While Kidnapped can be appreciated as a straightforward adventure story, there are many symbolic elements in the novel. In the episode where Ebenezer sends David into the stair-tower (Chapter IV), he gives David a key to the tower. The key can be seen as symbolizing the key to David’s adulthood. The incident, in which David comes close to death, marks his first exposure to wickedness and the end of his childish innocence.
David’s awakening in Chapter VII in the womb-like belly of the Covenant can be symbolically interpreted as a rebirth (after the symbolic death of his childhood) into the cruel adult world. The incident is also a reference to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah was a prophet who disobeyed God’s instruction to travel to a certain people and preach to them in order to convert them. He tries to avoid his duty to God by traveling elsewhere on a ship. Terrible storms threaten the ship, and Jonah admits to the sailors that he is to blame, as he has called down God’s anger on the ship. They agree to his request to throw him overboard. Jonah is saved from drowning when a whale swallows him up. Jonah spends three days in the whale’s belly, praying to God for forgiveness. God grants it, telling the whale to vomit up Jonah. Jonah’s life has been saved and he has learned an important lesson in the belly of the whale.
Applying the symbolism of Jonah and the whale to David in Kidnapped, the reader may deduce that David, like Jonah, has learned an important lesson in the belly of the ship. He has learned that the protected world of his childhood is ended and that he is now part of the dangerous adult world, where money and greed, not love, govern men’s actions. In order to counter the forces ranged against him, he must grow up fast and become an adult.
Alan’s gift to David of a silver button cut from his coat (Chapter XI) has symbolic significance. The gift comes in recognition of David’s bravery in the battle of the round-house, in which he killed two men and possibly wounded more, despite having no experience with firearms. It is the symbolic equivalent of a medieval knight winning his spurs in battle: an acknowledgement that a rite-of-passage has occurred. David is no longer a child, but a man, and a courageous one at that. Later in the novel, the silver button becomes symbolic of Alan’s guidance and spirit even when he is not physically present with David. In Chapter XVI, for example, David is able to show the button to the skipper of a ship on which he is traveling and thereby earn the protection that would be given to Alan.
Stevenson was one of a few writers who used the Scottish dialect to recreate something of the flavor of Scotland in his works. Other users of Scottish dialect include the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) and the novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Kidnapped includes Scottish dialect words such as “flit” (move), “gloaming” (dusk), and “maun” (must).
In Stevenson’s day, the use of the Scottish dialect, in combination with Stevenson’s sympathetic portrayal of the Jacobite Highlanders, would have been seen as slightly subversive. This is because after the last of the Jacobite Risings was defeated by the Hanoverian King’s forces in 1746, there was a conscious attempt on the part of English and pro-English Lowland society to suppress the use of all expressions of Scottish nationality. These included the wearing of tartan (which denoted clan), playing the bagpipes, and the use of Scottish dialect and the Gaelic language.
Another purpose of using dialect is to add to the sense in which Scotland, in the words of Stevenson’s wife in her Preface to Kidnapped, is “a foreign country,” an exotic place of unusual dangers and wild adventure. The strangeness of the language expresses the strangeness of the country.
Kidnapped is told in first-person narrative, a literary technique in which the story is narrated by one character (David), who refers to himself in the first person, that is, as “I.” At the novel’s beginning, David is a naïve young man whose outlook is limited. This adds to the suspense of episodes such as those in which Ebenezer sends David into the stair-tower and later has him kidnapped, as it is likely that readers are more sophisticated than David and can see danger coming before he does. Readers may find themselves wondering when or if David is going to catch on to the truth about his situation. By the time David has spent time and faced dangers with Alan by his side, he is more mature and perceptive: in Chapter XV, he defeats both the cheating guide and the blind robber by his superior physical strength and intelligence. Here, David keeps pace with the reader and even overtakes him in understanding, showing that he is coming into his own as an adult and a hero.