Given that Sir Walter Scott was educated to practice law and that his interest in history focused on times of rebellion or revolution, it is perhaps not surprising that complex issues of right, justice, and power should figure prominently in his fiction. Bruce Beiderwell contends that Scott's novels contributed in a significant way to the general discourse on crime and punishment during his lifetime (1771-1832), which conincided with a vital period in the history of criminal law reform. Scott, a Tory, was on the side of authority, but his early novels in particular evince an intricate understanding of the moral and political limitations of laws - especially those that sanctioned the state's authority to imprison and execute. In "Waverley", "Rob Roy", "Old Mortality", and "The Hearth of Midlothian", says Beiderwell, Scott tests the power he upholds against its most unpleasant expression. These early novels provide a tentative yet wide-ranging commentary on the issues raised by scenes of punishment.
In Scott's later fiction - most notably "Ivanhoe", "The Talisman" and "Redgauntlet" -" The critical tendencies of realism are dispelled by the powerful wishes that shape romance", writes Beiderwell. Moral ambiguity dissolves, as Scott gives voice to a vision in which victory is always associated with justice and punishment with guilt. Beiderwell argues that realism and romance function as opposing modes of response to the vexing problems raised by punishment. This division, he notes, follows Scott's own conventional understanding of genre and marks the critical and wishful tendencies of his work as well as of his surrounding political culture. "Power and Punishment in Scott's Novels" places the author of the Waverley novels in the context of his times and in so doing, claims a place for his in our own.