"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.


Peter Clayton said...

It’s many years since I last read Treasure Island, so it was a genuine pleasure to be invited to read it again. John Kennedy rightly notes that it is a children’s book. Obviously I was still a boy when I last read it, as only this time was I struck by how clearly it was for children. To the adult reader it is obvious from the start, for instance, that Long John Silver, however attractive, is a rogue. In My First Book (which clearly it was not), Stevenson writes ‘It was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded.’

All the classic elements of a yarn about pirates and treasure are present–indeed, Treasure Island was perhaps the model for all since. Despite Stevenson’s apologia, it is very well written, too.

Nice touches of humour were also missed by this boy reader of long ago:

Israel Hands: ‘… do you take as a dead man is dead for good, or do he come alive again?’
Jim: ‘You can kill the body, Mr Hands, but not the spirit…’
‘Ah!’ says he. ‘ Well, that’s unfort’nate–appears as if killing parties was a waste of time.’

When re-reading it, I found myself constantly referring to the map of Treasure Island. How interesting, then, to read that the story started with a map:

‘… as I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out at me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I know I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters…’

How sad that this original map was lost and had to be painstakingly recreated:

‘It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it… But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.’

Stevenson also comments that Long John Silver was based upon ‘an admired friend’; as a result, no doubt, his is the most fully developed character in the book.

Unlike many Victorian (and later) stories for children, no moral lessons are drawn. Perhaps this is another reason that this novel has not dated as have so many others.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Peter. Interesting point about the humour, often somewhat of the gallows variety.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Thank you for great post on "Treasure island" - it is many years since I read it and I have very positive and fairly romantic memories from that reading so it was great to read it again.
As you mention the drawing of the character Of John Silver and other characters is strong and I think Peter mentions the humour throughout - an apt observation.
Mostly I am impressed with the liveliness of the writing and the rhythmic feel it gives the adventure story. I think Stevenson got it all right in this boys own book and I have noted it remains very popular in the libraries with children - in full and often in simpler editions.
I also liked your mention of the sailing ship and nautical terminology throughout - i was using a dictionary too and I have to say that i cant remember that being an issue for me on the first reading. I continually find on re-reading classics that I discover more the second time around and this was certainly the case with re-reading "Treasure" re the sailing words and a lot more besides. Thanks