Kidnapped Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary:
The first person narrator, David Balfour, begins the novel by introducing his journey from his home, the kirk of Essendean, now that his father and mother have passed away. It is early June of 1751. Walking happily along, he meets the minister of Essendean, Mr. Campbell, who had kindly waited for him at the corner of the manse. The minister planned to accompany David for some of the way. Mr. Campbell asks David how he feels about leaving home to which David replies that he does not know how to feel since he has never been anywhere else. However, he feels that with his parents dead, it is the time to be moving on. Inside, the boy is excited about the prospect of a more exciting life outside of the sleepy countryside from which he comes.
Mr. Campbell takes the occasion to tell David what he knows of his fortune. David's father had asked the minister to deliver to his son a letter after his death. With the letter, his sixteen year old son could travel to the house of Shaws, once home to his father. David is surprised since he never knew his poor father to be related to such a high family. The minister assures him that the relations are there and that he should hope to be received well by them. He nervously asks Mr. Campbell if he should go to which the minister replies quickly that he should.
The minister sat along side the path and urged the boy to sit with him. He warns David of the evils of a larger, more mature society. He tells him to continue studying the Bible and to make sure to maintain the rules of his proper upbringing in order to make his homeland proud. David agrees and the minister happily reveals a parcel of gifts. Mr. Campbell clumsily speaks of the four items contained within, the first being the small amount of money due to the minister's purchase of David's father's old books. The explanation of the three other gifts is told in an enigmatic manner. The first gift is round but will not take David very far. The second is "flat and square and written upon" and will last his life. The third is cubical and will lead David into a "better land."
Mr. Campbell abruptly hugs David very hard and then hurries away without once looking back. David realizes this behavior occurs because of Mr. Campbell's sadness regarding his departure. He feels guilty that he is not as upset. He opens his parcel and is not surprised to find that the cubical object is a Bible. The round is a shilling and the last gift is a piece of paper with written instructions on how to make Lilly of the Valley water. This water can cure many ailments. The minister's own hand has written the final two uses for the water on the paper. Nervously laughing, the boy packs his gifts and walks on, pausing once for a final look at Essendean.
This novel is constructed into very short chapters, each with a straightforward title giving the reader a sense of where the narrator is going or what he will do next. The events of the chapter are thus not entirely surprising. This manner of expressing a key to the enigmatic is representative of the book as a whole on many levels. Kidnapped could be described as one of Stevenson's fictions of adventure. Though critics have often separated the novel from Stevenson's Treasure Island, the two do share a somewhat parallel theme of a boy going through a rite of passage into adulthood. After his father passes away, the protagonist strikes out on his own into the world at large. A loss of innocence theme results because of the growth from youth to manhood, a path to maturity through obstacles which will have to be overcome.
This does not have to intimate that a sexual loss of innocence is incurred. Mainly the adventure dealt with is of a more boyish, swashbuckling sort. However, critics do note that Stevenson does move toward more mature subject matter in Kidnapped than in Treasure Island since actual geographical locations are mentioned and real cultural clashes approached. Still, we will watch as the hero and narrator, David Balfour, is faced with a challenge which appears insurmountable but slowly becomes more clearly controllable. These challenges and the realization toward their solutions is symbolic of a young adult's progress toward an adult understanding. Though often expressed through physical and geographic challenges, Stevenson stresses the growth of self in David. As literary critic Robert Kiely writes, "At the center of [Kidnapped] lies not psychology, or morality, or politics, or patriotism, or history, or geography, or romantic love but 'the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure.'"
In this first chapter, we are given a prologue of sorts. The main character/ first person narrator/ hero of the story is introduced as well as the basic set of circumstances which surround his leaving home and the type of situation which likely will face him in the future. We meet David Balfour, a boy of sixteen, who seems to be excited, though nervous, and generally in control of his life. During the first sentence of the novel, Stevenson symbolically establishes the act of a boy leaving home and breaking with his childhood. The quotation states, "when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house." David is metaphorically locking the door of his childhood behind him and setting off for the adventures of maturity.
Mr. Campbell, who sees the boy off, is David's last contact with the town of his youth, Essendean. As minister for the kirk and a counselor and friend of the boy's, Mr. Campbell takes the place of a parent and home, sending the fledging from the nest. Through Campbell's questions, the reader learns of David's mixed feelings toward his adventure, highlighting the duality of his character which will be another of Stevenson's themes. The boy feels at once exuberant but also nervous and unsure of what is to come. Furthermore, David chides himself for not feeling as much emotion as the minister when the two part. Then, he quickly gets over this and opens his gifts. The gifts themselves are very symbolic, as represented by their simple geometric shapes. The cubical Bible symbolizes the religious core with which David has been instilled in Essendean. The round shilling symbolizes the material, an important component of the more mercantile lowlander Scottish as contrasted to the romantic highlander we will meet later. The square and flat symbolizes the written word as a ticket to a new life but also the medicinal superstitions which surrounded David and which he would have to learn to evaluate independently.
Chapter 2 Summary:
Early in the second day of David's journey to the House of Shaws, he came to the top of a hill and observed the sea and the city of Edinburgh. Proudly he marched ahead, asking for directions to the region of Cramond. The closer he approached Glasgow the more he was excited to notice the airs of the city, furnished by militia men in red coats. Once in Cramond, the boy asked the way to the house of Shaws but received an odd response, a mix of surprise and bewilderment. So David changed his inquiry from asking for directions to asking for an opinion of the Shaws, thinking that his country garb was the reason for the surprise. However the reactions changed little. A fellow pulling a cart told him that he should stay away from Ebenezer Balfour. A dapper little barber declared that Mr. Balfour was no kind of a man at all.
Disillusioned, David sat down to think. If he had been within an hour walk of returning to Mr. Campbell he would have done so. The boy rose and continued toward the house, stopping once again to ask a passerby for directions. The stout woman he asked pointed to the exact building in which Mr. Balfour resided, a dreary place in apparent ruin. The woman was so enraged by her memories of the house and its inhabitants that she spit upon the ground. In a day where people still believed in witches, David was worried. As he observed the surrounding area of the house, however, the scene became more pleasant. The landscape was dotted with sheep and flowers, giving him the courage to continue.
The actual entrance to the house was difficult to find as much of its construction seemed unfinished. The house was drearier in person and the night was falling. He heard quiet sounds of life and nervously knocked at the door. No response came. The sounds within stopped. He almost ran. Overcome by anger, David shouted and pounded on the door. Above his head, an old man peered out with a loaded gun. David replied he had come with a letter. The old man told him to leave it and go away but David refused, declaring that it was a letter of introduction. As David told the man his name, the man paused for awhile and finally asked if his father was dead. David knew not how to reply but the old man answered his own question and reluctantly let the boy in.
This chapter begins symbolically with David's arrival over a hill top, illuminating to him the world which lies below. The hills are small obstacles for David on the way to his new future and as he reaches the summit of each, he is able to peer below at a new and different world. He first spies the sea and Edinburgh, illustrating how far in Scotland he has traveled from a little country kirk. As he continues, he mentions taking a road by the capital and seeing militia men in their red coats. The appearance of industry, travel, and men defending country not only fill his heart with excitement because of their grandness but because of his patriotic pride. The text states, "and both brought my country heart into my mouth." One of Stevenson's own personal journeys seemed to surround his meditation on the Scottish persona. As far as he could see, regardless of the many divisions and conflicts between the differing clans of Scotsmen, all felt a very special pride at being Scottish. This theme is reflected in the emotions which sweep through David as he lays his eyes on the Scottish cities he nears.
The house of Shaws, which first is established as a place of wealth and distinction beyond what David imagined could have been his father's home, quickly is transformed into a dark, foreboding destination through the sentiment David witnesses while asking for directions. At first looking inward, David assumes he has brought on the surprise but he soon realizes it is the place itself. Suddenly, his bright future is clouded and the house is colored with a different and darker enigmatic allure than it was previously. It is by no mistake of Stevenson's that David reaches the house as the sun leaves the sky. The darkening of the sky and the death of the day foreshadow the truth behind the rumors that David learns and work to make the house more grotesque and foreboding. Furthermore, the characters whom he asks for directions become more and more violently opposed to Ebenezer Balfour, the proprietor of the Shaws, as David nears the house. The last woman spits on the ground at the thought of Ebenezer and the house. Stevenson has prepared the reader for quite a scene once the house is reached.
David keeps after his goal not because of pure determination, as one might expect from a hero, but because he is too far from home to return to it without at least seeing the house for himself. This sense of decision making is symbolic of David's decision process, or passive sense of determinism, throughout the novel, as highlighted by critic, Donald McFarlan. McFarlan writes, "While David is an endurer and survivor, Stevenson is at great pains to point out that he never initiates action or ever consciously makes a decision." However, in this light, his character may actually seem more human, giving the reader a hero whom does the best he can with the situations he is given but is not brave enough to initiate action often on his own. We see this characteristic again when David makes his way to the doorstep of the Shaws after hearing noises within which stop as he approaches. Suddenly, he begins shouting and banging on the door. We are proud of him for not giving up, but we are also conscious that he simply gets angry and shouts. He does not decide to. It is simply determined by Stevenson that this behavior will bring results and he is let into the house.
Chapter 3 Summary:
The old man let David in, warning him not to touch anything. Trudging forward in the darkness, David came upon the kitchen with a small fire aglow lighting the barest room he had ever seen. The old man, looking haggard and of an indeterminate age, entered the room. He offered the boy the rest of his porridge which sat on the table. The man asked for the letter but David declined because he seemed to be only a serving man. David was surprised to learn that this old man was not only Ebenezer Balfour but his father's brother. In shock, David handed him the letter. While reading it, Ebenezer asked the boy why he came. David admitted that he hoped to find help from his kin but was not looking for any favors. The old man asked how long his father had been dead. Learning it was only three weeks, he then asked if David's father had spoken of Ebenezer, noting that he had always been a secret man. David confirmed that he had never known of Ebenezer's existence or of the Shaws.
Ebenezer led the boy to his bedroom. The darkness was so overwhelming that David could not even see the bed but Ebenezer refused to find a light for him. The bed felt dirty so David used his own bed roll and slept on the floor. With the first light of morning, he awoke and looked around what would have been a grand room with upkeep. However, its present state was much ruined. He banged on his locked door to be let out. Ebenezer brought him to a small well to wash. The meal in the morning was porridge again, though two bowls were lain. However, the beer given to David was from Ebenezer's cup. David was amazed by his miserliness. Through Ebenezer's questions, the man learned that David's mother was also dead. He also asked about friends that David had referred to. David named the Campbells though he knew only of the one. Ebenezer thought the answer over awhile and then told the boy that he would think of a proper type of employment for him. David told the man that he had not willfully sought him and would be glad to leave if he wished. The old man reassured him, repeating that he would do right for him as long as he did not say anything to anyone. David then felt confident enough to ask for a better sleeping situation to which Ebenezer snapped angrily, before stopping himself and again reassuring the boy. David was reminded of Jennet Clouston, the woman who had spit at the thought of Mr. Balfour, and he told his uncle. Angered, Ebenezer dressed to leave and punish the woman, telling David that he would have to wait outside while he was gone. David refused to be locked outdoors, upsetting the old man but not budging on this point. Finally Ebenezer decided not to leave. Confounded, David inquired why the man wished to help him when he obviously hated and distrusted him. Ebenezer denied these charges, again reassuring the boy. David agreed to stay for a short while.
The reader already has a good idea of Uncle Ebenezer's character when Chapter Three opens, but the imagery given at the start provides a further illustration. Ebenezer's life, it seems has to be closed to most of the world and filled with cobwebs. He is miserly and narrow-minded, shut off from humanity. Symbolically, to express this, Stevenson describes the chains and heavy locks bolting the door to Ebenezer's home. Further, David encounters one of the barest rooms he has ever seen when he enters Ebenezer's kitchen. The house of the Shaws has been personified with characteristics parallel to the persona of Ebenezer in order to illustrate the intense miserliness which Ebenezer embodies.
Ebenezer's miserliness is so extreme that David nearly admires its wholeness and consistency. And yet he rebels against it as well. Ebenezer is the next potential father figure in David's life. However, instead, Ebenezer becomes an obstacle along David's rite of passage. This notion will proceed more greatly in the following chapters but the impression that Ebenezer represents an obstacle figure begins here. He refuses to give David new porridge, he locks David in a overwhelmingly dark bedroom, he stares at David with an almost evil, plotting look, and he refuses to allow David to remain inside the house while he is out. The rules that Ebenezer sets are unreasonable and instantly deplorable.
Moreover, his abrupt questions and paranoid actions create suspicion, in David and the reader, foreshadowing the trickery to come. Ebenezer is not playing a straight hand which is suggested by Stevenson's language. For instance, Stevenson writes, "[Ebenezer] became very pale and sucked his mouth in. 'This is no the way,' he said, looking wickedly at a corner of the floor - 'This is no the way to win my favour, David.'" The thought of allowing David to inhabit the house alone, leaving him the ability to search through Ebenezer's belongings, sets off an alarm in Ebenezer and causes the color to leave his face. In addition, he is obviously trying to hide true intentions behind a mask of apparent hospitality as is evident by the mention of his wicked look. What reason would he have to look wicked otherwise? The inclusion of this adjective and the facial description of Ebenezer foreshadows Ebenezer's relationship to David
Lastly, David's lack of decision-making is highlighted in Chapter III. His emotions are not weakened; he easily becomes angry and defensive. And yet, he ends up staying with Ebenzer "for a while" and if there is a problem between them, "I'll do my best it shall be through no fault of mine." He is angered and humiliated by the situation with his uncle but decides simply to play things out and see what happens. David deals with many situations in the same manner. He is not yet mature enough to make stable decisions on his own and trust his own intuition.
Chapter 4 Summary:
The day passed better than it started. Lunch and dinner were spent over porridge and beer. David found some amusement in a library near the kitchen, looking over old books. He was glad to see his father's firm writing on the flap but noticed it was addressed for Ebenezer's fifth birthday which confused him because his father must have been younger than his uncle. Wondering about it over dinner, the boy asked Ebenezer if his father learned to write well at a young age. However, Ebenezer told him that he was a better writer at an earlier age than his father. Then David asked if they had been twins which made his uncle very angry. The man grabbed David's shirt. Ebenezer apologized and spoke nicely of David's father. David was not sure if the old man was crazy and dangerous or if he had a secret which he did not want David to uncover. He hoped for the latter.The looks his uncle gave him though were not welcoming. Finally, the old man told him of a promise he had made with David's father before David's birth. He had promised to save the boy money and it had grown since that time to a sum of forty poundsscots, a denomination equal to the lesser English shilling. David corrected him with the term sterling to which the man agreed. David did not believe that the old miser had saved him any money but went along with his plan.
David agreed to step outside while his uncle gathered the savings. To his surprise the miser handed him nearly the whole amount. David tried to thank him. Soon enough, the old man implied that he would want a return favor. David waited for something monstrous but the request was reasonable -- he asked for help around the house. David agreed and the man told him of a grand staircase in an unfinished tower of the house. At the top of the stairs was a chest with papers which the old man wanted. David asked for a light but the man refused so David set outside in the darkness. As he neared the tower, the sky lit brightly with lightening. He felt for the door, unlocked it, and stumbled inside feeling for the solid grand staircase. It felt secure as his uncle had said and he started climbing. After some time, another flash of lightening came and the entire tower lit up, displaying to David that the walls were not finished and the stairs were of different lengths. He would have fallen into the well if the lightening had not shone. Angered, he continued to climb on hands and knees to determine how high the stair went. He came to a spot where the stairs, unfinished, completely stopped. His uncle had sent him to die.
David saw his uncle standing in the doorway of the house. Thunder sounded and Ebenezer ran inside in a panic. David followed him, watching him shudder and shake. He snuck up behind his uncle and surprised him. The man fell upon the floor in shock. David took the keys and looked through the man's cabinets, finding a weapon to arm himself. Seeing that his uncle was not breathing, David splashed water on his face. The old man asked incredulously if David was alive. David brought him his medicine to calm his nerves and then asked the man why he tried to kill David. Ebenezer promised to explain in the morning so David locked him in his bedroom for the night.
This chapter highlights an adventure that David partakes in against his own will -- the first of many such adventures in this book. Very few of the adventures and risks that he encounters are desired. David also comes face to face with his first encounter with mortality. He comes to the realization that his uncle is not only evil or crazy but also trying to kill him. Breaking a major rule of hospitality and blood relation, Ebenezer has plotted against his house guest and nephew. He has devised a method of manslaughter which he hopes to make look accidental. Ebenezer establishes a plan in which David will likely agree to do Ebenezer a favor and then sends him to meet his own death. The cruelty of the action is striking to the reader who may have noticed the previous foreshadowing but did not expect attempted murder.
However, as is typical for the character of David Balfour, the peril or obstacle which he faces becomes illuminated enough for David to handle it. Luckily, a thunderstorm occurs, sending bolts of lightening into the night sky which light the unfinished tower where David is sent. If it were not for this good luck, David would not have realized that the stairway was unfinished and would likely have fallen off the top. Thus, the stairway episode is a metaphor for the type of challenges David will face along his journey to manhood. He will have to face obstacles and conquer them. But, as he nears these obstacles, each will eventually become less daunting and more manageable. David notes, "But I knew what I wanted now, and turned and groped my way down again; with a wonderful anger in my heart." The anger he feels is wonderful because he has battled the obstacle and beaten it.
Childhood is a type of blindness, a garden of Eden, where man is ignorant of many of the hardships and realities of maturity. As David nears adulthood, he will gradually learn ways in which to face the challenges which are presented to him. The light from the sky is symbolic of light as knowledge, illuminating the self to its abilities and limitations. He is awakened to the true character of his uncle and the manner in which he will have to treat such an evil, old man. As the text states, "And then there came a blinding flash, which showed me my uncle plainly, just where I fancied him to stand" David grows in understanding.
Chapter 5 Summary:
When morning came, David washed and started a large fire. He knew that his uncle was murderous but felt he could get the upper hand. After letting the old man out his room, the two sat for breakfast. David asked him what he had to say. His uncle tried to pass it off as a joke but seeing that David was not fooled, he promised to explain.
Soon a knock came at the door and a small boy named Ransome stood, singing songs as David opened the door. Finally the boy explained that he had a message for Ebenezer. Also, he was very hungry. David allowed boy to finish his breakfast while Ebenezer read the letter from Captain Hoseason. Ebenezer soon showed it to the boy. The letter spoke of business which need attended to. Ebenezer explained that the Captain wished to see him, giving he and David a chance to visit him and then walk to Ebenezer's lawyer who could verify Ebenezer's position.
David felt he would be safe in town and in the company of the young boy so he agreed and they set off. As his uncle remained silent during the walk, David talked to the boy and learned of the tortuous life aboard the ship. There were criminals being carried across the sea and young children having to fend for themselves. The boy seemed to enjoy the life, but David could tell how horribly they treated him and every man on the ship. Spying the boat, Covenant, and the town of Queensferry in the distance, David told Ebenezer that he would not step on board the ship. Ebenezer agreed.
This chapter is important for two main reasons concerning the plot. One, the reader gets to see David in control of his life and his uncle. He begins the chapter with the key to his uncle's bedroom in hand after sleeping on his uncle's chests in the kitchen. The key is symbolic in a very obvious way. David holds in his hand the key to his fate. His uncle has admitted that he is very defensive concerning the age of himself and his dead brother. David has already surmised that he is likely hiding something and that he wants David out of the way. Once David gains control over his uncle's actions, he has the ability to unlock the truth (to further develop the metaphor).
However, David allows his uncle to persuade him into leaving the house before Ebenezer has explained any of his actions. He then reenters a more passive, secondary mode. David thus leaves the house in order to follow another of his uncle's plans. Moreover, cyclically, David comes to the house because of a letter that directs him there. He also leaves the Shaws because of a letter. The use of the epistle, containing the written word, represents a great power in this manner because David submits to the power each time. The control he had garnered from the night before is therefore given back to his uncle, foreshadowing the kidnapping to come.
The second significant event is the arrival of the character of Ransome, a small boy who has lived the majority of his life aboard a ship. Ransome is the only child encountered in the book even though the novel is often said to be a boy's adventure fiction story. He thus provides us with an insight into a different mentality than the other characters and gives us our first character with which to compare the maturing David. David is only sixteen years old but, as we have noted, he has begun his journey to adulthood. He is recognizably more mature and more discerning than the young boy, as well as more conservative. He cannot understand the type of life the boy describes or the mentality he seems to possess. And yet, David knows instantly that he does not want Ransome's type of life. The refusal to board the Covenant then is a metaphor for David's refusal to retreat toward childhood. On the flip side, to use the symbolism of Ransome's name, the young boy is a metaphor for the innocence which Ransome has been forced into paying and which will be stolen from David as a result of the kidnapping.
Kidnapped Essays and Related Content
- Kidnapped: Major Themes
- Kidnapped: E-Text
- Kidnapped: Questions
- Kidnapped: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Robert Louis Stevenson: Biography
- Kidnapped Summary
- About Kidnapped
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 26-30
- Related Links on Kidnapped
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources