In this contribution I compare three texts by Robert Louis Stevenson – the short story The Merry Men, the essay Memoirs of an Islet, and a central chapter of the novel Kidnapped. All of them feature the tidal islet of Earraid, which Stevenson visited while touring the Scottish coast as an engineer in training. Using insights provided by the later essay Records of a Family of Engineers, I read Earraid as the symbol of a coherent frontier narrative that Stevenson creates out of the engineering legacy of his father, uncles and grandfather – a successful family of lighthouse builders in Scotland throughout the 19th century. This narrative, which employs both the peculiar spatial imagination of the frontier as well as its (multiple) ideological connotations, frames nature as hostile, to be pacified through technical progress. Moreover, it opposes two archetypal figures: the engineer-pioneer, an inventor and adventurer who brings light and progress to the wilderness of the Scottish sea, and the wrecker, a scavenger who lives off the salvaged goods of the shipwrecks, refuses to help the victims of the sea and is therefore the natural enemy of the engineer. The moral and material clash between these two figures, as well as the idea of progress as a gradual pacification of nature that emerges from this mythology, is variously articulated and re-elaborated within the three texts. The Merry Men, a tale of madness and shipwrecks, explores the ethical worldviews connected to the engineer and the wrecker through the two main characters, Charles and Gordon, whose fate is decided by their respective relationship with the savage seascape of Aros (Earraid). If this seascape follows the imaginative and geographical patterns of a frontier that still needs to be understood and tamed, Memoirs of an Islet, an autobiographical essay concerning Stevenson’s stay on Earraid, represents the conquest of that frontier, documenting the successful construction of a lighthouse on the islet and juxtaposing it with Stevenson’s own reflections on his own life and career. The chapter of Kidnapped set on Earraid, instead, hints at Stevenson’s attempt to undermine his own mythology, suggesting that each narrative focused on an extreme place, including the frontier of the Scottish coast, is culturally located and ultimately contestable. David Balfour’s shipwreck on Earraid seems initially to follow the patterns established by the other texts, but those patterns are ultimately subverted when Stevenson provides us with a glimpse on a very different perspective on both the natural world and the local population of this environment.

"Ricordi e racconti della costa scozzese: sulle tracce di una mitologia di frontiera in The Merry Men, Memoirs of an Islet e Kidnapped di Robert Louis Stevenson”

Lucio De Capitani
2020

Abstract

In this contribution I compare three texts by Robert Louis Stevenson – the short story The Merry Men, the essay Memoirs of an Islet, and a central chapter of the novel Kidnapped. All of them feature the tidal islet of Earraid, which Stevenson visited while touring the Scottish coast as an engineer in training. Using insights provided by the later essay Records of a Family of Engineers, I read Earraid as the symbol of a coherent frontier narrative that Stevenson creates out of the engineering legacy of his father, uncles and grandfather – a successful family of lighthouse builders in Scotland throughout the 19th century. This narrative, which employs both the peculiar spatial imagination of the frontier as well as its (multiple) ideological connotations, frames nature as hostile, to be pacified through technical progress. Moreover, it opposes two archetypal figures: the engineer-pioneer, an inventor and adventurer who brings light and progress to the wilderness of the Scottish sea, and the wrecker, a scavenger who lives off the salvaged goods of the shipwrecks, refuses to help the victims of the sea and is therefore the natural enemy of the engineer. The moral and material clash between these two figures, as well as the idea of progress as a gradual pacification of nature that emerges from this mythology, is variously articulated and re-elaborated within the three texts. The Merry Men, a tale of madness and shipwrecks, explores the ethical worldviews connected to the engineer and the wrecker through the two main characters, Charles and Gordon, whose fate is decided by their respective relationship with the savage seascape of Aros (Earraid). If this seascape follows the imaginative and geographical patterns of a frontier that still needs to be understood and tamed, Memoirs of an Islet, an autobiographical essay concerning Stevenson’s stay on Earraid, represents the conquest of that frontier, documenting the successful construction of a lighthouse on the islet and juxtaposing it with Stevenson’s own reflections on his own life and career. The chapter of Kidnapped set on Earraid, instead, hints at Stevenson’s attempt to undermine his own mythology, suggesting that each narrative focused on an extreme place, including the frontier of the Scottish coast, is culturally located and ultimately contestable. David Balfour’s shipwreck on Earraid seems initially to follow the patterns established by the other texts, but those patterns are ultimately subverted when Stevenson provides us with a glimpse on a very different perspective on both the natural world and the local population of this environment.
Estremi confini. Spazi e narrazioni nella letteratura in lingua inglese
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: https://hdl.handle.net/10278/3725678
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