Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Admiral Benbow Inn
Admiral Benbow Inn. Public inn owned by Jim Hawkins’s parents near Black Hill Cove, an isolated and sheltered bay on Devon’s north coast, along the road to Bristol, that is an ideal place for smugglers to come ashore. Tucked between somber hills and the rocky cove, up whose cliffs the surf roars during storms, the inn is remote from even the nearest hamlet, Kitt’s Hole, and conveys an atmosphere of unrelieved loneliness and foreboding. The novel opens with a menacing figure appearing at the inn and demanding a room. Later unmasked as the pirate captain Billy Bones, he long overstays his welcome and so tyrannizes the inn that other guests leave, and Jim’s father weakens and dies an early death. Having chosen the Benbow Inn because of its isolation, Bones lives in daily fear of being discovered by fellow pirates; after they finally appear, he dies of apoplexy, and Jim and his mother flee the inn before the other pirates return—but not before they open his seachest and find a map of Treasure Island. Despite the fear Jim experiences at the inn, he later dreams of returning there while he is experiencing even worse dangers on Treasure Island.
Admiral Benbow Inn is aptly named after a late seventeenth century English admiral, John Benbow, who won renown for fighting pirates in the West Indies and for his heroic death in action against the French after the captains serving under him mutinied.
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Piracy, which can be loosely defined as lawlessness and usually at sea, has a long history, dating as far back as the Phoenicians (1200 to 800 B.C.) Piracy occurred on almost every body of water from the China Sea to the Mediterranean and eventually along New World’s Atlantic shores and in the Caribbean. Pirates were both feared and romanticized as heroes. They thrived on the booty (or stolen wealth) they stole from merchant ships and shoreline villages. Their practice lasted well into the nineteenth century when British and U.S. naval forces eventually overwhelmed them. Nonetheless, some piracy continued throughout the twentieth century and into the early 2000s. Beyond crimes committed on the high sea, the term has been applied to many different types of theft, including the illegal downloading of material from the Internet.
One famous pirate is Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, a British man who scoured the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of the United States during the eighteenth century. His outpost was on the North Carolina shoreline, where he was eventually hunted down and shot to death in 1718.
Although most stories and movies about pirates feature men, some pirates were female. One of the most notorious female pirates was Anne Bonny, the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer who amassed a fortune in North Carolina. Bonny was disowned by her father when she married a pirate. Bonny grew tired of her husband...
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The story begins sometime in the eighteenth century on a remote stretch of the English coast. A mysterious seaman named Billy Bones appears one day at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Black Hill Cove and asks for lodging. After the death of Billy Bones, the action shifts to Bristol, where Squire Trelawney is outfitting the brig Hispaniola and hiring a crew to journey to Treasure Island. The bulk of the adventure takes place on board the Hispaniola or on Treasure Island itself—presumably a tiny fictional Caribbean island somewhere in the West Indies. After the treasure is recovered and the Hispaniola recaptured by the loyal crew members, the party sails into a West Indies port to reprovision before returning to Bristol.
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Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island was first published in a serialized form. This means that it was published chapter by chapter in separate small units. Serialization imposed its own form on plot design, dictating chapters that practically stand on their own with inconclusive endings. In other words, each chapter is a mini-adventure but designed to leave the reader wondering what will happen next. In Stevenson’s book, the stories are collected in parts, and within each part are separate sections. This arrangement intensifies the tension. The first part of the book, for example, is divided into six sections. At the end of the first section, it is hinted that Dr. Livesey and Billy Bones will meet again, and readers are left to wonder how the next confrontation between them will take place. The second section is called “Black Dog Appears and Disappears,” which sums up the action. But again, the reader senses at the end of this section that Black Dog will reappear, and when he does, something catastrophic will probably occur. By the end of the first part of the book, the reader has been introduced to most of the major characters. Readers are primed, much like Hawkins himself, and ready for the next part of the journey. The serialized form helps readers experience the excitement in sequence as Hawkins experiences it.
Point of View
The majority of this story is told by young Hawkins, who tells readers in...
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Stevenson is a master storyteller who knows how to construct an engrossing tale. In Treasure Island, he makes skillful use of plot, setting, atmosphere, and character development to craft an enduring story of high suspense. Every episode in the novel is carefully developed to sustain the drama of the narrative.
Most of the tale is told from Jim's point of view, although Stevenson shifts the narration to Doctor Livesey for three chapters to give the reader a different perspective. What at first appears to be a conventional moral framework for the book—heroes on one side, villains on the other—soon reveals itself to be far more complex. Long John Silver is a more sympathetic character than any member of the loyal party save Jim, and Jim himself matures only by violating traditional moral norms. He frequently sneaks away from his more timid companions and takes matters into his own hands, stretching the limits of proper behavior in the pursuit of a greater good.
Stevenson captures the exotic atmosphere of the age of high-seas piracy. His prose recalls an era when British privateers and cutthroats, such as Captain Kidd and Bluebeard, were encouraged by the Crown to prey upon Spanish merchant ships returning from the New World laden with gold and silver. Stevenson shows a curious ambivalence toward the pirates, condemning their cruelty and ruthlessness while admiring their pluck and bravery.
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In his emphasis on adventure as a formative influence on Jim, Stevenson shows a marked ambiguity toward the Victorian domestic virtues of his age. Domestic life is dull not only for Jim, but also for Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey, both of whom are quick to abandon their domestic and professional responsibilities to search for buried treasure on a remote island. Stevenson hints that adventure is the crucible of adulthood, and it seems that the adventure, not the gold, is the real purpose of the quest.
Stevenson focuses on violence and suspense, two essential elements of the adventure tale. Treasure Island shows the seamy side of seafaring life, and depicts the victimization of the innocent by the strong and ruthless. Jim himself barely escapes death when Israel Hands pins him to the mast with a knife; he survives by coolly shooting the pirate with a pair of pistols. By the end of the novel Jim has been initiated into a brutal world of violence, murder, greed, and treachery. He has certainly matured during the course of his adventures, but whether Jim learns any lasting moral lessons—aside from his loathing of the treasure—is uncertain. The experience itself, it seems, has been his primary gain.
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Compare and Contrast
1800s: Captain Kidd, a privateer, hired by the British to protect their ships, is accused of piracy and is hanged. He is said to have captured a ship with a British captain and a boatload of jewels. No treasure is ever uncovered.
1900s: The International Maritime Bureau praises Indian government officials and several ships’ crews for helping to recover a hijacked ship (an act of piracy) loaded with aluminum ingot. 2000s: The term piracy is often used when software, music, or movies are copied illegally.
1800s: Rumor has it that $300 million worth of treasure, stolen from mines in Lima, Peru, is buried on the island of Cocos off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. August Gissler buys half of the island and spends nineteen years searching for the missing goods but never finds any of it.
1900s: In 1988, the treasure of the S.S. Central America, a U.S. mail ship that sank in 1857, is recovered. Its huge shipment of freshly minted gold coins and gold bars, approximately onethird of the accumulated wealth of the gold rush years, is found intact.
2000s: Civil War era S.S. Republic a paddlewheel steam ship that sunk off the coast of Georgia in 1865 with a cargo of approximately $180 million of gold coins is located. Plans are underway to salvage the sunken treasure.
1800s: Doctors gain a better understanding of tuberculosis and begin to recommend the importance...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Long John Silver plots a mutiny aboard the Hispaniola, murders a man in cold blood, and betrays his comrades. He is also cheerful, personable, and friendly to Jim. Why does Stevenson create such a likeable villain?
2. Why does Stevenson take so long to get the voyage of the Hispaniola underway? The brig does not leave Bristol until chapter 10. How does Stevenson use the early chapters to set the stage for Jim's adventures?
3. Jim leaves the Admiral Benbow Inn after his father's death and joins Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney. How do these two men function as surrogate father figures? Is Long John Silver a father figure, as well?
4. Squire Trelawney is depicted as overly talkative and a poor judge of character who prefers Long John Silver to Captain Smollett. What are the consequences of the squire's turning over the hiring of the crew to Silver?
5. Stevenson's original title for his novel was The Sea Cook. Is Treasure Island a better title? Why or why not?
6. Although most of the story is narrated by Jim, Doctor Livesey narrates three chapters. Why do you think Stevenson makes this narrative shift?
7. From the beginning of the story, when Jim and his mother ransack the dead pirate's chest, to Squire Trelawney's impulsive decision to sail in search of the buried treasure, greed and the quest for money serve as primary motivations in Stevenson's plot. What does...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The idea for Treasure Island apparently grew from a treasure map that Stevenson drew for his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, during a damp, cool summer in Scotland. Check a biography of Stevenson to find out more about how the story was composed and where it was first published.
2. The theme of the "double" is an important one in Stevenson's fiction, with Long John Silver's dual nature obviously related to the strange double life of the protagonist of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Compare these two books. Why do you think Stevenson was so attracted to the ambiguity of good and evil?
3. The plot of Treasure Island bears some resemblance to that of another Stevenson novel, Kidnapped, in which young David Balfour escapes his captors and travels across Scotland. Compare David Balfour and Jim Hawkins as youthful protagonists.
4. Why is it important to Stevenson's plot that most of the adventure take place on a remote island in the West Indies, far from England or Scotland? What are the advantages of a remote, exotic setting for adventure or romance?
5. Jim learns of the mutiny while hidden in an apple barrel, meets Ben Gunn after sneaking ashore without permission, and recovers the brig after abandoning his friends in a time of great danger. How credible are Jim's exploits? Is he too much fortune's favorite, as Captain Smollett observes?
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate modern forms of piracy. What do they have in common with the piracy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How do they differ? Where does piracy occur other than at sea? Is it committed through the Internet? In the fashion trade? In the stock market?
Stevenson wrote much poetry. Read some of his more famous works, such as A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). Compare his work to that of modern-day children’s poet Shel Silverstein. How do their works differ? What is the tone of their writing? How is the subject matter the same?
Read Treasure Island and Louis Sachar’s Holes (2000), a modern adventure and coming-of-age story. Then write a short story about the main characters, Jim Hawkins and Stanley Yelnats, as if they were friends who were sharing a common adventure. Set the story in any time you choose. Demonstrate through your story how the two young boys are alike and how they differ. Make sure you understand each character’s strengths and weaknesses.
Write a travel piece on Samoa. Include descriptions of the island, the history of its people, and interesting aspects of the culture. Include as much information as you can find on what Stevenson experienced there. Assume your readers want to visit the island because they are fans of Stevenson’s. Include a description of Stevenson’s house and the reaction of the native people to his being there.
Stevenson’s grandfather was...
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Treasure Island has fared better at the hands of Hollywood than have most novels. In 1934, Victor Fleming directed a suspenseful version of the story starring Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim. Another excellent adaptation reached the silver screen in 1950, when Byron Haskin directed Robert Newton in the role of the crafty pirate chief and Bobby Driscoll as Jim. Orson Welles co-scripted and starred in a weak 1972 production of Treasure Island.
Although Stevenson wrote a number of other stories for young people, such as New Arabian Nights, More New Arabian Nights (1885), and The Black Arrow, the novel that most resembles Treasure Island is Kidnapped. This book also features a boy protagonist, David Balfour, who must undergo a series of tests and trials before he can return home and claim his inheritance. David's adventures somewhat resemble a typical romance, but Stevenson also weaves a great deal of Scottish history into his plot. David's quest for maturity involves learning about his country's religious and political heritage as well as about the greed and duplicity of the adult world.
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Treasure Island has been produced as a movie several times. There is Paramount Studios’ 1920 version; MGM’s 1934 production; Disney’s 1950 presentation; and the 1972 UK project that starred Orson Wells as Long John Silver. In the 1990s, several animated versions of this story appeared on DVDs. Frank Oz and his muppets even made their version of this classic in 1996.
Treasure Island was produced by Books on Tape, Inc. in 2002, read by Richard Matthews.
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What Do I Read Next?
Stevenson’s 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde studies conflicting emotions associated with what society considers good and evil. Stevenson’s other 1886 novel, Kidnapped, follows the ordeals of protagonist David Balfour who is left with no money to live on after the death of his father. Like Treasure Island, Kidnapped is a coming-of-age novel.
Louis Sachar’s Holes (2000) is also a comingof- age novel about a young boy who claims he has been cursed. He always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in a juvenile detention hall somewhere in the middle of a desert. His task is to dig holes each day of his sentence. His journey, however, is to find out why he is digging these holes, and his discovery frees him from his curse.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) inspired Stevenson (especially the marooned Ben Gunn). Defoe’s story centers on the life of Crusoe as he is marooned on an island off the coast of South America after suffering conflicts with pirates.
The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss, tells the story of a Swiss family that is shipwrecked on a deserted island on their way to Australia. The family learns to live by their wits, far from the civilized world that they know.
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For Further Reference
Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A new critical biography with a contemporary reassessment of Stevenson's life and work. Calder includes a useful discussion of the composition of Treasure Island.
Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norfolk, CT: New Directions Books, 1947. An excellent introductory biography of Stevenson by an eminent Scottish critic.
Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. Includes a discussion of Treasure Island as it fits into the romance tradition.
Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A reliable critical biography with a useful discussion of Treasure Island.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bell, Ian, “Preface,” in Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, Mainstream Publishing, 1992.
Jones, William B., Jr., ed. “Preface,” in Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered, McFarland, 2003.
Moore, Laura, “Voices from the Middle,” in Urbana, Vol. 8, No. 2, December 2000, p. 75.
Stevenson, Robert Louis, “Essay: Treasure Island,” in Treasure Island, Courage Books, 1995, pp. 202–07.
Cordingly, David, The Black Flag, reprint, Harvest Books, 1997. Cordingly looks pirates in the eye and discovers the truth of their lives, which is far from the romanticized versions in literature. The author also ponders the myths of pirates in an attempt to figure out where and how those myths were born.
Lapierre, Alexandra, Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, Carroll & Graf, 1995. Stevenson met Fanny, an American woman, in France and supposedly fell immediately in love with her, and she later became his wife. In the biography of Stevenson’s wife, Lapierre exposes Fanny’s emotions and her devotion to her husband, for whom she gave up her own creative endeavors as an artist.
McLynn, Frank, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, Random House, 1994. McLynn believes that Stevenson was much more than a writer of boys’ adventure stories. He sets out to demonstrate through this...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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.
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