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.