Robert Louis Stevenson Analysis


ph_0111201588-Stevenson.jpg Robert Louis Stevenson. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Other Literary Forms

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.


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.

Other literary forms

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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).


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

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Discussion Topics

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.

(The entire section is 85 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 907 words.)