Roderick Watson (University of Stirling)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Ginger Beer and Earthquakes: Stevenson and Contingency’

‘We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant’ — ‘Aes Triplex’

Recent critical approaches to Robert Louis Stevenson have come to see him in the context of early modernism and even as a writer who prefigures aspects of postmodernism. In his magisterial 1996 study, Alan Sandison signalled Stevenson’s ‘intense artistic self-consciousness’, especially in ‘matters of form and metafictional structures’, as well as his interest in psychological complexity and his destabilisation of moral, social and textual authority, leading the reader to a very modern awareness of contingency and indeterminacy (Sandison 1996, pp. 4-5).

Stevenson’s work can indeed be ‘re-located’ in these terms, with The Ebb-Tide (c. 1890-3) as a proto-modernist / postmodernist text of at least as much significance as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898), while the different narrative voices in The Master of Ballantrae (1887 ff) and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), among others, have shown that these tales have as much to say about narrative instability as they do about the more familiar tropes of psychological dualism (RLS texts dated by first appearance as drafts or first MSS).

My own reading of Stevenson has been much influenced by his engagement with contingency and absurdity, from the tossed coins in Ballantrae, to the vagaries of fortune and finance in ‘The Misadventures of John Nicholson’; to the Beckettian tone of the Fables, or the disturbing generic hybrids (black comedy’ is an insufficient description), of The Dynamiter and The Wrecker.

This paper will aim to explore and further locate these tendencies with particular reference to Stevenson’s journey from the belle-lettriste meditation of ‘Aes Triplex’ (1878) to the vision of existential horror in ‘Pulvis et Umbra’ (1887).

Categorized as Abstracts

Contact Us

To contact the conference organisers:

Scott Hames
Tel:+44 (0)1786 466205

Adrian Hunter
Tel:+44(0)1786 467507


Hosted by