Response: Seeing and Reading N. C. Wyeth and Robert Louis Stevenson

Article excerpt

Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, first published in 1886, tells the story of the young and newly orphaned David Balfour, who, the rightful heir to the House of Shaws, falls victim to his miserly uncle's treachery and finds himself an unwilling passenger on the Covenant, a ship bound from Scotland for the American colonies. Early in the voyage David joins forces with another passenger, Alan Breck Stewart, a Scottish Highlander and exiled Jacobite (called such because he participated in the 1745-46 Scottish rebellion against the British throne); the two overpower the Covenant's captain and crew only to find themselves shipwrecked on the Torran Rocks, off the coast of the Island of Earraid. After making it to shore, David, accompanied much of the way by Alan, makes a difficult and dangerous trek through the Highlands and back to Shaws to claim what is rightfully his.

In its most basic sense, then, Kidnapped, with the political and territorial struggles of Scotland and England in the 1740s and 1750s as its frame, is a coming-of-age story as well as a tale of friendship, loyalty, trust, and justice. It is also a story about seeing and not seeing, vision and its occlusion or failure. I say this not just because Stevenson's text recounts David's incremental grasping of his true identity as well as his accumulating self-knowledge, thus offering a narrative of an enlightenment of sorts, but because the book organizes itself around a series of episodes wherein the activity of looking or perceiving provides a dramatic focal point or serves to shape the action or plot of a scene. Centered on David's sensory experience, many of these episodes are played out as entanglements or partnerings of dark and light, obscurity and illumination, and several address the relation of the haptic, or touch, to seeing or its absence.

By way of example: when David, early in the story, arrives at Shaws, his uncle leaves him standing outside in the nighttime darkness for a good while before agreeing to let him enter the house. The contrast between the pitch black of the outdoors and the illumination of the interior of the house marks David's encounter with the individual who will seal his fate, and Stevenson puts looking at the heart of this dramatic moment: "I groped my way forward and entered the kitchen. The fire had burned up fairly bright, and showed me the barest room I think I ever put my eyes on."1 On the second evening of David's stay, his uncle, professing a need for a certain chest filled with important papers, instructs the young man to make his way to a stair tower so as to fetch it (this bidding turns out to be an attempt on David's life). This episode, too, comprises light/dark partnerings and moments of seeing paired with moments of blindness (along with the evocation of the sensation of touch):

Out I went into the night. The wind was still moaning in the distance, though never a breath of it came near the house of Shaws. It had fallen blacker than ever; and I was glad to feel along the wall, till I came the length of the stair-tower door at the far end of the unfinished wing. I had got the key into the keyhole and had just turned it; when, all upon a sudden, without sound of wind or thunder, the whole sky lighted up with wild fire and went black again. I had to put my hand over my eyes to get back to the colour of the darkness; and indeed I was already half blinded, when I stepped into the tower.2

The next several paragraphs, which culminate in David nearly falling to his death and his subsequent realization that his uncle is up to no good, describe in a similar manner his sensory experience as he ascends the tower. The drama unfolds as a series of sensations of touch and sight (as opposed to, say, an interior monologue on David's part that analyzes his situation, or a straightforward description of his actions and environment, something like, "I climbed slowly . . . the tower was poorly lit. ... I slipped and almost fell"). …