Study Guide

Kidnapped Morality and Ethics

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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Morality and Ethics

And presently [Hoseason] came marching back towards the house, with no mark of a sailor's clumsiness, but carrying his fine, tall figure with a manly bearing, and still with the same sober, grave expression on his face. I wondered if it was possible that Ransome's stories could be true, and half disbelieved them; they fitted so ill with the man's looks. But indeed, he was neither so good as I supposed him, nor quite so bad as Ransome did; for, in fact, he was two men, and left the better one behind as soon as he set foot on board his vessel. (6.25)

"In fact, he was two men": that sounds a lot like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to us. It's as though, for Captain Hoseason, the potion that brings out his bad side is the ship he loves so much, the Covenant. Once he's on the sea, he seems to feel that he's free of moral obligations, while on land he must be "sober" and "grave."

I heard a gun fire, and supposed the storm had proved too strong for us, and we were firing signals of distress. The thought of deliverance, even by death in the deep sea, was welcome to me. Yet it was no such matter; but (as I was afterwards told) a common habit of the captain's, which I here set down to show that even the worst man may have his kindlier side. We were then passing, it appeared, within some miles of Dysart, where the brig was built, and where old Mrs. Hoseason, the captain's mother, had come some years before to live; and whether outward or inward bound, the Covenant was never suffered to go by that place by day, without a gun fired and colours shown. (7.3)

Davie does like to complicate his moral judgments. Even after Hoseason has kidnapped him and locked him in the ship's hold, he still has to admit that the guy really loves his mother. We have to wonder, why does Stevenson include these particular tidbits of redeeming information? Does his love for his mother in some way make up for his violence against Davie? Or does it just reinforce his hypocrisy? What do these details make you think of Hoseason's character?

No class of man is altogether bad, but each has its own faults and virtues; and these shipmates of mine were no exception to the rule. Rough they were, sure enough; and bad, I suppose; but they had many virtues. They were kind when it occurred to them, simple even beyond the simplicity of a country lad like me, and had some glimmerings of honesty. (7.29)

It's kind of odd that Davie has such a prejudice against sailors when Stevenson traveled so much and made such a profit off Treasure Island. When he calls these a "class" of men, does Davie mean that they're all working-class? Or is "sailor" a particular kind of group for him, with "its own faults and virtues"?

Indeed, I found there was a strange peculiarity about our two mates: that Mr. Riach was sullen, unkind, and harsh when he was sober, and Mr. Shuan would not hurt a fly except when he was drinking. I asked about the captain; but I was told drink made no difference upon that man of iron. (7.32)

Drinking isn't a major problem for most of the characters here, but Stevenson seems to associate it very strongly with life aboard ship. Is this one of those "faults" that he ascribes to sailors generally? Or is drinking just a problem on this particular ship? And you know the saying in vino veritas ("in wine, truth)? Does this mean that Shuan's violence when he's drunk is his true nature, while Riach is, at his drunken heart, a big sweetie pie?

As for Mr. Shuan, the drink or his crime, or the two together, had certainly troubled his mind. I cannot say I ever saw him in his proper wits. He never grew used to my being there, stared at me continually (sometimes, I could have thought, with terror), and more than once drew back from my hand when I was serving him. I was pretty sure from the first that he had no clear mind of what he had done, and on my second day in the round-house I had the proof of it. We were alone, and he had been staring at me a long time, when all at once, up he got, as pale as death, and came close up to me, to my great terror. But I had no cause to be afraid of him.

"You were not here before?" he asked.

"No, sir," said I."

"There was another boy?" he asked again; and when I had answered him, "Ah!" says he, "I thought that," and went and sat down, without another word, except to call for brandy.

You may think it strange, but for all the horror I had, I was still sorry for him. He was a married man, with a wife in Leith; but whether or no he had a family, I have now forgotten; I hope not. (8.23-26)

Like the gun salute for Hoseason's mother at Dysart, this information about Shuan's wife in Leith seems designed to make us feel for him even after he has murdered Ransome. And his complete mental breakdown over the murder, as he confuses Davie with Ransome and appears unclear about what has happened, appears further meant to fill us with pity. Does it work? Do you have any strong judgment of Shuan and his behavior by the time he meets his fate in the roundhouse?

"Why, David," said [Alan], "the innocent have aye a chance to get assoiled in court; but for the lad that shot the bullet, I think the best place for him will be the heather. Them that havenae dipped their hands in any little difficulty, should be very mindful of the case of them that have. And that is the good Christianity. For if it was the other way round about, and the lad whom I couldnae just clearly see had been in our shoes, and we in his (as might very well have been), I think we would be a good deal obliged to him oursel's if he would draw the soldiers." (18.27)

This is Alan's logic about why they can't go to the police with their testimony about who actually shot Colin Roy: because an innocent party might get acquitted. But the guilty party will definitely be convicted. So he should be allowed to go free on the heather. What do you think of the morality of this argument?

"I have but one word to say," said I; "for to all this dispute I am a perfect stranger. But the plain common-sense is to set the blame where it belongs, and that is on the man who fired the shot. Paper him, as ye call it, set the hunt on him; and let honest, innocent folk show their faces in safety." But at this both Alan and James cried out in horror; bidding me hold my tongue, for that was not to be thought of; and asking me what the Camerons would think? (which confirmed me, it must have been a Cameron from Mamore that did the act) and if I did not see that the lad might be caught? "Ye havenae surely thought of that?" said they, with such innocent earnestness, that my hands dropped at my side and I despaired of argument. (19.38)

It would appear that James and Alan are saying that keeping up appearances among their allied clans ("what [would] the Camerons [. . .] think?") is more important than telling the truth and letting "honest, innocent folk show their faces in safety." What's the logic here? Why does Davie describe them as speaking with "innocent earnestness"? Can we tell anything about the Stewart moral code from this exchange?

Now this was one of the things I had been brought up to eschew like disgrace; it being held by my father neither the part of a Christian nor yet of a gentleman to set his own livelihood and fish for that of others, on the cast of painted pasteboard. To be sure, I might have pleaded my fatigue, which was excuse enough; but I thought it behoved that I should bear a testimony. I must have got very red in the face, but I spoke steadily, and told them I had no call to be a judge of others, but for my own part, it was a matter in which I had no clearness. (23.20)

Why does Davie suddenly decide to throw down with Cluny Macpherson, and about a subject (gambling) that he's shown no interest in before? How do Davie's actions here influence the rest of the plot?

"My dear boy," cries [Rankeillor], "go in God's name, and do what you think is right. It is a poor thought that at my time of life I should be advising you to choose the safe and shameful; and I take it back with an apology. Go and do your duty; and be hanged, if you must, like a gentleman. There are worse things in the world than to be hanged." (30.5)

Originally, Rankeillor suggests that Davie should absolutely not try to get involved in the Duke of Argyle's trial of James Stewart. But Davie is sure that he has a moral obligation to save an innocent man. This is one of the rare examples where one character actually manages to change another character's mind about the morality of what he's doing. Why do so few moral discussions in this novel actually result in persuasion? Can you really change another person's mind on questions of morality?

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