'You want some action for this dollar?': Gambling for the Plot in 'Pursued' and 'The Master of Ballantrae'


  • Roslyn Jolly


Raoul Walsh’s noir-Western Pursued (1947) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s historical novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889) share many elements of plot and characterisation, including a crucial scene in which two brothers toss a coin to decide which will go to war and which will stay at home. This essay uses a comparative study of the film and the novel to investigate the significance of the gambling motif as a plot device, and through this to explore theoretical questions about the role of chance in determining narrative form and meaning. The study makes use of two narrative models: Henry James’s conception of the classically unified narrative, in which character determines and is illustrated by incident, and the ‘plural’ text posited by Roland Barthes, in which chance is the only principle of determination. As it gauges the differing degrees to which Pursued and The Master of Ballantrae conform to either of these models, the essay argues that narrative genre is crucial in enabling or disabling the role of chance within the plot.