Michelle Elleray (University of Guelph)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Disorienting Ballantyne the Brave: The Ebb-Tide and the Boys’ Adventure Novel’

Despite his youthful adulation of The Coral Island and his invocation of “Ballantyne the Brave” at the beginning of Treasure Island, R. L. Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide reconfigures R. M. Ballantyne’s classic boys’ adventure novel, disorienting its idealization of British heroism and civility in the process.  The Ebb-Tide is thus the far end of a trajectory that begins with The Coral Island and the juvenile missionary periodicals Stevenson read as a child: Stevenson journeys from avid consumer of exotic adventure, to critic of Western imperialism and missionary efforts in the Pacific.

The moral uncertainties that plague The Ebb-Tide’s central character, Herrick, and that result in an ethical state of arrest, are located in the collapse of the apparent certainties of empire from which Ballantyne was able to draw.  As long as the imperial system divided the civilized from the savage, peoples or races could be clearly located on one side or other of the fence, but what happens to the justification of imperialism as the dissemination of civility when “savages” are civilized? When Sally Day, the presumed cannibal in The Ebb-Tide, is a better Christian than his white captain, and Attwater, the self-styled Western missionary, is a tyrannical despot?

A reviewer dismissed The Ebb-Tide as “a picture of the fag-ends of certain useless and degraded lives,” but I argue that this is the strength, rather than weakness, of the text—Stevenson presents empire not as the realm of boys’ adventure heroism, but rather as the site of violence, self-interest and rapaciousness. Repositioning The Ebb-Tide in the context of The Coral Island demonstrates both the ambivalent relationship between missionary culture and empire threaded through the boys’ adventure novel as a nineteenth-century genre, and that The Ebb-Tide provides an important counterpoint to the imperial hubris of the late-nineteenth-century boys’ adventure novel.

Categorized as Abstracts

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