Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson [A Review]

Composed as a story for boys, Treasure Island has been entertaining readers for over a century. Full of adventure, danger and mystery, it is the story of a young boy and a pirate, each fighting to survive, surrounded by men whose greed has made them careless and dangerous.

Cover Image of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Jim Hawkins, a young boy who lives and works with his parents at their isolated inn, the Admiral Benbow, on the Bristol coast is completely unaware that his life is about to be turned upside down. Arriving at their inn is an old buccaneer, with a heavy sea chest, looking for a room and a steady supply of rum. Taking to Jim, he pays the boy a silver quarter-penny a month to keep an eye out for a sailor with a wooden leg.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

At first, the old sea dog, who they come to refer to as ‘the captain’, keeps to himself and, when he does venture out, scans the waves for ships with his spyglass. But he is a heavy drinker with a violent temper and terrifies the locals with his stories. Jim’s father is far too scared to confront him about what he owes the inn.

Eventually the outside world tracks down the captain. One day while he was out, another sailor, missing two fingers, arrives at the inn, asking for Bill, by whom he means the captain. Horrified on his return to see the man waiting for him, Bill sits down to talk with ‘Black Dog’. Their talk turns into an argument and then a fight with cutlass’ drawn. Bill sends Black Dog running out and says he must leave too but collapses with what is likely a stroke.

While recovering, Bill confesses to Jim. He was first mate to Captain Flint, a notorious pirate.

“You have heard of this Flint, I suppose?”

“Heard of him!” cried the squire. “Heard of him, you say! He was the bloodthirstiest buccaneer that sailed, Blackbeard was a child to Flint.”

On his deathbed Flint confided the secret location of his buried hoard of treasure, a secret Bill keeps in his sea chest. Not long after, Bill dies, the perils of a hard life finally catching up with him. In his chest, they find little money and his secret. When Black Dog and others return to confront Bill, Jim and his family flee their inn.

Two local gentlemen – the Squire Trelawney and the Doctor Livesey – take them in and looking over Flint’s map, they soon determine to outfit a ship and set sail as soon as possible in search of Flint’s treasure. But they have to be as discreet as possible – clearly others know of the treasure map and that it is now in someone’s possession. But the Squire and the Doctor don’t know much about sailing and discretion is not the Squire’s strong point. He makes the acquaintance of a ship’s cook who seems to be decent and trustworthy not to mention handy when it comes to choosing who to hire to crew their ship.

Though only a boy, Jim Hawkins is to accompany the voyage as well, serving as a cabin boy. The ship’s cook, Long John Silver, like Bill, takes to Jim, and Jim too finds him to be above suspicion. So much so that Jim is not at all troubled to see that Long John Silver has a wooden leg.

Now, to tell you the truth, from the very first mention of Long John in Squire Trelawney’s letter, I had taken a fear in my mind that he might prove to be the very one-legged sailor whom I had watched for so long at the old “Benbow.” But one look at the man before me was enough. I had seen the captain, and Black Dog, and the blind man Pew, and I thought I knew what a buccaneer was like – a very different creature, according to me, from this clean and pleasant-tempered landlord.

As I work my way through classics of literature, I inevitably run into stories that were among my favourites when I read them as a child in an abridged children’s format – The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, for example. In all previous cases, reading the original versions of these stories was nowhere near as enjoyable as the stripped-down fun versions of my childhood.

The original Treasure Island, though, promised to be a different experience and much closer to the fun version I remember. For one thing, it is far more recent (1883) than the others, post-Dickens in fact. It is much further along in the evolution of storytelling and the novel and does not pose the same difficulties for today’s reader. The original was also written to be a story for children, or rather, for boys. And, despite the violence and alcoholism that would make many of today’s parents wary, there is very little else that needs to be pared back from the original.

Treasure Island has a great opening. The arrival of the mysterious and terrible Billy Bones at Jim Hawkins’ family inn immediately immerses the reader in an atmosphere primed for adventure and danger. Stevenson uses this sense of adventure into the unknown, the constant threat of danger and the mysteries at the heart of the story to thoroughly engage the reader in this short but entertaining novel.

Sitting by the fire in the housekeeper’s room, I approached that island in my fancy, from every possible direction; I explored every acre of its surface; I climbed a thousand times to that tall hill they call Spy-glass, and from the top enjoyed the most wonderful and changing prospects. Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought; sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us; but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventures.

But is Treasure Island literature? I think probably not. It is a well-crafted entertaining tale but probably does not contain the messages, meanings or themes beyond that which, to me, is one of the distinguishing features of literature. I think Robert Louis Stevenson was of similar mind too.

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1894

Treasure Island does give readers plenty to ponder, though. Before I go into that, I have to bring up something I did not like about this Penguin Classics edition of the novel. The reason I buy editions like Penguin or Oxford Classics is because of the informed Introductions, explanatory notes and other additional information that accompany them. But this edition did not contain notes! I’m not sure why. I think they would have been useful, at the very least to explain some of the terminology of sailing, the time and setting. The back cover says it does have notes, so I don’t know if it was an error or oversight in the printing that excluded them.

One thing this edition wants to make clear, in the additional material that was included, is how much Treasure Island is indebted to works that preceded it. This is plain from the essay by Stevenson, written close to his death, where he discusses the inspiration and composition of Treasure Island and the works that he consciously and unconsciously borrowed from. An excerpt from a key one – Washington Irving’s Tales of Traveller – where a pirate terrorises a seaside inn, is included as an appendix.

I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from “Masterman Ready.” It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing they had left behind them “Footprints in the sands of time; Footprints that perhaps another –“ and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1894

While some of this borrowing, adapting, possible plagiarising; may not reflect well on Stevenson, John Seelye in his Introduction makes the point that the parts Stevenson borrowed were mostly relatively unimportant parts from other writer’s lesser works. From them Stevenson created a story of enduring popularity.  

Again, that Stevenson seems to have borrowed from [James Fenimore Cooper’s romance, The Sea Lions], as well as from Irving and Marryat, is important chiefly because of what he did with the elements he appropriated for his own romance. That is to say, the parallels are of interest as a key to Stevenson’s genius, witnessed by his skill at recombining elements from what are generally conceded to be lesser works of Irving and Cooper into one of the most entertaining novels of all time.

From the Introduction

Other topics of interest that Seelye discusses include comparisons of Jim Hawkins to other fictional boys of the period such as the boys of Mark Twain’s work. Boys who rebel against adult authority, seem untrustworthy, even morally misguided, yet are compelled by their better angels to do the right thing. In that respect, Treasure Island has aspects of young adult and coming of age stories. The history of the adventure novel and Treasure Island’s place in its evolution is discussed. And, while Stevenson may have been inspired by those who came before him, he in turn was a source of inspiration for others. Possible examples include Peter Pan (1904), where the alter-ego relationship of Hawkins and Long John Silver is somewhat replicated between Peter Pan and Captain Hook, and Kim (1901), which takes the adventure novel to not only international but cross-cultural spaces.

Treasure Island was a huge success when first published. Over the course of a century, ‘Treasure Island’ has created a position for itself in our culture, symbolising romance, adventure and the exotic. Just see how the resort and island holiday industry evoke it. The original novel retains those aspects as well as its ability to entertain while also inhabiting an important place in the evolution of adventure and coming of age fiction.

3 comments

  1. I first read ‘Treasure Island’ when I was about 10 and a voracious reader. Some boys at school said that the book wasn’t meant for girls, but I pointed out that none of them were interested in reading it… Certainly I loved the book as much as some more obviously ‘girlish’ books such as ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’. I felt vindicated much later when I read an interview with Iris Murdoch in which she described ‘Treasure Island’ as her ‘ideal book’.

    The book contains one of the greatest plot twists I’ve ever read (Jim in the apple barrel). It also introduced me to questions of moral ambivalence. After all, why is it acceptable that ‘respectable gentlemen’ like Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey go hunting for this rather dubiously acquired treasure, but deplorable that acknowledged pirates should do so?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The idea of books for boys and girls is certainly antiquated. I certainly bristle at the suggestion that there may be certain books I would not be expected to like based on who I am, and I think most readers would be too.

      Your point about the hypocrisy of assuming the ‘gentleman adventurer’ is a model of moral virtue while the ‘low-class buccaneer’ can’t hope to be one, is a real eye-opener. I guess you could argue the novel also has to be placed in the context of a class-based society and ponder what it has to say about it. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

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