Sir Walter Scott may have denied traditionalism and the ruling class culture of his time personally, but his novels provide no alternative to those bourgeois doctrines and rather in the values of that system find their own comfortable justifications for existence. To illuminate the question of class ideology and how it is reflected in Sir Walter Scott’s works, one only needs to examine aspects of the author’s life and how the prevailing culture influenced him. Following the path of cultural analysis, one can then investigate Scott’s works and see that his main characters follow the dominant bourgeois ideology. Whether or not this was intentional and the secondary, more passionate characters are meant to be the “true heroes” of the novels, the existence of the heroes themselves demonstrate Scott’s capitulation to established bourgeois perceptions of idealism and heroism.
This tendency has been noted by many of his critics, such as Alexander Welsh in The Hero of the Waverley Novels, who says about Waverly: “[Scott’s novel] reverted to romance, which expresses, rather than criticizes, the desires of the mind. In Scott’s hands romance projected publicly accepted desires-the moral clichés of the time” (1). In addition to this, the central characters in Scott’s novels such as Edward Waverley and Frank Osbaldistone are amazingly unheroic, sniveling and incompetent fools. While Scott’s characters conform to the basics of the prevailing European culture of bourgeois morality, they possess few qualities that are worthy of admiration. The reader more often than not finds them cowardly and empty of exceptional traits-all of them heroes-to-be that never quite bloom. Since Scott himself was a faithful servant to a value system so centered in virtue, tradition and stability, his “heroes” were model citizens rendered almost unable to act. They are so perfectly molded to the debilitating standards of ruling class Platonic moralism, his creations become impossible to relate to.
Even early on, his choice of work showed that fiction to Scott was to be not only romantic, but romanticized-that is, to have the projection of an acceptable behavior pattern made before the reading public by the main character and the wholesome image served thereof-and show adherence to the dominant ideology of 19th century Europe. In the period of 1796-1797, at the age of twenty-seven, Scott translated several German dramas for various London booksellers, corresponding with these companies by post. Ruth Adams examines several of Scott’s letters and concludes that “a preoccupation with the chivalric past and a utilization of scenes from the Middle Ages have long been counted among the many attributes of romanticism” (2). Adams goes on to say that “the plays he had translated have elements in common with aspects of Scott’s later work. Characters have similar motivation, perform similar deeds of chivalric defiance” (2). Even before his career had begun, Scott found himself more interested in idealized tales of the distant past than in rebelling against current ideology in any outward way.
This attitude of moderation at the expense of realistic portrayal reveals itself in his most popular works of prose. Frank Osbaldistone from Rob Roy is a primary example. From the beginning, he is shown to give in to the will of stronger characters. When his father admonishes him for what he considers the foolish hobby of writing poetry, Frank merely narrates, “I felt at that instant a strong inclination to submit, and to make Owen happy by requesting him to tell my father that I resigned myself to his disposal” (3). Here Frank considers giving up his dreams to please his friend Own and his father. During a violent confrontation with his cousin Rashleigh, in which Rashleigh says, “‘I hate you with a hatred as intense, now while I lie bleeding and dying before you, as if my foot trod on your neck.'” Frank then narrates: “‘I have given you no cause, sir,’ I replied, ‘and for your own sake I could wish your mind in a better temper'” (3). Even in the middle of a fight Frank will not abandon his manner nor curse his opponent who is trying to bring him death. As well, the book’s namesake is the “true hero” of the novel-the perfect romantic leader of the revolution who rides off into the sunset while the narrator Frank refuses to join him, remaining unchanged.
While this may be an intentional effort on the part of the author to make the reader more sympathetic to the more revolutionary characters when contrasted with the dullness of the hero, the fact that the hero had to exist in the first place to fulfill the obligatory role of the supposed moral compass of the story shows an unwillingness to challenge established the norms of the system. Thus Scott’s preconceived pattern is set. The hero in his stories must never commit himself to positions or actions considered by the ruling class to be “extreme.” He must never join any socially outcast or revolutionary movements, no matter how justified they might be. He never kills, even in the middle of battle, except in self-defense, nor does he passionately love or lust after any particular object or person outside the “damsel in distress” model, and even then only in restraint.
In this way, Scott’s ultimate loyalty seems to be to the false consciousness promoted by the Scottish and European ruling class. Waverley and Frank Osbaldistone in Rob Roy are witnesses to but never participants in revolutionary action. They are rarely, if ever, responsible for a suspension of socially conditioned ethics. Remaining loyal to the establishment, they of course become the wealthy and married beneficiaries of the state at the conclusion of their respective tales. Happiness, according to Scott, can be achieved within the realm of the existing society, and his fiction seems at once progressive yet content with the present social relations.
However, it is not only the comfort of dominant ideologies that affect Scott’s works, but his geographical and economic situation as well. Scott was known to have visited the Scottish borderlands frequently throughout his life. The rich and rural nature of his stories is likely to have been shaped by these experiences, giving rise to such works as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a collection of ballads showing Scott’s love for the Scottish tradition, Waverly, an account of the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745 which once again attempted to place the Stuarts to the British throne, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a story about an old Scottish legend. Though his early life in Sandyknowe made his affection for Scotland flourish, his old love of romantic tales never failed to manifest in historical whitewashing and the promotion of chivalric values, especially given that he had the privilege to have seen the real Scotland, a land thought of as wild and untamed by the European and English aristocracy.
An article by William Everett elaborates on the political stance of the Scottish nation by saying, “What Scotland represented not only for Queen Victoria but also for countless others was pure escapism-a fantasy world devoid of any of the pressures of civilized life. […] The novels of Sir Walter Scott certainly promoted [an] enticingly rugged image of Scotland” (4). Here Everett hits on two important points-both the indulgent fantasies of Scott’s works and the perceived exoticism of Scotland itself. Rob Roy and Waverly are portraits of Scotland’s greatest heroic battles which end up being safe, predictable and easily consumable product for the reader. By putting on display the bloody and rugged wars of old and at the same time making it conform to the standards of the time, Scott provided his 19th century audience with a myth of completed action, a convenient “division of time” in which all that is revolutionary and disruptive of the status quo has happened in the past, indulging his life-long love of romanticism.
Scott’s tendency to write dreamy moralistic tales and to reinforce ruling class ethics of “restraint,” “honor” and “saintliness” was criticized by many of his peers. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain openly mocked Sir Walter Scott for works such as Ivanhoe which take seriously and indulge the old-fashioned code that in Twain’s opinion should have been swept away long ago. He writes, “If one take up a Northern or Southern literary periodical of forty or fifty years ago, he will find it filled with wordy, windy, flowery ‘eloquence,’ romanticism, sentimentality-all imitated from Sir Walter, and sufficiently badly done, too-innocent travesties of his style and methods, in fact” (5). Indeed, Scott’s fantasy-oriented ideals were the polar opposite of Twain’s realist movement, which strived to show events as they truly were.
Noting all this, one can read Sir Walter’s works as tools of representing the process of history. Being an explorer and a political strategist himself, surely Scott must have seen the economic forces at work in Scotland, including the program for agrarian change, the Enlightenment and the rise of industrial society. Whether he sided with the new social forces or not, he was clearly conscious of the structure of his society, how the existing social relations concentrated power and the movement of radicals post-French Revolution and Napoleon. The profound effect these movements had on him is still quite clear in his novels, which take place at the center of the action. Like his characters, Sir Walter Scott may himself have been a mere “casual observer” rather than an active hero, but he saw clearly the dialectic processes at work and sought to bring them to life through literature.
(1) Welsh, Alexander. The Hero of the Waverly Novels. PUBLISHER, 1963.
(2) A Letter by Sir Walter Scott. Ruth M. Adams, Modern Philology, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Nov., 1956), pp. 121-123 Published by: The University of Chicago Press.
(3) Scott, Walter. Rob Roy, Wordsworth Classics, 1995
(4) William A. Everett. Untitled. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Dec., 1999), pp. 151-171 Published by: Croatian Musicological Society.
(5) Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Harper & Brothers, New York. 1917.