Robert Louis Stevenson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

Robert Louis Stevenson must be seen as an unknowing progenitor of the mystery and detective genre. He was essentially a Romantic writer attempting to be taken seriously in a mainstream literary world caught up in the values of realism and naturalism. As a Romantic writer, he strongly affirmed the preeminent right of incident to capture the reader’s attention. He countered Jane Austen’s polite cup of tea with Dr. Jekyll’s fantastic potion; he left the discreet parsonage to others, while he explored the mysteries of Treasure Island; he eschewed the chronicling of petty domestic strife and struck out instead to write about, not the uneventful daily life of ordinary men, but rather their extraordinary daydreams, hopes, and fears.

Stevenson also insisted on the importance of setting to a narrative. As he writes in “A Gossip on Romance,” “Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder.” The creation of atmosphere has been an important element in mystery fiction since Edgar Allan Poe first had his amateur French sleuth Monsieur Dupin investigate the murders in the Rue Morgue. The rugged Spanish Sierras of Stevenson’s “Olalla” are, in their own way, as unforgettable as the Baker Street lodgings of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Stevenson also had a profound interest in psychology. His emphasis on the criminal’s motivation, rather than on his identity, clearly presages the method of much modern, post-Freudian, mystery-suspense fiction. In Stevenson’s “Markheim,” the reader witnesses a murder early in the story and has no doubt about the identity of the murderer; the interest lies in the murderer’s motivation, in his emotional and intellectual response to his crime. In terms of plotting, setting, and characterization, Stevenson is a master of all the elements that became so important to the development of the mystery and detective genre.

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Despite poor health, Robert Louis Stevenson was a prolific writer, not only of juvenile fiction but also of poetry, plays, and essays. He is best known for adventure romances such as Treasure Island (1881-1882, serial; 1883, book), Kidnapped (1886), and the horror-suspense novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), works that appeal principally to youthful readers. A habitual voyager, Stevenson also wrote travelogues and sketches recounting his personal experiences. His children’s poems, published in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), remain perennial favorites, as do several of his beautiful family prayers.


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For clarity and suspense, Robert Louis Stevenson is a rarely equaled raconteur. He reveals his mastery of narrative in his economical presentation of incident and atmosphere. Yet, despite his sparse, concise style, many of his tales are notable for dealing with complex moral ambiguities and their diagnoses. Although influenced by a host of romantic writers, including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, William Wordsworth, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stevenson’s theories of prose fiction were most directly provoked by Henry James’s The Art of Fiction (1884). Stevenson placed himself in literary opposition to James and the “statics of character,” favoring instead an action-fiction whose clear antecedents are allegory, fable, and romance. His tales of adventure and intrigue, outdoor life and old-time romance, avidly read by children and young adults, have had a continuous and incalculable influence since their first publication in the 1880’s.

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In addition to his novels, Robert Louis Stevenson published a large number of essays, poems, and short stories, most of which have been collected under various titles. The best edition of Stevenson’s works is the South Seas Edition (32 volumes) published by Scribner’s in 1925.


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A man thoroughly devoted to his art, Robert Louis Stevenson was highly regarded during his lifetime as a writer of...

(This entire section contains 215 words.)

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Romantic fiction. Indeed, few, if any, have surpassed him in that genre. Combining a strong intellect and a wide-ranging imagination with his ability to tell a story, he produced novels that transport the reader to the realms of adventure and intrigue. After his death, his literary reputation diminished considerably, until he was regarded primarily as a writer of juvenile fiction, unworthy of serious critical attention. With the growth of scholarly interest in popular literature, however, Stevenson has enjoyed some reevaluation. Certainly his narrative skill speaks for itself, and it is on that base that his literary reputation should ultimately rest. Anyone who has vicariously sailed with Jim Hawkins in quest of buried treasure or sipped a potion that reduces intellect to instinct with Henry Jekyll can vouch for the success of Stevenson as a writer and agree with what he wrote in “A Gossip of Romance” (1882): “In anything fit to be called reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.”

Other literary forms

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Robert Louis Stevenson is primarily remembered for his prose fiction, although he was a notable essayist and enjoyed a small reputation as a poet. Stevenson also tried his hand at drama and collaborated with William Ernest Henley in the writing of four plays (Deacon Brodie, pb. 1880; Beau Austin, pb. 1884; Admiral Guinea, pb. 1884; and Macaire, pb. 1885), and with his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson, on one (The Hanging Judge, pb. 1887). His first published works were collections of essays, which he would continue to publish throughout his career. His short stories are collected in The New Arabian Nights (1882), More New Arabian Nights (1885), The Merry Men, and Other Tales and Fables (1887), and Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893). Of his novels, the four romances of adventure, Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888), and Catriona (1893), along with his psychological work, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), firmly established him as a master storyteller and ensured him a place in popular culture for the several generations of readers (and viewers of film adaptations) whose imagination he captured. His lesser romances (Prince Otto, 1885), and especially those written in collaboration with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, are of a much lower order than his major novels, The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston (1896).


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Robert Louis Stevenson’s unquestionable literary achievements as a storyteller and as an accomplished essayist in an age of prolific essayists overshadow his prominence as a poet who excelled in occasional verse and perfectly captured the impermanent and various moods of childhood and who, in Underwoods, exerted a profound and lasting influence on Scots poetry of the twentieth century. Tusitala, “the teller of tales,” as the Samoans called him, achieved a measure of fame as an essayist, sometimes as a controversialist, but was most at home writing the tales of adventure and romance on which his reputation justly rests.

His uncompleted masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston, and The Master of Ballantrae rank him as a serious novelist of the first order, who dealt with the complexities of human personality in its own depths and as it is subject to both inexorable fate and the buffets of history. His extraordinarily penetrating study of the divided self, “the war in the members,” has made his creations Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde household words. His tales of adventure, especially Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Catriona, have become classics not only for youth but also for those who would recapture their youth. Enjoyment, in a word, characterizes the purpose and effect of much of Stevenson’s fiction; it is also the principal object of much of his poetry.

One does not read—certainly one does not reread—Stevenson’s poetry for its examination of adult life’s complexities or its wrestling with the ultimate questions which each generation must ask for itself. These concerns are certainly present in some of the poetry but do not dominate it. Rather, in the bulk of Stevenson’s verse, one reads to find an emotion crystallized, an occasion noted, a fleeting mood artfully captured and rendered. One reads the poetry primarily to enjoy a highly realized sense of childhood, a freshness and naïveté that is usually full of wonder, sometimes on the verge of joyous laughter, and often tinged with an almost inexpressible sadness. Stevenson is unmistakably a minor poet who has something in common with William Ernest Henley and Rudyard Kipling, other minor poets of the age, as well as with the early William Butler Yeats. A. E. Housman’s poetry owes a clear debt to Stevenson’s.

Discussion Topics

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Examine Captain Silver and Alan Breck as instances of Robert Louis Stevenson’s morally ambiguous characters.

Compare Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with other works by contemporaries, such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Oscar Wilde, that treat divided personalities.

Did Stevenson’s aptness at telling exciting stories obscure other aspects of his artistry?

In what respects is Treasure Island a novel for adults?

Examine the evidence that A Child’s Garden of Verses is about, not for, children.


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Ambrosini, Richard, and Richard Dury, eds. Robert Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. A collection of essays reflecting a trend in Stevenson studies that can readily be appreciated by a twenty-first century reader.

Arata, Stephen D. “The Sedulous Ape: Atavism, Professionalism, and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.” Criticism 37 (Spring, 1995): 233-259. Discusses the story as a self-conscious exploration of the relation between professional interpretation and the construction of criminal deviance; argues that it is also a displaced meditation on what Stevenson considered the decline of authorship into “professionalism.”

Bathurst, Bella. The Lighthouse Stevensons. New York: HarperPerennial, 2000. A history of Stevenson’s family, who built fourteen lighthouses along the Scottish coast during the nineteenth century. A fascinating insight into Stevenson’s family background.

Bell, Ian. Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. Bell, a journalist rather than an academic, writes evocatively of Stevenson the dreamer and exile. This brief study of Stevenson’s brief but dramatic life does a fine job of evoking the man and the places he inhabited. It is less accomplished in its approach to the work.

Bevan, Bryan. “The Versatility of Robert Louis Stevenson.” Contemporary Review 264 (June, 1994): 316-319. A general discussion of Stevenson’s work, focusing on his versatility in a number of genres; discusses early influences on his writing, and comments on his essays and his fiction.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2005. Compilation of critical essays on Stevenson’s fiction, ranging in focus from the dialectic between realism and romance to Stevenson’s attitude toward professionalism in authorship.

Buckton, Oliver S. Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative, and the Colonial Body. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007. This volume looks at much of Stevenson’s nonfiction and his major fictional works to examine the importance of travel in his life and his writing. Buckton shares enlightening views on the energies and desires that were released by Stevenson through travel.

Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This excellent study, by the daughter of literary historian David Daiches, is richly documented with Stevenson’s letters. Less a biography than a study of the writer’s mind, it focuses on the personal values and attitudes informing Stevenson’s work.

Callow, Philip. Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. An engaging biography that draws on the work of other biographers to present for the general reader a cohesive life of the novelist.

Chesterton, G. K. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927. An older but distinguished critical study of Stevenson that is still highly regarded for its insights, as well as for its wit and lucidity.

Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norwalk, Conn.: New Directions, 1947. Along with J. C. Furnas, Daiches is credited with pioneering a positive reappraisal of Stevenson. His study is urbane and penetrating in the tradition of G. K. Chesterton.

Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward. New York: William Sloane, 1951. Furnas, who briefly lived in Stevenson’s home in Samoa, traced the author’s steps backward to his native Scotland. The work is a popular and sympathetic biography documented with unpublished letters. It contains an elaborate works-consulted bibliography.

Hammond, J. R. A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays, and Short Stories. London: Macmillan, 1984. The first three sections cover the life and literary achievements of Stevenson and contain a brief bibliography that lists and describes his short stories, essays, and smaller works. The fourth section critiques his novels and romances, and the fifth is a key to the people and places of Stevenson’s novels and stories.

Harman, Claire. Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. A substantial biography, covering the writer’s early family life, his writing and travels and his curious but successful marriage. Includes bibliography and index.

McLaughlin, Kevin. “The Financial Imp: Ethics and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Novel 29 (Winter, 1996): 165-183. Examines the key issue of finance that can be found at the center of some works of British fiction during this time, focusing particularly on Stevenson’s treatment of these issues in his short story “The Bottle Imp.”

McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1993. The author traces Robert Louis Stevenson’s career, noting the malignant influence of his wife and stepson and concluding that Stevenson “is Scotland’s greatest writer of English prose.”

Reid, Julia. Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Study of the role of science, especially the theory of evolution, both in Stevenson’s works and in the fin-de-siècle culture that produced them.

Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A useful critical survey of Stevenson’s major works. Saposnik’s volume is the best starting point for serious study of Stevenson’s fiction. Supplemented by a helpful annotated bibliography.

Wright, Daniel L. “’The Prisonhouse of My Disposition’: A Study of the Psychology of Addiction in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Studies in the Novel 26 (Fall, 1994): 254-267. Argues that the story is a portrait of a subject whose aggregate pre-addictive personality disorders reveal a substantial number of risk factors associated with high receptivity to addictive behavior; claims that the story is not just a quaint experiment in gothic terror but Victorian literature’s premiere revelation, intended or not, of the etiology, character, and effects of chronic chemical addiction.


Critical Essays