What does the treasure in the novel symbolize? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Arguably one of the great adventure novels that have delighted boys especially, for generations, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island does contain some significant themes along with its colorful characters and exciting plot. Of course, one of these themes--a very worthy one--is connected to the treasure itself, and is notable for adults, as well as for children.

Always concerned with the duality of forces in man, Stevenson creates in the treasure of gold and silver the representation of greed, a "deadly sin" that creates desire so powerful that it impels men to misadventures and heinous acts involving great risk to their lives. One such man who suffers as a result of his desire for the treasure is Ben Gunn, who was left behind on the island by another crew who spent twelve futile days searching for Captain Flint's treasure. After three years on Treasure Island during which he was able to survive by eating and preserving goat meat, Ben finds the treasure, but loses his sanity as he has gone mad from his isolation and fears. Another character, Captain Bill Bones, steals the treasure map and sings portentously, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest." Later, he is literally frightened to death by pirates who issue a death warning to him. Even Jim nearly escapes death; so, after his adventures, he remarks in Chapter 33,

That was Flint's treasure that we had come so far to seek, and that had cost already the lives of seventeen men from the Hispaniola. How many it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow, what good ships scuttled on the deep, what brave men walking the plank blindfold, what shot of cannon, what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell.

Jim's reflection upon the cost of lives in the search for Captain Flint's gold, along with the exploitation of others, transforms the treasure into an evil, an evil which Jim wishes he had never sought. After all that has happened, this golden treasure has proven a false and dark goal.