The place that money might play in Robin's mental horizon becomes more than an ethnic joke. Does Robin's concern for his "reputation" reflect simply a canny business sense, or does it reflect the pride that is "the secret subject of his contemplation" — or can we really make a distinction here? Would such a distinction occur to Robin? Robin's connections with Rob Roy "still gave him a little right to distinction in his own lonely glen." It is only a "little" right, because the heroic, violent career Rob Roy himself followed has become archaic and impossible with (among other things) the coming of the Highland roads. The very conditions that allow Robin Oig the chance of gaining money and the "distinction" it brings by being a drover are those that have diminished his family glory. Is this too part of his consciousness? Such considerations change the ring of the jokes made earlier about the Highland heart being "made glad" by the abundance of English money. Why did he make them so glibly, and how did we laugh at them so easily? It's not simply that Robin's situation is more complex than we had imagined. We sense a different mental world from ours, one in which money has a substance and aura derived from its ability to summon up and continue a past family glory built on very different grounds from those of modern, anonymous commerce. In this context, the metaphor of the hoard which for the miser provides "the secret subject of his contemplation" has a powerful eerie effect. Money is alive for a miser in a way that it isn't for us. This image attaches mana to Robin's nexus of dealings with money, honor, and selfhood —something archaic, obsessive, and alien to us. We fee intruders who have carelessly broken into the miser's contemplation tourists who have stumbled into part of a village we are not meant to see.
This effect is repeated in a different key with the entrance of Robin's aunt Janet. The Lowlanders in the scene are uneasy, fearing her supernatural powers over the herds, and they reassure themselves that Robin is clever enough to have taken precautions. Croftangry glosses their conversation by remarking for our benefit, "It may not be indifferent the reader to know that the Highland cattle are peculiarly liable to be take infected, by spells and witchcraft; which judicious people guard against by knitting knots of peculiar complexity on the tuft of hair which terminates the animal's tail" (226). One purpose of this superciliousness is to help us identify with Robin's own embarrassment at his aunt. But Janet's entrance has a power, and raises issues, that cannot be so easily missed. One sign of this power lurks in a simple statement Robin makes to his aunt, which includes a Gaelic word Scott significantly does not gloss. When Janet takes his dirk from him, telling him she sees English blood on it, Robin replies: "You cannot tell by the colour the difference betwixt the blood of a black bullock and a white one, and you speak of knowing Saxon from Gaelic blood. All men have their blood from Adam, Muhme" (228). We understand the notion of a universal brotherhood of man conveyed by the reminder that all men have their blood from Adam, but what could "Muhme" mean? The juxtaposition of universalistic sentiment and a recalcitrant linguistic particularity is striking. It enacts central dynamic of the story, for Robin and for us —an attempted movement beyond the culturally particular to the universal which inevitably and tragically returns to the very particularity it sought to avoid. If "all men" really had their blood from Adam, if difference were not the source of cultural definition and animation, then Robin Oig would not die at the end of the story. But if cultural difference were not fundamental, the story itself would not live. To the extent that we transcend Croftangry's comments of simple cultural stereotyping and use our own imagination enter the metonymical web of Highland culture, we have an investment in believing that cultural differences matter. We thus become imaginatively complicit in a crucial aspect of the situation that causes Robin's death. To conclude that we thereby become in some sense personally "responsible" for his death would, however, be to indulge in an unearned moment of the interpretive sublime. What we are shown to be complicit in is history. The possibility that the mind-set the story promotes might allow us more freedom of thought and agency than the story's characters possess remains open.
As the story progresses to its tragic climax, its characters are increasingly spoken by the logic and language of their cultures. Harry is singing English folk song with his friends when Robin enters the inn and calls urn to "stand up" and face him. When he naively tries to patch things with the man who, having retrieved his dirk, has returned to the inn to him, his initial attempt to speak beyond his local prejudices falters, he laces his language with insults, and Robin follows suit. Harry begins by speaking of hearts and hands; things as common to all men as the blood of Adam, but he ends with language that draws invidious boundaries of "rationality and sex. . . . [Chapter Five: "Scott: Realism and the Other," 201-203; added by PVA]
- Philip V. Allingham's Review of Harry E. Shaw's Narrating Reality
- Realism and the Outer Life
- Realism in Austen's Northanger Abbey
- Eliot's Realism and Nineteenth-Century Historicism
Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, and Eliot. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 280, including four-page index. ISBN 0-8014-1592-6.
Last modified 18 October 2004