"Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island is probably one of the best known novels in English, more famous than any of the works of many authors with a far greater literary reputation, such as George Eliot or Henry James.  According to The Oxford Companion to English Literature (7th edn) its 'impact on the popular image of pirates (one-legged rogues, with parrots on their shoulders, in search of buried treasure) has been huge'.

Yet Treasure Island is a book for children, and was intended as such by its author.  It first appeared in parts, between July 1882 and June 1883, in a periodical called Young Folks. It could more accurately be described as a book for boys: apart from the mother of the young hero there are no female roles whatsoever, and she disappears early from the action.  This action, in England or on the mysterious island where most of the novel is set, takes place entirely among males, with young Jim Hawkins, the narrator for most of the story, providing the protagonist with whom boy readers can identify.

The absence of sex is total, but the world described is an often brutal adult one.  There is an extraordinary number of violent deaths in the novel, though they are mainly of pirates on whom little sympathy need be wasted, and the treatement of the violence is somewhat sanitised.  Drunkedness and its consequences also figure prominently.  The novel confronts some harsh realities, notably treachery, despite the inherently romantic motif of a search for hidden treasure with the aid of a fortuitously discovered map.

The novel is set in the second half of the eighteenth century, and one of its great achievements is the success with which its world is evoked.  Young readers are not bored with long passages of description, but the environments of the sailing ship and of the island come vividly before us.  (This reader did find himself consulting a dictionary for some of the sailing terminology, but in the 1880s it probably posed fewer problems.)  It was interesting to note that the island is not the tropic cay of modern pirate movies: its vegetation is more temperate, and it is a hotbed of disease, perhaps a metaphor for the effect of the treasure on many (though not all) who go in search of it.

Treasure Island is memorable for its characters, particularly, of course, the one-legged Long John Silver with his parrot Captain Flint on his shoulder.  But many other minor figures like the blind Pew and Israel Hands, also come vividly, if briefly, to life.  Among the more admirable figures one remembers the good-hearted but impulsive and indiscreet Squire Twelawney, and the much more judicious Dr Livesey, whose dedication to his profession causes him to treat even pirates dedicated to his destruction.

The novel has its 'good guys' and 'bad guys',  but the picture presents some interesting modifications.  Long John Silver is thorougly black-hearted, but he is also intelligent, often charming, and perhaps not incapable of a measure of decency.  In the penultimate chapter of the novel Jim says that he 'has at last gone clean out of my life', but speculates without rancour that he 'still lives in comfort somewhere'.  The reader whom he has entertained probably wishes him no less.

Jim Hawkins himself is in many respects the archetypal plucky young hero.  But he is capable of acting irresponsibly, notably when he sneaks away from the besieged camp on what appears to be a rather hare-brained scheme to set the ship adrift.  Dr Livesey and the ship's captain do not seem ever entirely to forgive him, and one does wonder if Jim considered whether his plan to maroon the pirates would not also have had the effect of marooning his friends.  Stevenson does not dwell on the matter.

There are more profound novels than Treasure Island.  But one does not have to be a boy to find it an unflagging source of enjoyment and pleasure.