Stevenson was a professional writer, in the broadest sense of that term. He was an essayist, a poet, and a writer of fiction (he even tried his hand at plays in collaboration with W. E. Henley, a British poet and essayist). It is true that, until The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde took the United States by storm in 1887, he could not survive economically without his father’s help. Yet his love of words and his delight in their use were strong enough that he had to write, and he would have written no matter what. Writing was not only his occupation, it was his calling. This attitude means that in Stevenson’s work one encounters a variety of genres and styles. It also means that technique and “manner” will be foremost; his work will manifest a certain “finish” or “polish.” In his nonfiction work, this polish means that his serious themes will be very easy to digest. In his fiction and poetry, it means that his serious themes will hardly be noticed. That is both Stevenson’s bane and his salvation. He survives, but in the popular imagination, not in the critical pantheon. Consequently, his books are still in print because readers are still delighted and moved by them, not because readers feel the need to discuss and analyze his works as they would the works of his contemporary Henry James.
Stevenson was an inveterate tourist, even in his own country, so travel writing constitutes a significant part of his literary output. His first commercially published book, An Inland Voyage (1878), is an account of a Continental canoe trip with a friend in 1876. Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), his next two books, were also travel documents. The Silverado Squatters, perhaps his best writing in this genre, is an account of his “honeymoon” in the summer of 1880 with his new bride and stepson, plus assorted visitors, in an abandoned miner’s cabin. This book is deceptively simple, subtly humorous, and shrewdly perceptive.
Stevenson’s first novel was Treasure Island, serialized in Young Folks magazine in the fall and winter of 1881-1882 and first published in book form in 1883. Evident in this novel are the techniques and themes that dominate Stevenson’s fiction. The novel is narrated in the first person in a seemingly transparent, “artless” manner. A plain person is trying to record the facts of his experience as precisely and completely as he can:Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
A plain beginning, except that the startling phrases “there is still treasure not yet lifted” and “with the sabre cut” provide a brief flash of the vividly colored world into which the reader is about to be seduced. This deceptive straightforwardness is a key element in all of Stevenson’s fiction. His first-person protagonists, plain men that they are, also end up being “hangers-on” in their own stories; there is always a minor character who becomes the focus of the reader’s attention as this character becomes the focus of the narrator’s attention. Jim Hawkins, narrator of
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A plain beginning, except that the startling phrases “there is still treasure not yet lifted” and “with the sabre cut” provide a brief flash of the vividly colored world into which the reader is about to be seduced. This deceptive straightforwardness is a key element in all of Stevenson’s fiction. His first-person protagonists, plain men that they are, also end up being “hangers-on” in their own stories; there is always a minor character who becomes the focus of the reader’s attention as this character becomes the focus of the narrator’s attention. Jim Hawkins, narrator ofTreasure Island, is overwhelmed by Long John Silver, the cook on his voyage; David Balfour, narrator of Kidnapped and its sequel, Catriona (1893), is overwhelmed by Alan Breck, his guide through the highlands of Scotland. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mr. Utterson, the matter-of-fact lawyer from whose point of view the third-person narrative is told, is overwhelmed by the title characters.
These minor characters assume great importance in their stories because they are vivid mixtures of appealing and repulsive qualities. They are fascinating characters because they combine great capacity for good with great capacity for evil. This dimension raises the issue of Stevenson’s dominant theme: moral ambiguity in human actions. Stevenson is a moralist, but a hard-headed moralist, not a writer of tracts. His novels provide an unflinching examination of the difficulty of either taking the right action or judging actions rightly. Alan Breck has blood on his hands, but he is a loyal and selfless friend to the narrator of Kidnapped. The attractive protagonist of the medieval romance The Black Arrow (1888) saves a minor character’s life but is nevertheless bitterly reproached by that character for having been put in the life-threatening situation in the first place. Right prevails in The Black Arrow, but only after much destruction has made such a triumph hollow. That is the type of world found in the novels that have largely been confined to the children’s literature bookshelf. The deceptive straightforwardness and “plainness” of the telling, the vividness of the incidents, the fascinating complexity of the characters’ personalities—these divert all but the most careful readers from conscious consideration of the serious themes that dominate Stevenson’s fiction.
A Child’s Garden of Verses ranks with Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in long-lasting popularity. In Stevenson’s poetry, as in his prose, however, “transparency” masks subtlety. A contemporary critic, quoted in J. C. Furnas’s brilliant biography of Stevenson, A Voyage to Windward (1951), makes the point that A Child’s Garden of Verses isnot (as too easily supposed) a book of verse for children, but a book of verse about children. Children, of course, like many of the pieces, but essentially the poems are the disclosure of a child’s mind. . . . Never was there a set of playful verses about children more completely free from mawkishness. There is no attempt to make them songs of innocence.
In his verses, as in his fiction, then, Stevenson the serious artist uses popular genres (travel writing, the adventure story, the gothic horror tale, historical romance, light verse) to exercise his considerable writing skill and flesh out his moral and philosophical values. Stevenson’s advantage and disadvantage, then as now, is a skill so considerable that one revels in the telling and only with difficulty thinks about the values.
First published: 1881-1882 (serial); 1883 (book)
Type of work: Novel
In eighteenth century England, a teenage boy entangled in a search for buried pirate treasure receives some complex lessons about trust and loyalty.
Treasure Island was first a map that Stevenson drew for the amusement of his stepson. The map proved so interesting that he created a story to go along with it, reading installments of the story to his family as he finished them. Stevenson’s father, who happened to be visiting on the day of one of those readings, became so attracted to the story that he made plot suggestions, at least two of which were followed (the contents of Billy Bones’s trunk and Jim Hawkins in the apple barrel).
The novel was published in serial form in a boys’ magazine, Young Folks, and it follows the format of the standard boys’ adventure novel: A boy is drawn into a fantastic, dangerous adventure, but through courage, integrity, and the help of a heroic mentor, he comes through the adventure unscathed, wiser, and more mature.
Stevenson, however, improvises on this theme. His hero, Jim Hawkins, gets hold of a map made by a famous pirate, Captain Flint, to show the location of a large treasure that Flint had buried. Hawkins enlists the aid of two adult friends to help him find the treasure. So far, Stevenson has established a plucky boy and possibly heroic mentors. The adults, however, have bad judgment in hiring crew for the voyage to Treasure Island, and there are dangerous conflicts among crew and passengers once the island is reached. Those conflicts are resolved partly by luck, partly by shrewdness, and partly by stupidity and superstition. The treasure is finally retrieved, but in a way no one had anticipated. The boy comes through the adventure unscathed, but the major villain is not brought to justice, and the boy’s last words in the novel areOxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint [the parrot of the ship’s cook] still ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! pieces of eight!”
The story does not end, then, with the voice of newly found wisdom. Though Treasure Island is a standard boys’ adventure on first glance, on second glance its themes and attitudes are more adult than juvenile.
Treasure Island was originally published as The Sea Cook, and the original title shows how big a part Long John Silver, the ship’s cook, plays in the story. Jim Hawkins is the protagonist, but, as the original title suggests, Silver is perhaps the most important character in the story. He is certainly the most complex and the most fully realized character. In this, his first novel, Stevenson creates what may be his most memorable character in Long John Silver. The complexity of this character foreshadows Stevenson’s techniques and concerns in most of his fiction.
First published: 1886
Type of work: Novel
In eighteenth century Scotland, a teenage orphan who has been kidnapped escapes with the aid of a heroic fugitive, but he must survive a long chase through the Scottish highlands before he can avenge his kidnapping and gain his fortune.
Kidnapped, like Treasure Island before it, was serialized in Young Folks, the boys’ magazine. It is the most Scottish of Stevenson’s novels in dialect, vocabulary, and worldview. Like Treasure Island, it follows the pattern of a popular genre, in this case the historical romance. Stevenson sets his story in 1751, five years after the defeat of a Scottish rebellion against the English-German King George II. King George has brutally “pacified” the Scottish Highlands, and Stevenson places his protagonist, David Balfour, in conversation with a principal agent of that pacification at the moment when that agent is assassinated (the assassination is a historical fact). Those who witness the assassination suspect Balfour of complicity, and he barely escapes with his life, fleeing for weeks across the Highlands in the company and under the protection of Alan Breck, the man who was historically (and in the novel) accused of the murder.
Under the cover of orthodoxy, however, Stevenson does heretical things with the genre. Morally ambiguous characters abound. Balfour’s kidnapper, a ship’s captain, is an excellent seaman and dotes on his mother. David’s uncle is a thoroughly unlikable character, but he suffers more than any other character in the novel. Alan Breck is a deserter and a turncoat, but he is unshakably loyal to Balfour, even at the risk of his life.
Breck and Balfour, the two principal characters, are an odd couple whose developing friendship constitutes the main business of the novel. Their relationship is made vivid and believable by Stevenson’s deft hand: Balfour is provincial and stodgy, Breck is worldly-wise and extravagant, but readers can believe that they are drawn to each other because Stevenson’s incidents generate the passions in each of them that inevitably make them interdependent. This concern with the niceties of a relationship is another liberty that Stevenson took with this genre.
Once again, then, Stevenson makes of a popular genre something that is more than the sum of its parts. Boys had read Kidnapped with fascination in Young Folks, but adults read it later in book form with even more fascination. Indeed, Henry James, whom some suspect of never having been a boy, believed that Kidnapped was the best thing that Stevenson had done.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
First published: 1886
Type of work: Novel
A lawyer, curious and suspicious about a nefarious character’s influence on his (the lawyer’s) wealthy, respectable client, finally discovers the horrible truth about their relationship.
One night, Stevenson’s wife was disturbed by the movements and sounds of her sleeping husband; he seemed to be having a nightmare. She woke him. He was indeed having a nightmare, but he complained, on being awakened, that he had not come to the end of what was proving to be a fascinating tale. That morning, he rapidly wrote down the story that he had dreamed, adding an ending. When he read the tale to his wife, she was dissatisfied; she thought that it was simply a “crawler” (standard gothic horror tale) and that he should develop the moral issues inherent in the tale. He argued with her vigorously but in the end accepted her view and burned the first draft. The tale still had a strong enough hold on him, however, that he composed the second draft (the version that was published) in only three days.
Released to the public, the tale captured the public imagination and has not let go to this day. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made Robert Louis Stevenson a household name, and it made Stevenson’s fortune. In less than a year, “Jekyll and Hyde” was an English colloquialism. In 1887, when Stevenson went to the United States, it was his notoriety from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that induced Charles Scribner’s Sons to offer him a lucrative contract. That contract gave him his first taste of financial independence.
The story that produced such wide-ranging effects begins very quietly with a sketch of the passive, observant, tolerant Mr. Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer, the man from whose point of view this third-person narrative is told. Utterson’s tolerance is being strained a little by Jekyll’s curious deference to a Mr. Hyde, a man to whom Utterson takes an instant dislike. Only gradually does the intensity of the narrative increase as Utterson becomes more curious and Hyde becomes more disreputable. The story comes to a climax as Utterson helps break down a door to get at Hyde. The lawyer moves, then, from tolerance to judgment, from observer to participant; if it were not for the title of the tale, one would call Utterson the protagonist.
Following this climax is a series of letters to Utterson by a friend of Jekyll, then to Utterson from Jekyll himself; these letters, in effect, tell the story twice more from two new perspectives. These retellings clarify all remaining plot mysteries but preserve as unexplained the central mystery of the human capacity for evil. That mystery, the mystery of moral ambiguity in human judgment and action, intrigued Stevenson throughout his career.