Stevenson based TREASURE ISLAND on the boy’s adventure tales of the time. It has what the standard piratical potboilers lacked, however--graceful lucidity, richly imagined physical settings, and above all one of the most fascinating of all villains in Long John Silver--and it continues to provide grand entertainment today. Since it contains only one minor female character--Jim’s mother--its primary audience is male, from about ten years old on up.
The novel, set in the 18th century, falls into three stages. In the first, a “brown old seaman” with a sabre scar takes up lodgings at The Admiral Benbow, Jim’s father’s inn. This man, Billy Bones, is pursued by other sinister characters, led by the blind Pew. When Bones dies (Jim’s father in the meantime has also died), Jim and his mother search the seaman’s chest and discover the map.
The treasure-hunting expedition now sets out aboard the Hispaniola from Bristol. What the good characters do not know, however, is that Long John Silver, the one-legged sea-cook they have engaged, was one of the pirate Flint’s chief lieutenants. Silver, having got wind of the treasure, has also persuaded the ship’s captain to sign on a number of Flint’s pirates as hands. Shortly before the ship reaches the island, Jim overhears the pirates’ plot. The remainder of the book recounts the struggle on the island between the good and bad characters, and the search for the treasure.
TREASURE ISLAND, lacking the pell-mell pace of most pirate stories, was unsuccessful when it first appeared as a serial. The novel contains a number of wonderful set pieces, however, and is imbued with an appealing boyish innocence: The good characters are all good, the bad all bad. It benefits moreover from its complete lack of pretension. It is a small, happy, timeless book.
Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Places Stevenson and Treasure Island in the Romantic tradition established in the eighteenth century and defends him from the criticism of F. R. Leavis, who did much to lower Stevenson’s reputation in the mid-twentieth century.
Hellman, George S. The True Stevenson: A Study in Clarification. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1972. A reprint of a 1925 study which draws upon Stevenson’s letters, conversations with his contemporaries, and his wife’s letters to elucidate points about the author and Treasure Island.
Leatham, James. The Style of Louis Stevenson. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1970. A reprint of a 1908 study which considers Stevenson’s style, vocabulary, and use of Scottish idioms. An examination of Stevenson’s style and usage by a near contemporary in age and background.
McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1993. The most comprehensive biography of Stevenson up to its date of publication. Considers the impact of Stevenson’s childhood and young adulthood on Treasure Island. Examines the sources for his story and characters and the immediate success of the work with the public.
Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A good critical overview of Stevenson’s work which places Treasure Island properly in his entire canon. Connects the character Jim Hawkins to other youthful Stevenson heroes in Kidnapped and The Black Arrow (1888). Contains a good study of the character Long John Silver.