Robert Louis Stevenson World Literature Analysis
Stevenson was a professional writer, in the broadest sense of that term. He was an essayist, a poet, and a writer of fiction (he even tried his hand at plays in collaboration with W. E. Henley, a British poet and essayist). It is true that, until The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde took the United States by storm in 1887, he could not survive economically without his father’s help. Yet his love of words and his delight in their use were strong enough that he had to write, and he would have written no matter what. Writing was not only his occupation, it was his calling. This attitude means that in Stevenson’s work one encounters a variety of genres and styles. It also means that technique and “manner” will be foremost; his work will manifest a certain “finish” or “polish.” In his nonfiction work, this polish means that his serious themes will be very easy to digest. In his fiction and poetry, it means that his serious themes will hardly be noticed. That is both Stevenson’s bane and his salvation. He survives, but in the popular imagination, not in the critical pantheon. Consequently, his books are still in print because readers are still delighted and moved by them, not because readers feel the need to discuss and analyze his works as they would the works of his contemporary Henry James.
Stevenson was an inveterate tourist, even in his own country, so travel writing constitutes a significant part of his literary output. His first commercially published book, An Inland Voyage (1878), is an account of a Continental canoe trip with a friend in 1876. Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), his next two books, were also travel documents. The Silverado Squatters, perhaps his best writing in this genre, is an account of his “honeymoon” in the summer of 1880 with his new bride and stepson, plus assorted visitors, in an abandoned miner’s cabin. This book is deceptively simple, subtly humorous, and shrewdly perceptive.
Stevenson’s first novel was Treasure Island, serialized in Young Folks magazine in the fall and winter of 1881-1882 and first published in book form in 1883. Evident in this novel are the techniques and themes that dominate Stevenson’s fiction. The novel is narrated in the first person in a seemingly transparent, “artless” manner. A plain person is trying to record the facts of his experience as precisely and completely as he can:Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
A plain beginning, except that the startling phrases “there is still treasure not yet lifted” and “with the sabre cut” provide a brief flash of the vividly colored world into which the reader is about to be seduced. This deceptive straightforwardness is a key element in all of Stevenson’s fiction. His first-person protagonists, plain men that they are, also end up being “hangers-on” in their own stories; there is always a minor character who becomes the focus of the reader’s attention as this character becomes the focus of the narrator’s attention. Jim Hawkins, narrator of Treasure Island, is overwhelmed by Long John Silver, the cook on his voyage; David Balfour, narrator of Kidnapped and its sequel, Catriona (1893), is overwhelmed by Alan Breck, his guide through the highlands of Scotland. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mr. Utterson, the matter-of-fact lawyer from whose point of view the third-person narrative is told, is overwhelmed by the title characters.
These minor characters assume great importance in their stories because they are vivid mixtures of appealing and repulsive qualities. They are fascinating characters because they combine great capacity for good with great capacity for evil. This dimension raises the issue of Stevenson’s dominant theme: moral ambiguity in human actions. Stevenson is a moralist, but a hard-headed moralist, not a writer of tracts. His novels provide an unflinching examination of the difficulty of either taking the right action or judging actions rightly. Alan Breck has blood on his hands, but he is a loyal and selfless friend to the narrator of Kidnapped. The attractive protagonist of the medieval romance The Black Arrow (1888) saves a minor character’s life but is nevertheless bitterly reproached by that character for having been put in the life-threatening situation in the first place. Right prevails in The Black Arrow, but only after much destruction has made such a triumph hollow. That is the type of world found in the novels that have largely been confined to the children’s literature bookshelf. The deceptive straightforwardness and “plainness” of the telling, the vividness of the incidents, the fascinating complexity of the characters’ personalities—these divert all but the most careful readers from conscious consideration of the serious themes that dominate Stevenson’s fiction.
A Child’s Garden of Verses ranks with Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in long-lasting popularity. In Stevenson’s poetry, as in his prose, however, “transparency” masks subtlety. A contemporary critic, quoted in J. C. Furnas’s brilliant biography of Stevenson, A Voyage to Windward (1951), makes the point that A Child’s Garden of Verses isnot (as too easily supposed) a book of verse for children, but a book of verse about children. Children, of course, like many of the pieces, but essentially the poems are the disclosure of a child’s mind. . . . Never was there a set of...
(The entire section is 2492 words.)