By the time Robert Louis Stevenson published his first novel, Treasure Island, the golden age of Victorianism in England was over. The British Empire was far-flung and great, but the masses of England had more immediate concerns. The glory of the Union Jack gave small comfort to members of the working class who were barely able to keep their heads above water. If earlier novelists wrote for middle-class readers, those of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century revolted against the cultural domination of that class. Turning to realism, they dealt with the repression caused by a crushing environment. Stevenson, however, disdained moral and intellectual topics, preferring the thin, brisk, sunny atmosphere of romance. Consequently, he stands apart from such figures as Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, and George Gissing.
In “A Humble Remonstrance,” Stevenson spoke of the function of a writer of romance as being “bound to be occupied, not so much in making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in capturing the lineament of each fact, as in marshalling all of them to a common end.” Perhaps, then, Stevenson should be seen not simply as an antirealistic writer of romance but as a writer whose conception of realism was different from that of his contemporaries.
In his study of Stevenson, Edwin Eigner points out that the novelist’s heroes are drawn from real life and are usually failures. Moreover, says Eigner, “very few of the characters, whether good or evil, manage even to fail greatly.” Stevenson himself wrote in his essay “Reflection and Remarks on Human Life” that “our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.” His own ill health may have caused him to see life in terms of conflict, and in his case a conflict that he could not win. This element of failure adds a somber dimension to Stevenson’s romances—a note of reality, as it were, to what otherwise might have been simply adventure fiction. It is the element of adventure superimposed on reality that gives Stevenson’s writing its peculiar character. A writer’s stories, he remarked, “may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the daydream.” In doing this, the writer’s greatest challenge, according to Stevenson, is to give “body and blood” to his stories. Setting, circumstance, and character must all fall into place to give a story the power to make an impression on the mind of the reader—“to put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up at one blow our capacity for sympathetic pleasure.” In this way a story becomes more than merely literature; it becomes art.
Stevenson regarded the tales of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century) as perfect examples of the storyteller’s art: tales that could captivate readers in childhood and delight them in old age. Such was the goal that he sought in his own works: to bring readers to the stories as involved spectators who do not shy away from the unpleasantries or the villainy, but find in witnessing them the same pleasure they do in witnessing the more optimistic and uplifting aspects of the piece. Perhaps this is Stevenson’s greatest achievement: He illustrates with his stories a sometimes forgotten truth—“Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child.”
“If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day,” Stevenson wrote in a letter to Sidney Colvin on August 25, 1881. He was speaking of Treasure Island , the novel on which he was then at work. He need not have worried, for since its publication it has been a favorite of children everywhere—and, indeed, of many adults. Stevenson wrote the book, according to his own account, in two...
(The entire section contains 3351 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Robert Louis Stevenson study guide. You'll get access to all of the Robert Louis Stevenson content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays