map," the narrator is encouraging us to explore this area surrounding the Isle of Mull along with Davie. In other words, this exploration isn't just for Davie; it's for us as well.

Then I understood this was an emigrant ship bound for the American colonies.

We put the ferry-boat alongside, and the exiles leaned over the bulwarks, weeping and reaching out their hands to my fellow-passengers, among whom they counted some near friends. How long this might have gone on I do not know, for they seemed to have no sense of time: but at last the captain of the ship, who seemed near beside himself (and no great wonder) in the midst of this crying and confusion, came to the side and begged us to depart. (16.4-5)

The downside of exploration: it opens up a desire for expansion into foreign lands. And with colonization comes slavery. For more on indentured servitude in the American colonies, check out our detailed summary of chapter seven: "I Go to Sea in the Brig 'Covenant' of Dysart."

"But mind you," said Alan, "it's no small thing. Ye maun lie bare and hard, and brook many an empty belly. Your bed shall be the moorcock's, and your life shall be like the hunted deer's, and ye shall sleep with your hand upon your weapons. Ay, man, ye shall taigle many a weary foot, or we get clear! I tell ye this at the start, for it's a life that I ken well. But if ye ask what other chance ye have, I answer: Nane. Either take to the heather with me, or else hang." (18.44)

Alan's not offering Davie much of a choice: either follow him or else get executed. This is a pattern in Davie's explorations. After his first arrogant dreams of traveling to Queensferry to ruin his uncle, when Davie gets kidnapped, each of his subsequent travels seems like acts of fate. Alan is the real engine guiding the exploration and interest of the reader in this novel, because he's the one who actually knows where he's going most of the time.

It was in this way that I first heard the right English speech; one fellow as he went by actually clapping his hand upon the sunny face of the rock on which we lay, and plucking it off again with an oath. "I tell you it's 'ot," says he; and I was amazed at the clipping tones and the odd sing-song in which he spoke, and no less at that strange trick of dropping out the letter "h." To be sure, I had heard Ransome; but he had taken his ways from all sorts of people, and spoke so imperfectly at the best, that I set down the most of it to childishness. My surprise was all the greater to hear that manner of speaking in the mouth of a grown man; and indeed I have never grown used to it; nor yet altogether with the English grammar, as perhaps a very critical eye might here and there spy out even in these memoirs. (20.34)

It's totally bizarre to be confronted with this reminder that Davie has lived his whole life in the Lowlands speaking Scots, so he's not that familiar with English accents. All this time we've been checking out the remote, exotic spaces of Scotland, but now suddenly that touristy unfamiliarity is being turned back on something familiar, the English accent.

So the beggar in the ballad had come home; and when I lay down that night on the kitchen chests, I was a man of means and had a name in the country. Alan and Torrance and Rankeillor slept and snored on their hard beds; but for me who had lain out under heaven and upon dirt and stones, so many days and nights, and often with an empty belly, and in fear of death, this good change in my case unmanned me more than any of the former evil ones; and I lay till dawn, looking at the fire on the roof and planning the future. (29.66)

Davie starts his journey totally sure that he'll be able to win a place at the house of Shaws. He winds up being right, but only after he's gone through numerous ordeals to prove himself.

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