Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he was still financially dependent on his father. So the pressure of writing a good story, one that had public appeal, was not the only concern on his mind as he progressed through this romantic tale of high adventure. Stevenson was out to prove that he could write well that he could support himself through his own publications. He was thirty-one years old, married, and the stepfather of two children. It was time that he earned his title as head of household. Therefore, whether it was a conscious or subconscious act, it is no wonder that the subject of money is woven through this work. This might be a story of adventure and a tale of a young boy coming of age, but neither of those two elements pushes the story forward. If readers looked closely, they will come to see that the real power that drives this novel is not adventure but money.
No more than five lines into the story, young Jim Hawkins makes reference to money. He has been asked by Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey to write from memory the things that occurred on their treasure-hunt adventure. Hawkins is to give all the particular details of their trip except for the “bearings of the island,” because “there is still treasure not yet lifted.” With this comment, Stevenson sets up his readers to focus on the money. Readers immediately become alert to the idea that there is still treasure to be found. Like the pirates who have buried their loot on some deserted island, Stevenson has buried the idea of money in his readers’ minds. And like the characters themselves who push their way across the ocean, readers plod their way through the story, hoping they too discover in the pages of this story some clue regarding the island’s location. If they can uncover that secret, maybe they too can set out on their own adventure and claim the remaining treasure. Having set this tone, Stevenson next introduces his characters, each with his own claims and desires for money.
The first to arrive on the scene is the pirate Billy Bones. One of the interesting and mysterious features of this old seaman is the large chest he drags behind him. Since the title of this novel is Treasure Island and since, according to old myths, it is said that treasures are often buried in old chests, readers, as well as the characters in this story cannot help but wonder what Bones is hiding in that chest. Bones throws a few coins around, promising to pay Hawkins to keep a lookout for a one-legged man and prepaying Hawkins’ father for his keep. Readers as well as the affected characters wonder where those coins come from and if there are more to be found at their source. But Bones’ payments soon become a point of contention when he often forgets to give young Hawkins his wages. Bones also forgets, or refuses, to pay Hawkins’ father for his extended keep. And these omissions come into play later, after Bones has died. That is when young Hawkins and his mother rationalize their rifling through Bones’ mysterious chest in search of what they consider is rightfully owed to them. They find what they want or rather what they have justified is theirs. And they discover even more. Hawkins comes upon the map that will take the story into its further development— the search for more money. It is interesting to note, before moving on with the rest of the story, that Hawkins’ relationships with Bones and with their fellow villagers, as far as Stevenson portrays it, are all based on money. There is little mention of any emotional involvement either when Bones dies or when Hawkins father dies. The emphasis of the story is on the survival of those left behind, and that survival is based on money. Debts must be paid. The Admiral Benbow Inn must reopen as soon as possible so the flow of money is not interrupted.
The story progresses with Dr. Livesey comprehending the significance of the map that Hawkins shows him. When he concludes that it is a treasure map, plans are immediately made to find the island. Here a medical doctor, upon whom a whole countryside depends, leaves his patients, as does young Hawkins leave his widowed mother, all in the name of gold. It is also in the name of money that the doctor warns his comrades they must be silent. No one must know that the true motivation of their sea journey (like the motivation for writing this story) is money. However, Stevenson knows that the thought of money inspires every man, so he cannot keep it a secret. Money is the driving force; therefore, every character in this story must be energized by it. Thus he must have a character who cannot keep a secret. That character is Squire Trelawney, who spreads the word so far that every man involved in the trip, even before the Hispaniola leaves the dock, knows that the purpose behind the journey is the search for gold. It is the thought of riches in the crew’s minds, more than the wind that fills the ship’s sails, that drives the Hispaniola across the ocean.
In the midst of the trip, Stevenson does a curious thing. He has Long John Silver, the most respected of pirates, hold a discussion with his men on economics. As Hawkins sits hidden in the depths of an apple barrel, the young boy listens as Silver discusses not only the act of mutiny with the other pirates but also the best ways to make one’s money work for oneself. It is not wise to take money one finds (or steals) and squander it on rum or on women, but rather, Silver tells the men, one should invest it. That is just what Silver has done, he explains. He has bought the Spyglass Inn, which he runs (when he is not off on an ocean voyage) with his woman. What Silver has not invested in real estate and small business, he has stashed in several banks. “I laid by nine hundred safe, from England, and two thousand after Flint. That ain’t bad for a man before the mast—all safe in the bank.” Then he adds: “It’s saving does it, you may lay to that.” He continues his lecture by warning the men that most pirates throw their money away and then end up begging for food. His men, misunderstanding Silver’s lessons, state that money then “ain’t such use, after all.” But Silver is already one step ahead of his men, as usual. “T ain’t much use for fools,” he tells them. Then Silver begins a long monologue on what makes the typical “gentlemen of fortune,” pirates who win big but lose it completely. “But that’s not the course I lay. I puts it all away, some here, some there, and none too much anywheres, by reason of suspicion.” He is not only, Silver assures them, a gentleman of fortune. He is also a “gentleman in earnest.” So in the midst of mutiny and adventure, Stevenson sneaks in a lesson on how to find money and how to keep it and invest it so it will grow. As proof that this lesson has been learned, at least in the mind of one of the pirates, Stevenson has a young pirate tell Silver, “Well, I tell you now . . . I didn’t half a quarter like the job till I had this talk with you, John; but there’s my hand on it now.” This youngster has been set straight. One has only to work hard and think of riches to alleviate the pain of the hard labor, and all is set well with the world.
But there is one foolish fellow in this adventure, and that is Ben Gunn. Gunn has been on Treasure Island for three years with more gold than he ever imagined. And yet the one thing he craves even more than money is some English food. Only on Treasure Island is money not worth anything. Gunn could not eat the gold, nor would the treasure help him sail off the island. The true worth of money is as currency, the passing of the gold from one hand to another in exchange for some material that either satisfies one’s hunger and thirst or promotes an easier style of living. The cave filled with gold provides none of these for Gunn. His survival depends solely on his own hands and his wit. This man, although his loneliness has made him a bit eccentric, is the only character in the story who is truly independent. For three years, he figures out a way to stay alive without money—the same thing that drives all the other characters nearly crazy. The other men in the story are willing to leave their families, their homes, their patients, their colleagues and risk their lives for the buried treasure. They are willing to maim and kill for it—but not Gunn. For this difference, Stevenson makes Gunn look like a fool.
As the novel comes to a close, Stevenson paints the portrait of Gunn in ridiculous colors. First Gunn helps Silver escape from the Hispaniola, then he allows Silver to take one of the sacks of gold. Thus Silver, the old economics professor, once again finishes in the black—in profit. Then Stevenson writes about how Captain Smollet, because of the found treasure, is able to retire. Another man uses his money to further his education and invest in a ship and then lives happily ever after with a wife and family. But not poor Ben Gunn. The money he is given (“a thousand pounds”), readers find out, Gunn, foolish man that he is, “spent or lost in three weeks.” Gunn is reduced to a beggar. Although Stevenson does not dwell on it or praise it, he does write that once again Gunn manages to do fairly well for himself without money. He is given a place to live and becomes “a great favourite, though something of a butt” with the local country people.
In the very last paragraph of the book, young Hawkins reminds the reader that although they brought much treasure back with them, there still lay, somewhere on that Treasure Island, bars of silver, thus enticing the dreams, once again, of all those who believe money will solve their problems and make their lives better. And then, with the final words of the story, Hawkins imagines Captain Flint singing out: “Pieces of eight! pieces of eight!” Or in other words: Money, money, money!
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Treasure Island, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1920
Stevenson’s Treasure Island has the characteristics of a successful suspense novel and an entertaining story. There is a lot in this book that serves as a good example of the craft of fine storytelling. Stevenson’s adept use of the tools of good storytelling make this story a good read for adults as well as younger audiences.
Immediately apparent in Treasure Island is Stevenson’s economical use of language. The economy, however, does not sacrifice description, observation, or suspense. Sentences are generally short and peppered with sensory description and keen observations about the human psyche and the characters’ motivations. Close to the beginning of the book, Stevenson’s protagonist describes the mysterious, somewhat frightening pirate who has become a fixture at Jim’s family inn.
He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove, or upon the cliffs, with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlor next to the fire, and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to; only look up sudden and fierce, and blow through his nose like a foghorn; and we . . . learned to let him be.
In a few short sentences, the reader has learned quite a bit about Billy Bones, including that everyone else is at least slightly leery of the drunken pirate. Blowing a nose “like a foghorn” is a wonderful sensory detail that the reader can easily imagine and will not soon forget. Stevenson’s prose is richly loaded with detail—the warmth of a fire, strong rum and water, a brass telescope, cliffs. None of it bogs the reader down, nor interferes with the tight and rapid pace of the story because the details are worked so economically into the narrative.
Throughout the book, there are countless examples of description that do double or triple duty. These descriptions also move the story forward and emphasize a particular clue for the reader, which prepares him for future story twists and turns. Jim describes his dreams of the “seafaring man with one leg,” and the reader hears the surf roaring, feels the house shaking, and sees the one-legged man leaping over hedges to pursue the protagonist. The reader hears the drunken pirate singing “yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum” and feels the unease of the boy and the inn patrons. The doctor on the Hispaniola discovers Jim missing and captures the moment with a number of sensory details that also hint at danger on Treasure Island and prepare the reader for foreboding.
We ran on deck. The pitch was bubbling in the seams; the nasty stench of the place turned me sick; if ever a man smelled fever and dysentery, it was in that abominable anchorage.
Not only does this give the reader a clear moment of description and foreboding, it also allows the doctor to share knowledge of possible risk for disease—knowledge that another character would not have.
Stevenson uses foreshadowing throughout Treasure Island as hints to readers to look for certain key characters or situations. Flint’s fear of a “seafaring man with one leg” is emphasized by his effort to bribe the boy to watch for such a person. Long John Silver does become quite important in the story later on, and the reader has been prepared. In another example of foreshadowing, Captain Smollett seems to have a superstitious reservation about the voyage for treasure (“all I say is we’re not home again, and I don’t like this cruise”) even though he has taken a “downright fancy” to the ship. Of course, the reader knows that something is going to happen and that it will probably involve struggle or danger otherwise there would not be much of a story. Deft (and not overdone) foreshadowing prepares the observant reader for complications and gives the added mystery of a superstitious hunch. More foreshadowing is used when the characters on the ship first view Treasure Island. Jim says
Perhaps it was this—perhaps it was the look of the island, with its gray, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires, and the surf that we could both see and hear foaming and thundering on the steep beach—at least, although the sun shone bring and hot, and the shore birds were fishing and crying all around us . . . my heart sank . . . into my boots; and from that first look onward, I hated the very thought of Treasure Island.
In a paragraph, the reader feels the danger on Treasure Island and again is given rich sensory detail to experience the first view of the island through the eyes of Jim.
Another method of sustaining suspense in an adventure story is to end a chapter at a crucial moment, which is generally known as a cliffhanger. Stevenson uses a number of these in Treasure Island. The point of such endings is to make the reader want to read further, at any cost. When Jim climbs into the ship’s apple barrel and inadvertently hears Long John Silver’s first dozen words, he understands “that the lives of all the honest men aboard depended upon me alone.” Suddenly the stakes have been raised tremendously. Jim is hiding, is in possible danger of discovery, and most of all, is just becoming aware of a huge personal responsibility for the “honest men” on the ship.
There are many cliffhangers in Treasure Island and they all incorporate good storytelling techniques. At the end of Chapter 32, Silver (with Jim in tow as prisoner) and his band of pirates finally locate the site of the treasure, only to discover that the cache is already missing and all that is left is a hole that has been empty for some time. Up until that point, the reader had no clue about the outcome; no foreshadowing had been provided about the location of the treasure. But that is almost secondary; the reader assumes that the treasure will eventually be found. What is more important is that the missing treasure will create an explosive situation among the band of pirates. The reader has been prepared for this possibility through the protagonist’s keen observations of Long John Silver’s mercurial and untrustworthy nature. Stevenson does not let the reader down. The face-off between the men gets going right away in the next chapter.
Not every chapter in Treasure Island ends with a cliffhanger, but the ending of chapters can also serve as a powerful place to emphasize a particular character nuance, or important story information. Such is the case when Jim reboards the Hispaniola and takes command. At the end of this chapter, Jim notices the “odd smile” on Hands’s face, a “haggard, old man’s smile; but there was, besides that, a grain of derision, a shadow of treachery in his expression as he craftily watched, and watched, and watched me at my work.” Again, the reader is being prepared for possible danger from Hands, and the point is given particular emphasis because the author places it at the end of a chapter.
Stevenson also times the revelation of information to the reader, and to the characters, to help create suspense in Treasure Island. This is similar to foreshadowing, but foreshadowing may rely more on implied symbolism or the ambiguous, seemingly illogical statement of a character (a gray island, or the unease of a superstitious captain). The timing of how information is revealed in storytelling is an important consideration in a suspense story. A good example of this in Treasure Island takes place when Hands and Jim are alone on the ship, and Hands asks Jim to go fetch a bottle of wine. There is something strange about the way Hands words his request that clues the reader into feeling that something is not quite right.
I’ll take it kind if you’d step down into that there cabin and get me a—well, a—shiver my timbers! I can’t hit the name on’t; well, you get me a bottle of wine, Jim—this here brandy’s too strong for my head.
An astute reader might immediately notice that something seems slightly unnatural about Hands’s manner of speaking. Suddenly, he seems to be hesitating too much, or trying a little too hard. This is confirmed in the next paragraph when Jim has the same suspicions. However, the reader figured this out first and is then free to enjoy watching Jim come to the same realization. It is a well-timed revelation because the reader is prepared for what’s coming.
Although Treasure Island is a suspenseful adventure story, it contains wonderful observations about various aspects of the human psyche. These are presented economically and enhance the story rather than bogging it down. Often, these observations give the reader insight into the protagonist. A reader might, for example, be impressed with Jim’s ability to notice that Black Dog tries to sound “bold and big.” Jim has a number of observations about the lack of help he and his mother get when they seek assistance in defending their inn. “Cowardice is infectious,” remarks Jim, noting that none of the neighbors would return to the inn and would only promise ready horses or loaded pistols. This is realistic, which adds to the believability of the story, but it also advances the plot because it raises the stakes for the main characters. If neighbors had gladly come to defend the inn, a real opportunity for excitement and danger would have been lost, and Jim may never have ended up on the voyage to Treasure Island.
Jim gets more chances to comment on human nature when he describes the band of pirates that return to ransack the inn. They have “half an eye to their own danger all the time, while the rest stood irresolute on the road.” It is a good observation by the protagonist, and it also sets the reader’s expectation about the pirates’ actions later in the story.
By the time the pirates discover that the treasure is missing, Jim already has a good understanding of Silver’s unethical, changeable character. Still, this does not diminish the power of Jim’s observation of Silver at that moment. Stevenson also uses the moment as an opportunity to slip in a little dialogue: “His looks were now quite friendly; and I was so revolted at these constant changes that I could not forbear whispering, ‘So you’ve changed sides again.’”
There are other techniques that Stevenson uses to make this story enjoyable, suspenseful, and tightly plotted. The author makes extensive use of lively dialogue, which brings the reader close to the characters and gives the reader the experience of “hearing” pirates and other characters. Stevenson also disposes of characters when they are no longer needed. Billy Bones is killed because he has served his purpose— he has brought his trunk and treasure map to the inn where it will fall into Jim’s hands. Pew is killed off after Jim has heard enough to learn what type of danger he may be heading into. Long John Silver lives through the entire book because he is a critical character and is crucial to the plot until the treasure is located. Stevenson uses a number of methods, including rich description, foreshadowing and timing, tight plotting, and economical prose to make Treasure Island an enjoyable adventure story for all ages.
Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Treasure Island, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2949
My principal qualification for writing about Robert Louis Stevenson is affection. He is the only author of whom I can say that I have been reading him all my life. Kidnapped was the first book I read that had chapters, and I can still recall the maroon binding and the weight of the book in my hand. At that time I lived with my parents in the valley of Glenalmond, at the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps Stevenson knew of that place, for Lord Glenalmond plays a role in his last work, Weir of Hermiston. I had only to look out the windows of our house to see the stark hills, the heather, and the bracken, the landscape so bare of hiding places, over which David Balfour and Alan Breck made their way. And in those years of genderless reading it never occurred to me that I could not go with them.
Besides being the first full-length book I read, Kidnapped was the first book whose author’s name I knew. Indeed, I hadn’t previously known there was such a thing as an author. Books had fallen from the bookshelves like leaves from the trees. I did not question their origins; they were absolute in themselves. But in the case of the maroon book the music of Stevenson’s name impressed me. I also owned a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses. “My Shadow,” with its mixture of observation and mystery, was one of my favorite poems.
Such early recognition might seem like a good thing for an author’s reputation, but it is in fact part of the long process by which Stevenson’s work has been devalued. That I and so many others came to his work so young has made us consider him a children’s author from whom we have little to learn as adults. This opinion is one that his contemporaries would not have shared, either in his particular case or as a general rule. Victorian adults felt free to embrace so-called children’s books without apology. Stevenson’s father often reread The Parent’s Assistant, a volume of children’s stories, and Virginia Woolf records being taken to Peter Pan on her twenty-third birthday with no signs that this was a childish treat.
Like the shadow in his poem, Stevenson’s reputation has waxed and waned at an alarming rate. The blaze of hagiography in which he died seems to have incited critics to special fury. F. R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, dismissed Stevenson as a romantic writer guilty of fine writing, and the critical community in general has designated him a minor author not worthy of the serious admiration that we accord his friend Henry James. People comment with amazement that Borges and Nabokov liked his work. This year marks the centenary of Stevenson’s death, and I am not alone in believing that it is time to reconsider his reputation.
Two obvious factors in Stevenson’s fall from grace are quantity and fashion. The list of his publications is much longer than most people realize, but the few works by which we remember him do not constitute a recognizable oeuvre. And literary taste has swung in a direction that Stevenson disliked and did his best to avoid—namely, pessimism. While admiring the early Hardy, for instance, he hated Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and he took James to task for The Portrait of a Lady. John Galsworthy commented memorably on this when he said that the superiority of Stevenson over Hardy was that Stevenson was all life, while Hardy was all death.
There are, of course, more-crucial reasons why Stevenson’s shadow has dwindled. He often falls short of our expectations of a serious novelist; his plots tend to be too simple in psychological terms and too fantastic in terms of events. The former problem stemmed partly from his theory of fiction; the latter he knew to be a fault and blamed on the tales of his childhood. Typically he worked on several projects at once, a sign of his natural prolixity but also of the difficulty he had in reaching conclusions. History, which gave him so many of his plots, was not so generous with endings, and in trying to invent them, Stevenson often either overreached the bounds of credibility, as in The Master of Ballantrae, or fell into flatness, as in Kidnapped.
The most complete account we have of his theory of fiction is contained in “A Humble Remonstrance,” the essay he wrote in reply to James’s “The Art of Fiction.” Here we see him rebutting James’s view that art should compete with life:
Man’s one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality. . . . Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . . The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material . . . but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant.
In fact many of his critics have brought just this charge against Stevenson: that in the pursuit of significance he departed too far from life.
I would argue that in his best work—most notably Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Weir of Hermiston—Stevenson, perhaps in spite of himself, failed to emasculate his art. He opens his eyes, and ours, to the confusion of reality, and what he shows us is something that the modern reader is vitally concerned with: the inescapable duality of our existence.
Shortly before his death Stevenson wrote,
I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated police face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic— foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.
He dramatized this spectacle with lyrical specificity and, as his work matured, increasing subtlety. And no one has ever described better what I saw from the window of my first bedroom.
How Stevenson grew to be preoccupied with duality can be seen in even a brief examination of his life. He was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. His father, Thomas, came from a line of lighthouse engineers. His mother, Margaret, was the youngest of the thirteen children of the Reverend Lewis Balfour. Louis, as the boy was called, had a formidable Scottish nanny, Cummy, who he later claimed was a major influence. By the time he was seven, the family had moved to 17 Heriot Row in the New Town of Edinburgh, a highly respectable address from which Stevenson later ventured forth to explore the more salacious neighborhoods of the city.
He began writing at an early age, dictating “A History of Moses” to his mother when he was six. Unlike me, he knew about authors and referred to himself as one. He read widely, not least history, and grew up vividly aware that Scotland was divided by both politics and temperament. The natural enmity between the cold, proper Lowland Scots and the fiery Highlanders informs much of his work.
His parents were proud of his precocious literary endeavors, but it never occurred to them that their son would be a writer; he was destined to be a lighthouse engineer. To this end Louis studied engineering at Edinburgh University—very lackadaisically, by all accounts—and accompanied his father to remote lighthouses, trips he later made use of in his work, especially Kidnapped. His parents seem to nave tolerated his lack of studiousness, but in 1873 there was a terrible crisis when they discovered that Louis had lost his faith. Fortunately, they do not seem to have been aware that he also was involved with prostitutes. Partly as a result of these quarrels Louis collapsed and was sent to recuperate in the south of France. There, in a determined effort to improve his writing, he continued to play “the sedulous ape,” as he described it, imitating Wordsworth, Defoe, Hawthorne, and Baudelaire, among others.
Over the next few years he wrote a number of essays, including a highly controversial one in which he took Robert Burns to task for philandering, and reached a modus vivendi with his parents. They gave him an allowance of about £80 a year, and he gave up engineering in favor of law. In 1875 he was admitted to the Scottish bar; his total earnings as a solicitor are recorded as four guineas.
The rapprochement between parents and son weathered even the scandal of Louis’s marriage. In 1876, while visiting a cousin in Grez, France, Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne. She was an American, ten years older than he, and estranged from her husband. She had come to Grez with her two children, Lloyd and Belle, to recover from the death of her third child. Later Osbourne claimed that Stevenson fell in love with her at first sight. This seems to have been pure fabrication, but not long after this he visited her in Paris. Osbourne gave an odd picture of her volatile suitor: “I do wish Louis wouldn’t burst into tears in such an unexpected way,” she wrote. He also suffered from cataracts of laughter the only cure for which, he claimed, was to have someone bend back his fingers. Osbourne and Stevenson almost certainly became lovers around this time.
In 1878 Osbourne returned to America and Stevenson, briefly, to Scotland. That autumn he was back in France, where he bought a donkey for sixtyfive francs. He named her Modestine, and during their twelve-day journey in the Cévennes he reduced her value by nearly half. Later he immortalized her in Travels With a Donkey. We do not know on exactly what terms he and Osbourne had parted, but in July of 1879 she sent him a telegram. In the most romantic gesture of his life he set sail secretly for America. His account of the voyage and the subsequent train journey to San Francisco was so grim that his father persuaded him not to publish The Amateur Emigrant. By the time he reached Osbourne, in Monterey, Stevenson needed a nurse more than a wife. Their marriage, the following year, was described by both parties as taking place in extremis.
Fanny is a major battleground for Stevenson biographers, as two recent books—Robert Louis Stevenson, by Frank McLynn, and Dreams of Exile, by Ian Bell—demonstrate. Whatever came later, it seems clear that the unlikely couple were initially in love. For Stevenson, Fanny was the apogee of several significant relationships with older women. As for her, surely love was the only argument for marrying a sickly, impoverished writer. Later Fanny advertised herself as Stevenson’s muse, collaborator, and nursemaid, claims that are vigorously, and often convincingly, challenged by Frank McLynn. Still, I find myself reluctant to apportion blame. Who can say who are the criminals in love? Stevenson lived with Fanny for fourteen years, and during that time wrote the works by which we know him.
For the first few years of their marriage the Stevensons shuttled back and forth between Scotland and the Continent, finally settling in 1884 in the English seaside town of Bournemouth. Louis spent much of the next three years in bed, and later described himself as having lived there “like a weevil in a biscuit.” During this time he became better acquainted with Henry James, who came to Bournemouth to visit another invalid: his sister, Alice. The two passed from admiration into a friendship that survived a number of aesthetic disagreements. Why not write about women? James suggested, What about action? Stevenson urged. How different the work of each might have been if he had heeded the other.
In spite of ill health Stevenson was wonderfully productive. In rapid succession he published A To go back and read what Stevenson actually wrote is disorienting for several reasons. The novel is firmly in the romantic tradition wherein amazing events are reported by a dry-as-dust narrator. We tend to overlook the cold, silent lawyer Utterson who guides us through the story and who, precisely because of his reserve, is the best possible witness to the horror of Hyde. Part of our disorientation is not merely forgetfulness but the result of Stevenson’s cunning design. The labyrinthine streets through which we pursue Hyde increasingly depart from the map of the known city. Slowly but inexorably we are being led into a strange country, where the relationship between Jekyll’s prim white hand and Hyde’s orgiastic hairy paw will be revealed. The two are not merely opposites, or alter egos. In Nabokov’s helpful analogy Hyde is a precipitate of Jekyll. We might also think of him as Jekyll’s son.
Critics have speculated that both Jekyll and Hyde are guilty of sexual misdemeanors. But I read the novel as essentially Scottish; the sins I attribute to Jekyll are the Edinburgh ones of secrecy and puritanism that governed Stevenson’s youth and my own. Whatever the author had in mind, vagueness has served the novel well. Sin dates, and modern readers, although frustrated, are left free to imagine their own version of horror.
Between Jekyll and Hyde and Weir, Stevenson wrote several more novels, among them The Master of Ballantrae and David Balfour. The former is commonly regarded as his greatest full-length work, although the plot, about a life-long duel between two brothers, one of whom turns out to be an incubus, defeated even as staunch an admirer as André Gide. What is notable in terms of Stevenson’s development as a writer is that the father remains alive through the first half of the novel and that the characters include a strong-minded, intelligent woman.
Both these promises are fulfilled in the unfinished Weir of Hermiston. Here Stevenson at last explored the quarrel between father and son and created two superb female characters. Lord Braxfield, the notorious Scots hanging judge, was, like Deacon Brodie, a famous Edinburgh character. Stevenson became convinced that Braxfield was his great subject, the one that would allow him to achieve the epic qualities his work to that point had lacked.
The plot combines the dazzle of reality with the significance of art. Archie, the only son of illmatched parents, is raised at Hermiston by his religious mother, who unthinkingly teaches him to criticize his father. After her death he moves to Edinburgh to live with his father, the judge. The crisis between them comes when Archie, now a law student, watches his father sentence a man to death.
Archie denounces the hanging as murder, and his father banishes him to Hermiston. There the older Kirstie, his housekeeper, falls in love with him, while he falls in love with her niece, the younger Kirstie. The idyllic pursuit of the latter, secret relationship is interrupted by the arrival of Frank, an Iago-like figure. Frank discovers the relationship and, with the worst intentions, warns Archie against it. His advice is seconded by the older Kirstie, for very different reasons. In chapter nine we see Archie attempting to act on it.
From letters and notes we have an idea of how Stevenson imagined the remainder of the book. Frank was going to seduce the younger Kirstie. Archie would shoot Frank and be arrested. He would come to trial, and in some way—Stevenson was desperate to make this work—he would be tried by his father and condemned to death.
All this, whatever its credibility, does have the resonance of an epic. It is also Stevenson’s profoundest exploration of duality. Finally he laid aside the subterfuges of the supernatural and created characters who are both in opposition to each other and at war within themselves. In his single person the judge upholds the polite face of society while remaining firmly rooted in the orgiastic foundations, and it is crucial to the tragedy that Archie is his father’s son as well as his mother’s. Here we see him describing his tangled feelings:
I will be baldly frank. I do not love my father, I wonder sometimes if I do not hate him. There’s my shame; perhaps my sin; at least, and in the sight of God, not my fault. How was I to love him? . . . You know the way he talks? . . . My soul is sick when he begins with it; I could smite him in the mouth.
And yet, Archie goes on, he has asked his father’s pardon and placed himself wholly in his hands. The two Kirsties also show us terrific vitality and subtlety of motivation.
That Stevenson died in the midst of this story is tragic; that he lived to write it at all is a marvel. The canon has taught us to value a body of work over a single work, but at this late date in the twentieth century, drowning in books, surely we can afford to esteem quality even when it comes without quantity. If Stevenson deserves a place in our adult lives, his reputation must, like a number of authors’, rest on only a few works. As we love Shelley for Frankenstein, Di Lampedusa for The Leopard, Fournier for The Lost Domain, so we can love Stevenson for his vaulted ambition and because in those last days of his life, at least, he wrote pages worthy of that ambition and of our admiration. He worked on Weir of Hermiston intermittently from 1892 onward. The last words were dictated the morning of his death.
Source: Margot Livesey, “The Double Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 274, No. 5, November 1994, pp. 140–46.