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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


Loyalty and friendship

The central theme of Kidnapped is the friendship between Alan and David. It is an unlikely pairing: the young, naïve, properly Protestant Whig, David Balfour, and the older, rebellious, adventurous, Catholic Jacobite, Alan Breck Stewart. Stevenson may have wanted to show that the Whigs and the Jacobites could meet eye-to-eye sometimes, and even become friends, despite their bloody history.

Whatever his intention in the match-up, the friendship soon becomes the most significant aspect of Kidnapped. There are several scenes that reveal its centrality. For instance, at one point David and Alan see the warrant for their arrest. David's description is vague and his name is not included, so now that he has changed his clothes, David realizes he can walk freely and not look suspicious—so long as he is not with Alan, who is named and much easier to recognize. David knows it would be safer for both of them to split up, but he never even points this out to Alan. Despite the fact that Alan actually owes him, since David aved his life on the Covenant, David feels a great sense of loyalty to Alan, so he cannot bear to part with him. Even when he becomes angry with Alan for losing their money to Cluny Macpherson, David resists the temptation to leave Alan. Alan, for his part, continues to lead David through the wilderness, even when it is apparent that David is often a hindrance to him.

The climax of the novel occurs in Chapter 24, "The Quarrel," where the friendship reaches it highest point of crisis. David, tired, sick, nursing his anger against Alan for losing their money, and become more and more annoyed with Alan's anti-Whig taunts, finally explodes with a number of vicious verbal attacks on Alan. His words are sharp, and cut Alan just where he knows it will hurt most, on his skill as a fighter. David points out that Alan has been "beaten on both sides" and comments on his loyalty to his clan. In his rage and delirium, David sees no choice but to challenge Alan to a duel, but Alan cannot do it, knowing it is murder. David swiftly realizes what he has done and, knowing no apologies can make up for it, he exaggerates his sickness, claiming that he lies near death, and asking Alan to forgive him. Alan does, saying he is actually impressed now that he knows David can "quarrel," and he takes David to a safe house to become healthy. From there, the two return to Cramond, where Alan helps David recover his inheritance. The book ends with their separation, again revealing the true heart of the novel lies in their friendship.

Diversity of ethics

One of greatest difficulties David has with his travels in the Highlands is understanding its people. David has known a very set ethical code all his life, that of a Protestant Whig. He is used to the concept of solving differences through the use of lawyers and relatively fair trials, and his sense of right and wrong is informed by religious teachers such as Mr. Campbell. In the Highlands, he is exposed to a very different set of ethics.

The Highlanders, particularly Alan, have values that, while similar to David's, often have important differences. Both have a strong sense of justice, but David believes it is settled by finding the most obvious guilty party and punishing him, such as when he suggests that James Stewart put out a warrant for the real killer of Colin Campbell. Alan and James, however, believe that to persecute the real killer would be unjust. To them, vengeance is a code of ethics that is acceptable. Campbell's death is justified by his terrible actions toward the Highlanders in life. Therefore, they will do what they can to protect his killer. David might be willing to agree that Campbell should be punished for his terrible behavior, but he would also agree that the killer should suffer the consequences of his actions.

The growing appreciation that David and Alan begin to have for each other's views is one of the most significant aspects of the novel. Stevenson attempts to portray the Highlanders and their people sympathetically, and to give the reader a glimpse into their behavior, their lives, and the nobility of their own code of ethics, which, though "tail-first" in David's words, are nonetheless very important to them.


Jacobites vs. Whigs

The terms Jacobite and Whig come up often in Kidnapped, but to the modern reader, these words have lost most, if not all of their meaning. Since Kidnapped focuses on a historical event, the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, it makes sense that it contains much historical and political information.

The people known as "Whigs" were those who were loyal to the current English government, particularly its king. Whigs were Protestants, as all English subjects were supposed to be. Almost all of England, and most of Lowland Scotland, were Whigs at the time that the novel takes place (1751).

The Jacobites were a party formed after the Glorious Revolution of the late 1680s. When William and Mary retook the throne from James II, the Scottish king of the Stuart line, the supporters of James—mostly Scots—became known as Jacobites. For nearly a century after the Glorious Revolution, the Jacobites attempted to put James and his heirs back on the English throne, primarily through a series of rebellions and battles. James had tried to restore Catholicism to England, but the Glorious Revolution had soused his intentions. The Jacobites, however, remained primarily Catholic, which put them out of favor with most in the English government.

By 1750, the Jacobites had lost a number of important battles, and would never really be a threat to the English government again. Most of the Jacobites were now lived in the Highlands of Scotland, while the Lowlanders were assimilated into the Whig party by their closer proximity and greater trade with England. In order to quell the rebellious Jacobites, the English government began to try and break up the clans that were to be found all over the Highlands. The Campbell clan, which was loyal to the Whigs, became instrumental in this task, and many other clans, such as the Stewarts, Alan's clan, saw the Campbells as having betrayed them. The Campbells soon controlled all the courts and other offices in the Highlands, and Colin Campbell was particularly ruthless in his behavior toward the other clans. This led to his murder, the central event in Kidnapped.

Stevenson, who has an affinity for the Highlands, may have written Kidnapped with the intention of helping repair the negative image that the English had created of the Highlanders, and give them their due respect. This can be seen in the oddly noble manners of Alan and James of the Glens, both of whom David comes to respect.


The idea of inheritance, and particularly, primogeniture, the idea that the eldest son always inherits an estate, plays a significant role in Kidnapped. The most basic plot of the novel involves David returning to the House of Shaws to claim his inheritance after his uncle tries to scheme him out of it.

Inheritance plays an important part elsewhere, though it is not necessarily obvious. The primary goal of the Jacobites, including Alan and James Stewart, is to restore the Scottish Stuart line to the throne of the King of England. They believed that James II and his heirs were the true rulers of England, and so they worked for decades, in a series of rebellions, to try and restore James and his descendants to the throne.

In the course of Kidnapped, both Alan and David work to further these goals of inheritance. Alan's goal is practically lost by this point, but he does not necessarily believe that; and by saving Alan, and then helping him with his clan troubles, David aids the Jacobites in their attempts to claim an inheritance. More directly, Alan helps David come into his inheritance by tricking David's uncle Ebenezer.


Alan's silver button

For most of Kidnapped, Alan serves as David's guide. But for a short period after the shipwreck, the two are separated. Fortunately, David has held on to the silver button that Alan gave him. This Alan is symbolic of Alan both in the plot itself, by showing the button to people, David is able to find out what Alan's instructions were, and in a broader sense, it is symbolic of the guidance that Alan gives David throughout the novel.

Alan's illness after the visit with Cluny Macpherson

At the house of Cluny Macpherson, Alan gambles away all of his money, as well as David's money. This means that David has to ask for the money back, which is embarrassing both to himself and Cluny. Cluny is mortified that they thought he would keep the money, David is angry that Alan gambled it away and he has to swallow his pride and ask for it back, and Alan feels guilty for having gambled it all away.

As they leave Cluny's home, David is so angry with Alan that he refuses to speak to him. Over the next few days, David nurses his anger, while Alan remains apologetic. Finally, Alan decides he has suffered enough, and starts taunting David as usual. David then explodes at Alan, saying such vicious things that he realizes he must fake his near-death in order to bring Alan to his side once more. This faking is not too difficult, since David's health has slowly deteriorated since they left Cluny's house. This growing sickness may be seen as paralleling David's growing anger; he is not only angry with Alan, but he becomes angry at himself. The double-anger manifests itself outwardly in his illness.

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Vengeance or Loyalty? It depends on your point of view!

by English-Lit-Major, August 20, 2013

"To them, vengeance is a code of ethics that is acceptable."

This seems all wrong to me!

Stevenson takes a very sympathetic approach with the Highlanders. He wants us to LIKE them. He would not have considered vengeance an acceptable code of ethics, so he would not have meant for us to view the Highlanders as a vengeful people. There is something missing in this Sparknotes interpretation.

Considering the historical context, we know the Highlanders considered the English Whigs to be USURPERS. Therefore, they did not v... Read more


23 out of 29 people found this helpful

Typo found!

by TriggerLoft, June 06, 2016

"Scottish Stuarts should are the true kings of England" Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think there should be a "should" between "Stuarts" and "are"

Take a closer look at this

by LittleSparknoter, June 08, 2017

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