In Kidnapped, more than in most romances, the characters personify the themes. The hero, David Balfour, illuminates the theme of a young man’s coming of age. David begins his adventures as a boy of seventeen and ends them as a man. During his several months away from home, he learns a tremendous amount about human nature, the perils of the sea and the open road, and the rewards of courage and steadfastness.
His primary instructor in these and other lessons is the fiery Alan Breck Stewart, his companion for nearly all of the last two-thirds of the text. Alan’s complex blend of bravery, vanity, prudence, honesty, and unusual courtesy-he will not, for example, allow anyone to speak with him in Gaelic when David is near, since the lad does not understand the tongue-commands David’s respect but also creates some confusion in their relationship.
Alan’s sometimes contradictory characteristics point to a popular 19th-century theme, one that Stevenson deals with more directly in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the duality of human nature. Thus, Alan is both a kindly friend and a remorseless killer of his enemies. He may be excessively vain, but he is truly “a bonny fighter.” Elias Hoseason, the captain of The Covenant, the ship upon which David is kidnapped, emerges as “two men, and [he] left the better one behind as soon as he set foot on board his vessel.” David’s recognition of this truth is a measure of his increasing insight.
David also seems occasionally divided. He is often of two minds, as when he wishes himself free of the desperate Alan’s company but is too loyal and grateful to say so. The reader can perceive David’s faults and yet cannot fail to admire him for his spirit and good will. When compared with heroes in other romance novels, David defies stereotypes. Despite the fact that he is fairly large, strong, and vigorous, David is not a skilled fighter; when Alan tries to instruct him in swordsmanship, he finds David an ungifted student. David’s cleverness, in which he often takes a very human and unsubstantiated pride, rises to no high levels.
Of the minor characters such as the unhappy cabin boy Ransome, David’s wicked uncle Ebenezer Balfour, and the honest and cautious lawyer Mr. Rankeillor, the most colorful is Cluny Macpherson, the chief of an outlawed clan. Macpherson’s marked forms of politeness and his addiction to gambling make him an eccentric, interesting addition to the story.
All in all, the cast of characters-from the sailors on The Covenant to the gillies in the Highlands-are a mixed lot. Few female characters appear, but the charming tavern owner’s daughter who aids David and Alan near the end of the story proves that Stevenson could create appealing women in his fiction. Perhaps the quintessential moral illustrated by all these people and their adventures is that one should never give up on a worthy cause, whether it be one’s belief in personal freedom or simply, as in David’s case, the desire to obtain one’s birthright.