Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson
The following entry presents criticism of Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. For a discussion of Stevenson's novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), see . See also Markheim Criticism.
Stevenson's brilliantly constructed adventure novel Treasure Island has remained a popular favorite for both children and adults. Noted in particular for its entertainment value, the novel has inspired extensive media and commercial adaptations, as well as praise from critics who have emphasized Stevenson's highly skilled plotting and delineation of character and setting. Commentators have also stressed Treasure Island's status as a work that simultaneously embraces and departs from the generic conventions of the prose romance.
In the summer of 1881, Stevenson returned to Scotland following travels in the United States and England. He rented a cottage in Braemar, where he began to write Treasure Island, the book which marked a major turning point in his literary career. Up until that point, Stevenson's literary output had been uneven—Treasure Island marked the author's mastery of tone, pace, and vocabulary. The idea for the story initially began with a water-color map that Stevenson drew as part of an intricate adventure game for his stepson. As the novel gradually evolved, Stevenson regularly shared portions of the work-inprogress with friends and relatives, taking their comments into account. By October of 1881, the novel was first published in serial form in Young Folks' Magazine under the title "The Sea Cook." Although Treasure Island was not initially a popular success with young readers, Stevenson's subsequent revisions led the work to great popularity when it was published in book form.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in the 1740s, Treasure Island describes the adventures of a boy named Jim Hawkins after he discovers a map showing the way to buried treasure. Jim's father is the landlord of the Admiral Benbow, an inn where Billy Bones, an old seaman who once served under the pirate Captain Flint, takes up lodgings. A treasure map is found in Bones's sea chest following the former pirate's death; and with this in hand, Jim, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett set sail aboard the Hispaniola to find Treasure Island, which lies off the coast of South America. During the voyage, Jim's discovery of plans for a mutiny led by Long John Silver, the ship's cook, helps to save the expedition. After a prolonged struggle, Long John Silver's mutineers take the boy hostage and then begin to search for the treasure on the island, but they unearth only an empty chest. Both Jim and Long John Silver are rescued from the enraged pirates and led to the treasure by Ben Gunn, a half-wild sailor who had been marooned on the island for many years. They abandon the mutineers, rejoin the captain and his small band of loyal followers, and set sail for the West Indies, where Long John leaves the ship. Eventually the Hispaniola returns to Bristol where Jim, his friends, and the loyal crew all enjoy an ample share of the treasure.
Drawing upon the medieval narrative tradition of the romantic quest, Treasure Island recounts a boy's journey from innocence to experience, giving the physical adventure of a pirate story a heightened significance. The quest theme suggests several levels of meaning: Jim gains knowledge of himself, an understanding of the nature of the adult world, and insight into the duplicity of human character, symbolized, for example, by the moral ambiguity of Long John Silver. Jim is both fascinated and repelled by the pirates, who have been interpreted by critics as representations of the underside of civilization. Similarly, Jim is at once enticed and repulsed by the blood-tainted buried treasure, which some critics have viewed as a symbol of the economics of the "real world" that he will face as an adult. The treasure money itself is amoral—the potential inspiration for enslavement or freedom, crime or heroism.
Treasure Island has received praise for its skillful plotting and pacing of action, its articulation of colorful characters, and its evocative setting. Much criticism of the novel has been concerned with the work's affinities with and departures from the familiar conventions of the prose romance, and specifically, adventure fiction. While David Daiches emphasized Stevenson's decision to frame his novel "in one of the oldest of all narrative moulds—the quest," William H. Hardesty and David Mann note how the author "changed [those conventions] or, occasionally, turned them upside down." Critics have consistently noted Treasure Island's distinction from similar works of the Victorian adventure prose, which, by comparison, have been considered verbose and moralistic. Treasure Island, most argue, demonstrates a relatively ambiguous morality and complexity of character development through such characters as Long John Silver, who serves both as villain and inverted father figure to Jim Hawkins. Robert Kiely comments: "To read Treasure Island today is still to find it fresh and exuberant, an absorbing imitation of a child's daydream, unhampered by adult guilt or moral justification."
SOURCE: "Treasure Island as a Book for Boys," in The Living Age, Vol. CCLXXI, No. 3512, October 28, 1911, pp. 249-51.
[In the following essay, Middleton attributes the unpopularity of the first publication of Treasure Island to the presence of human flaws in Stevenson's charac ters—a literary quality "at variance with juvenile conceptions of adventure."]
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SOURCE: "Adventure," in Robert Louis Stevenson, New Directions Books, 1947, pp. 32-73.
[In the following excerpt, Daiches discusses Stevenson's decision to cast his novel "in one of the oldest of all narrative moulds—the quest." Below, Daiches examines Stevenson's use of plotting techniques that heighten the novel's suspense.]
Treasure Island took its origin from a map of an imaginary, romantic island idly drawn by Stevenson and his stepson on a rainy day in "the late Miss Macgregor's cottage," Braemar, Scotland. Stevenson had returned from his first stay in America, with memories of poverty, illness and adventure (including his marriage), and a warm reconciliation with his parents had been effected. Both he and his wife were now established in a secure family relationship with the elder Stevensons and, for the first time since his pre-university days, Stevenson was not constantly haunted by the torturing paradox which the combination of warm affection for and total disagreement with his father had created. His problem now was only the physically more difficult but emotionally less wearing one of trying to find health.
It was perhaps natural that in these circumstances he should, at least in his prose, abandon the autobiographical and semi-autobiographical kinds of writing which had hitherto constituted his principal work and turn to the pure adventure story. He...
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SOURCE: "Stevenson's Method in Treasure Island: The Old Romance, Retold," in Essays in Literature, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 180-93.
[In the following essay, Hardesty and Mann attempt to show "how certain common elements of Victorian boys' books were adapted and surpassed in Treasure Island" by investigating the stock elements of adventure fiction...
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SOURCE: "The Toy Theatre, Romance, and Treasure Island: The Artistry of R. L. S.," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VIII, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 409-21.
[In the following essay, McKenzie examines the influence of the nineteenth-century toy theatre upon Stevenson's aesthetic sensibility. She focuses on elements of excitement, imagination, chance, and playfulness in both the toy theatre and Stevenson's fiction.']
Treasure Island, a six-part romance first published in a boys' paper, has been charming readers as a kind of archetypal adventure tale for a century. Its rapid but1 predictable incidents, swashbuckling characters, and exotic settings combine with the enthusiasm of the young narrator to create the impression of a youthful day-dream rather than a serious quest. The story's2 apparent naivete, however, conceals interesting elements of the author's carefully considered ideas about art and life that were then influencing his developing literary theories. Its construction also foreshadows in unsophisticated form some of the striking techniques that find mature expression in his later fiction. The book is not designed to teach a lesson about morals or even to expose the irresponsibility of the adult members of the "faithful party": its straightforward simplicity points to Stevenson's views that art unravels life's complexity, not by direct imitation, but by...
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SOURCE: "Mirror in the Sea: Treasure Island and the Internalization of Juvenile Romance," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 7-12.
[In the following essay, Blackburn considers Treasure Island in the context of the evolution of the literature of romance and adventure "from fiction in which incident is more important than character to fiction in which precisely the reverse is true."]
The adventure story is one of the hardiest of all literary genres—and it has often had need to be so. Ever since Gilgamesh (third millennium B.C.) "saw mysteries and knew secret things. . . . went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor, and returning, engraved on a stone that whole story," tales of man's journeys into the unknown have held an audience—and have done so in triumphant defiance of the common limitations of their authors, the frequent ignorance of their audience, and the pallid disdain of the Academy. Such disdain is familiar to all students of children's literature, for we have all encountered the glib assumption that children's literature, like the adventure story, is inherently shallow and second-rate, generically inferior to "serious" literature. The Academy can forgive anything except popularity—a fact made abundantly clear in the historical evolution of children's literature.
The connection between children's...
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SOURCE: "Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island: The Ideal Fable," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, ChLA Publishers, 1985, pp. 242-52.
[In the following essay, Gannon examines the way Treasure Island effectively addresses young readers, emphasizing the theme of the romantic quest, the use of retrospective narration, and the presence of mystery.]
Treasure Island has the direct appeal of a sailor's yarn yet offers young readers the psychological satisfactions of a quest romance. While it has some of the thematic complexity that marks an interesting adult novel, the whole spell-binding story is told with careful attention to the needs, the habits of mind, and the special sensitivities of Stevenson's chosen audience: youngsters. Perhaps Henry James said it best: "Treasure Island is a 'boy's book,' in the sense that it embodies a boy's vision of the extraordinary; but it is unique in . . . that what we see in it is not only the ideal fable, but as part and parcel of that, as it were, the young reader himself and his state of mind: we seem to read it over his shoulder, with an arm around his neck. It is all as perfect as a well-played boy's game, and nothing can exceed the spirit and skill, the humour and the open-air feeling, with which the whole thing is kept at the critical pitch" (James and Stevenson 154).
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SOURCE: "Treasure Island as a Late-Victorian Adults' Novel," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 72, Fall, 1987, pp. 28-32.
[In the following essay, Jackson discusses "the [Victorian] romance revival's ideological motivation for appropriating the conventions of children's literature," and argues that Treasure Island reveals a conservative ideological agenda, despite Stevenson's theory of romantic fiction as "a value-free field for harmless imaginative play.]
Two years after the publication of his extremely popular King Solomon's Mines (1885), H. Rider Haggard launched a moral attack on French naturalism: "Lewd, and bold, and bare . . . the heroines of realism dance, with Bacchanalian revellings, across the astonished stage of literature". Haggard's essay, "About Fiction" (1887), typifies the conservative ethos of the revival of romantic fiction led by him and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson, the focus of my essay, is the subtler moralist and more influential figure, but Haggard offers us a direct route to the ideology of what we will call the romance revival.1
Haggard discerns three strains of fiction in the 1880's: American naturalism, French naturalism, and English realism. Each, he writes, is at a dead end: American naturalism is a "laboured nothingness," French naturalism "an obscene photograph taken from the life," and English realism "namby pamby...
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SOURCE: "Youth on the Prow: The First Publication of Treasure Island," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXV, 1990, pp. 83-99.
[In the following essay, Angus considers the additions and editorial changes that Stevenson made to the text of Treasure Island following its initial serial publication.]
Between October 1, 1881, and January 28, 1882, there appeared in the Victorian children's magazine Young Folks, mostly placed near the middle or end of each number, a serial story entitled Treasure Island, or The Mutiny of the Hispaniola. By Captain George North. Thus did Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist, make his first unobtrusive appearance before the public eye.
The young folks in question (that segment of the public eye that first looked upon Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist) were neither entertained nor amused, and said so. The development of the tale was for them too slow, too deliberate, and lacking the right spice of constant hectic action.
The editor, James Henderson (he had already rescued the story from its disastrous original title, The Sea-Cook), spared it a single woodcut illustration and an initial vignette on its first appearance, but after that he did not trouble his artists with it. Henderson thought of Treasure Island as an unrewarding "passenger" (i.e., space-filler). It was not until it reached...
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SOURCE: "Jim Hawkins and the Faintly Inscribed Reader in Treasure Island," in Cahiers Victoriens and Edouardiens, No. 40, October, 1994, pp. 37-47.
[In the following essay, Sutton examines the tone and style of the narrative voice of Treasure Island. He argues that Stevenson employed confessional techniques through which he "invites the reader to become a friend, a partner in [a] relationship between equals."]
"It takes," says Thoreau, in the noblest and most useful passage I remember to have read by any modern author, "two to speak truth—one to speak and one to hear."
Stevenson, "Truth of Intercourse" (1879)1
Many readers have felt the power of Treasure Island, but no one can quite explain it. Who could account for the effect upon an eight-year-old boy who begged to read one more chapter at bedtime and then, before the lights went out, asked his parents to take the book downstairs? Much as he loved this masterpiece, he did not want to sleep in the same room with it. When Stevenson himself tried explaining the power of good adventure stories, he spoke of "brute incident" and "epoch-making scenes," as when the hero strings his bow in "the best of romances," The Odyssey.2 Yet he acknowledged a force outside the text in boys like himself who "dug blithely after a certain sort...
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Bell, Ian. "Exile: 1880-1884," pp. 143-59. In Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1992.
Discusses the biographical context surrounding Stevenson's composition of Treasure Island and emphasizes the author's poor health at the time.
Damon, Lindsay Todd. Introduction to Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Lindsay Todd Damon, pp. 27-29. New York: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1904.
Discusses Stevenson's artistic temperament in relation to the creation of Treasure Island.
Kiely, Robert. "Adventure as Boy's Daydream." In Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure, pp. 61-108. Harvard University Press, 1964.
Discusses the thematic elements that contribute to the essential feeling of freedom, or "casting off of encumbrances that pervades Treasure Island.
McLynn, Frank. "Davos." In Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, pp. 180-208. New York: Random House, 1993.
Includes discussion of the biographical circumstances and literary sources surrounding the genesis of Treasure Island.
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