Study Guide

Treasure Island

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Although Robert Louis Stevenson produced a large number and variety of writings during his relatively short life and was considered a serious adult author in his own day, he is largely remembered now as the writer of one gothic horror story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and two boys’ books, Treasure Island and Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (1886). Such a view is undoubtedly unfair and slights the author’s many valuable literary accomplishments, but the fact that these three works have endured not only as citations in literary histories but also as readable, exciting books is a tribute to Stevenson’s genius. Treasure Island remains the supreme achievement among the three works. Although critics may debate its seriousness, few question its status as the purest of adventure stories. According to Stevenson, the book was born out of his fascination with a watercolor map he himself drew of an imaginary island.

When Jim Hawkins begins by stating that he is telling the story in retrospect, at the request of “Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen,” readers are assured that all the principals survived the quest successfully, thus giving readers that security necessary in a romantic adventure intended primarily for young people. Although many exciting scenes will ensue and the heroes will face great danger on a number of occasions, readers know that they will overcome all such obstacles. Thus, the suspense centers on how they escape, not on their personal survival as such. At the same time, by denying details of either the precise time of the adventure or the exact location, Stevenson sets readers imaginatively free to enjoy the story unencumbered by the specifics of when or where.

By introducing the mysterious, threatening Bill Bones into the serene atmosphere of the Admiral Benbow Inn, Stevenson immerses readers directly into the story. The strange secret of Bones’s background and nature creates the novel’s initial excitement, which is then intensified by his apparent fear and subsequent encounters with Black Dog and Blind Pew. In all, the sequence that begins with Billy’s arrival and ends with Pew’s death serves as an overture to the adventure and sets up most of the important elements in the story, especially Captain Flint’s map, which directs the group to Treasure Island, and the warnings to beware of “the seafaring man with one leg,” which prepares readers for the archvillain of the tale, Long John Silver.

In the classic adventure story pattern, an ordinary individual, Jim Hawkins, living a normal, routine life, is suddenly thrust into an extraordinary and dangerous situation, which soon gets beyond the control of the individual and his cohorts. Although the hero is involuntarily pressed into danger, he nevertheless can extricate himself and return the situation to normality only through his efforts. The adventure story is, therefore, usually to some extent a coming-of-age novel, whether the hero be fourteen or sixty-four years old.

Near the beginning of the book, the death of Jim’s father frees Jim to seek his fortune and places the responsibility on him to find it for the sake of his widowed mother. Without a father of his own, Jim can look to other father figures. He finds two: Dr. Livesey, who represents stability, maturity, and moral responsibility; and John Silver, who suggests imagination, daring, bravado, and energy. Between these two and, more important, through his own actions, Jim finds his own adulthood along with the treasure.

Jim’s education begins with the act of searching the belongings of the dead Bill Bones despite the proximity of Pew’s pirate band. To accomplish this feat, however, he needs his mother’s support. Once the Hispaniola sets sail, however, he is on his own. The next stage in his growth occurs when, crouching in the apple barrel, he overhears Silver reveal his plans to his coconspirators. Jim keeps calm, coolly informs his friends, and, with them, devises survival tactics. His initial positive, independent action takes place when they first reach the island and he goes off on his own; he has no specific plan, but he is sure that he can further the cause in some undetermined way. He wanders in the woods and meets Ben Gunn, rejoins his party at the stockade, and engages in his first combat.

When Jim makes his second solo trip, he has a definite course of action in mind; he plans to board the Hispaniola and cut it loose to drift with the tide, thus depriving the pirates of a refuge and an escape route. His final test in action comes when he encounters the evil first mate, Israel Hands. When Hands tries to manipulate him, Jim sees through the deception and, acting with considerable courage and dexterity, manages to outmaneuver the experienced pirate. Finally, faced with an enraged adversary, Jim remains calm and, with a knife sticking in his shoulder, still manages to shoot the villain.

His final test of adulthood is not physical, however, but moral. Returning to the stockade, which he still believes to be occupied by his friends, Jim is captured by the pirates. Given the opportunity a short time later to talk privately with Dr. Livesey, Jim refuses to escape: “No . . . you know right well you wouldn’t do the thing yourself, neither you, nor squire, nor captain, and no more will I. Silver trusted me, I passed my word, and back I go.” Jim puts his word above his life, thus signaling the transition not just from boy to man but, more important to Stevenson, from boy to gentleman.

Although Jim’s development is important to the novel, the most vivid and memorable element in the book remains the character of Long John Silver. All critics have noted that he is both bad and good, cruel and generous, despicable and admirable. Some have tried to fuse these elements into a single character “type,” a “hero-villain,” in which the good and the bad are traced back to a common source. Such an effort is probably wrong. Silver is both good and bad, and his role in the novel demands both kinds of actions. Rather than trying to “explain” Silver psychologically, readers may find it more profitable to analyze the ways in which Stevenson manipulates their feelings toward the character.

In any pirate story, the author faces a moral and artistic dilemma. On one hand, pirates can hardly be presented as moral exemplars or heroes; they must be criminals and cutthroats. On the other hand, pirates are romantically attractive and interesting characters. Enhance their attractiveness, and the book becomes morally distorted; mute it, and the book becomes dull. One solution to this dilemma is to mitigate the pirates’ badness by introducing an element of moral ambiguity into the characterization and behavior of some of them without denying the evil effects of their actions, then separate the “good-bad” villains from the “bad-bad” ones. Stevenson uses this technique in Treasure Island. Silver is separated from his purely villainous cronies and set against the truly evil figures, Israel Hands and George Merry, with less developed pirate characters remaining in the background.

Stevenson mitigates Silver’s evil side with two simple strategies: He presents the ruthless, cruel aspects of Silver’s character early in the novel and lets his “better” side reveal itself late in the book, and he keeps the “evil” Silver at a distance and gives readers an intimate view only of the relatively good Long John. Therefore, although readers never forget the viciousness of the character’s early words and deeds, these recede into the background as the adventure progresses.

Readers are prepared for the bad Long John Silver by the many early warnings to beware of the “one-legged man.” He is then seen manipulating Squire Trelawney and even Jim in their first encounters. Therefore, readers admire his role-playing but fear the conspiratorial evil that obviously lies behind it. Silver’s overt treachery is evident in the apple-barrel scene, especially in his callous “vote” to kill all the nonconspirators when the chance arises. Long John reaches the peak of his villainy in the killing of a sailor who refuses to join the mutiny, first stunning the sailor with his crutch and then knifing him to death.

Even these two pieces of evidence of Silver’s badness, however, are seen at a distance, from inside an apple barrel and from behind a clump of trees. When Long John moves to the center of the novel and assumes an intimate relationship with Jim, the pirate’s character is automatically softened, and by the time Silver and Jim become unwilling partners in survival, the pirate’s image and status have considerably changed.

The early view of Silver is that he is not only evil but also invincible. As he becomes less one-dimensionally evil, he becomes progressively more vulnerable, and vulnerability always stimulates sympathy in readers, regardless of the character’s moral status. As the tide begins to turn against the pirates, Silver begins to lose control not only of the treasure-hunting expedition but also of his own men. This erosion of power is signaled by an increasing emphasis on his physical disability. The John Silver who must crawl on his hands and knees out of the stockade after the failure of his “embassy” is a far cry from the Silver who can knock down an opponent with a flying crutch and then pounce on him like an animal.

Silver’s glibness and adroitness in manipulating the good men of the Hispaniola are components of his villainy in the first parts of the book, but when Silver is threatened by a mutiny of his own men and must utilize those same talents to save himself and Jim, they become positive virtues. Although he is obviously motivated by an instinct for self-preservation, Silver does protect Jim from the others and conveys a feeling of honestly liking and wanting to help the lad.

The morally ambiguous ending of the novel is thus the only one artistically possible. John Silver has not been bad enough to hang, and it is hard to imagine his vitality stifled in prison; yet, although he has edged away from the villains, he hardly qualifies as a hero. He is neither punished nor greatly rewarded for his machinations and heroics; rather, he is left to seek another fortune elsewhere.