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SOURCE: "Treasure Island as a Book for Boys," in The Living Age, Vol. CCLXXI, No. 3512, October 28, 1911, pp. 249-51.
[In the following essay, Middleton attributes the unpopularity of the first publication of Treasure Island to the presence of human flaws in Stevenson's charac ters—a literary quality "at variance with juvenile conceptions of adventure."]
It is a pity that schoolmasters do not make a point of discovering the private literary tastes of their pupils, in order that we could form some general idea of what boys really like to read. Such an inquiry must be conducted tactfully; the only lists of the kind that we have seen were suspiciously priggish. It is true that there are boys who like Scott and Dickens, but it is safe to say that the average boy of twelve or thirteen cares neither for one nor the other, or at all events, given the opportunity, prefers Henty or Talbot Baines Reed. Yet, while we may acknowledge that boys do not accept our adult standards of criticism, it must not be inferred that they do not possess any of their own. A bookish boy will read anything if the supply of books is limited, but he will like some books better than others, and the most sophisticated of critics has no firmer ground for his judgments than that.
That the critical instinct of boys is sometimes subtle in its workings may be seen from the classic instance of Treasure Island, which entirely failed to capture the hearts of the juvenile readers of Young Folks when it appeared as a serial in that periodical. Indeed the editor had to defend it, in reply to criticisms of the earlier instalments. In revenge the Black Arrow, surely Stevenson's worst book, proved a great success with the same body of readers, a preference which should reveal to the thoughtful writer the enormous difficulty of estimating the probable popularity of books written for boys. The conscientious critic should be panic-stricken at Christmas-time, when he is faced with the usual deluge of juvenile literature, for he is about to adventure in an unknown land. A musical critic set down suddenly in Barnard's ring at Epsom to write an account of the Derby for the Newmarket touts would be in a position no more embarrassing.
What was it in Treasure Island that the readers of Young Folks did not like? If we could find a satisfactory answer to the question we should be nearer to an understanding of juvenile standards of criticism. Offhand, though we should not have thought of bracketing it with "Tom Sawyer" and the "Iliad," like Mr. Andrew Lang, we should have said that Treasure Island was the best boys' book that had ever been written. Pirates, treasure, a desert island, some good fighting and a boy hero are the elements that we should seek in a model work of that description; and though we do not credit the young with any taste for style, they should surely appreciate the romantic spirit and unfailing energy with which Stevenson's tale is told. He avoided, too, the heavy-handed morality that proved the undoing of Dean Farrar, and even, from a boy's point of view, of Thomas Hughes. Virtue triumphs, but so, to a minor extent, does the principal villain—that very finished ruffian John Silver—whose character drew its inspiration, we are told, from the "maimed strength and masterfulness" of the poet Henley, and with whom Stevenson had clearly fallen in love himself. An omission in the story that the author lamented would not probably occur to the mind of a boy. "The trouble is," he wrote, "to work it off without oaths. Buccaneers without oaths—bricks without straw. But youth and the fond parient have to be consulted." Another omission, that of female characters, was in joyful obedience to the wishes of the boy on whom he tried the earlier chapters, and here he was undoubtedly right. Yet the readers of Young Folks, those bizarre and nameless critics, refused to hear the charmer's voice till he changed his pipe and gave them the Black Arrow.
Boys are ineloquent critics, and this heightens the difficulty of understanding their literary preferences; so that we are forced to fall back on theory to account for the failure of Treasure Island in serial form. Perhaps the most notable difference between that and the average book for boys lies in the fact that Stevenson's characterization is more than skin deep. His hero, Jim Hawkins, is a real boy, and not one of the super-boys who lead armies and drive motor-cars across the pages of most boys' books. Admitting that Jim does heroic things, it is nevertheless true that Stevenson has robbed him of the normal heroic glamour. The grown-ups in the book do not turn to him for orders or acclaim him as a genius. We are made to feel, indeed we are told—that his splendid achievements are due to luck rather than judgment, and he emerges from his adventures without a halo. Now, doubtless, this study of a boy is faithful in terms of life, but this is not the kind of part that a boy would choose to play in his dreams. In the imaginary world of youth a boy triumphs over difficulties by superior skill and intellect, and not by luck, and his triumph is immediately recognized by old and young alike. Instead of adding a new kingdom to this world, Treasure Island is a shrewd blow at this fundamental law. It suggests that it is possible for a boy hero to be thoughtless and even foolish, and is a manifest denial of the truth that a boy can do no wrong in the world of adventure.
Again, though the adult mind finds John Silver a convincing and sufficient villain, it may be doubted whether he is acceptable to the young as a type of pirate captain. He is smooth-tongued and hypocritical, and he achieved by guile the ends that a proper pirate captain would have attained by force. It is a pity, for it cannot be denied that his ferocity is genuine when he doffs his ignoble mask. Flint or William Bones must have played the part with a better grace; in fact, from all we learn of Flint he must have been a model pirate, and all the lesser ruffians of Treasure Island fall to talking of him when they want to make our flesh creep. Their villainy is merely the shadow of Flint's, and tender youth, with a mind tuned for deeds of violence, may well imagine that the book begins too late. Treasure Island is well enough, but where is the tale of Flint's adventures? That is the book that a healthy-minded, blood-thirsty boy would wish to read.
Doubtless in humanizing his characters, in making his boy-hero a mere lifelike boy, in sketching his pirates as the cowardly, clumsy ruffians they were in real life, Stevenson was at variance with juvenile conceptions of adventure; and yet the story is so good that the coldness of those early readers remains a mystery. Treasure Island was begun at Baemar in August, 1881, and at the same time Stevenson was writing some of those graceful notes of childhood that were afterwards gathered into the "Child's Garden of Verses." In our experience these never fail with young children, who find in them a straightforward expression of everyday emotions, where grown-up people find poignant echoes of the rapture and enchantment of their lost childhood. When a child in our hearing called them "sensible" we realized the measure of the poet's success. From the lips of children he would have desired no other praise.
Intellectually boys are hard to reckon with, for in most of them the child's imagination is giving place to the materialism of a healthy animal, so that side by side with the credulity of inexperience we find a scepticism founded on cheerful ignorance. A boy may dismiss the novels of Scott as "rot" and read a halfpenny legend of Deadwood Dick, the Dime Detective, with interest and pleasure. But we must not on this account deny him the possession of a critical faculty. He knows what he likes, and that is the beginning of all criticism.
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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The following entry presents criticism of Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. For a discussion of Stevenson's novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), see . See also Markheim Criticism.
Stevenson's brilliantly constructed adventure novel Treasure Island has remained a popular favorite for both children and adults. Noted in particular for its entertainment value, the novel has inspired extensive media and commercial adaptations, as well as praise from critics who have emphasized Stevenson's highly skilled plotting and delineation of character and setting. Commentators have also stressed Treasure Island's status as a work that simultaneously embraces and departs from the generic conventions of the prose romance.
In the summer of 1881, Stevenson returned to Scotland following travels in the United States and England. He rented a cottage in Braemar, where he began to write Treasure Island, the book which marked a major turning point in his literary career. Up until that point, Stevenson's literary output had been uneven—Treasure Island marked the author's mastery of tone, pace, and vocabulary. The idea for the story initially began with a water-color map that Stevenson drew as part of an intricate adventure game for his stepson. As the novel gradually evolved, Stevenson regularly shared portions of the work-inprogress with friends and relatives, taking their comments into account. By October of 1881, the novel was first published in serial form in Young Folks' Magazine under the title "The Sea Cook." Although Treasure Island was not initially a popular success with young readers, Stevenson's subsequent revisions led the work to great popularity when it was published in book form.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in the 1740s, Treasure Island describes the adventures of a boy named Jim Hawkins after he discovers a map showing the way to buried treasure. Jim's father is the landlord of the Admiral Benbow, an inn where Billy Bones, an old seaman who once served under the pirate Captain Flint, takes up lodgings. A treasure map is found in Bones's sea chest following the former pirate's death; and with this in hand, Jim, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett set sail aboard the Hispaniola to find Treasure Island, which lies off the coast of South America. During the voyage, Jim's discovery of plans for a mutiny led by Long John Silver, the ship's cook, helps to save the expedition. After a prolonged struggle, Long John Silver's mutineers take the boy hostage and then begin to search for the treasure on the island, but they unearth only an empty chest. Both Jim and Long John Silver are rescued from the enraged pirates and led to the treasure by Ben Gunn, a half-wild sailor who had been marooned on the island for many years. They abandon the mutineers, rejoin the captain and his small band of loyal followers, and set sail for the West Indies, where Long John leaves the ship. Eventually the Hispaniola returns to Bristol where Jim, his friends, and the loyal crew all enjoy an ample share of the treasure.
Drawing upon the medieval narrative tradition of the romantic quest, Treasure Island recounts a boy's journey from innocence to experience, giving the physical adventure of a pirate story a heightened significance. The quest theme suggests several levels of meaning: Jim gains knowledge of himself, an understanding of the nature of the adult world, and insight into the duplicity of human character, symbolized, for example, by the moral ambiguity of Long John Silver. Jim is both fascinated and repelled by the pirates, who have been interpreted by critics as representations of the underside of civilization. Similarly, Jim is at once enticed and repulsed by the blood-tainted buried treasure, which some critics have viewed as a symbol of the economics of the "real world" that he will face as an adult. The treasure money itself is amoral—the potential inspiration for enslavement or freedom, crime or heroism.
Treasure Island has received praise for its skillful plotting and pacing of action, its articulation of colorful characters, and its evocative setting. Much criticism of the novel has been concerned with the work's affinities with and departures from the familiar conventions of the prose romance, and specifically, adventure fiction. While David Daiches emphasized Stevenson's decision to frame his novel "in one of the oldest of all narrative moulds—the quest," William H. Hardesty and David Mann note how the author "changed [those conventions] or, occasionally, turned them upside down." Critics have consistently noted Treasure Island's distinction from similar works of the Victorian adventure prose, which, by comparison, have been considered verbose and moralistic. Treasure Island, most argue, demonstrates a relatively ambiguous morality and complexity of character development through such characters as Long John Silver, who serves both as villain and inverted father figure to Jim Hawkins. Robert Kiely comments: "To read Treasure Island today is still to find it fresh and exuberant, an absorbing imitation of a child's daydream, unhampered by adult guilt or moral justification."
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SOURCE: "Adventure," in Robert Louis Stevenson, New Directions Books, 1947, pp. 32-73.
[In the following excerpt, Daiches discusses Stevenson's decision to cast his novel "in one of the oldest of all narrative moulds—the quest." Below, Daiches examines Stevenson's use of plotting techniques that heighten the novel's suspense.]
Treasure Island took its origin from a map of an imaginary, romantic island idly drawn by Stevenson and his stepson on a rainy day in "the late Miss Macgregor's cottage," Braemar, Scotland. Stevenson had returned from his first stay in America, with memories of poverty, illness and adventure (including his marriage), and a warm reconciliation with his parents had been effected. Both he and his wife were now established in a secure family relationship with the elder Stevensons and, for the first time since his pre-university days, Stevenson was not constantly haunted by the torturing paradox which the combination of warm affection for and total disagreement with his father had created. His problem now was only the physically more difficult but emotionally less wearing one of trying to find health.
It was perhaps natural that in these circumstances he should, at least in his prose, abandon the autobiographical and semi-autobiographical kinds of writing which had hitherto constituted his principal work and turn to the pure adventure story. He was no longer quite so preoccupied with himself; he had established a happy modus vivendi with both his parents and his wife, and his imagination could roam more freely as a result. In finishing his stepson's map and romantically labelling it "Treasure Island" he entered on his second stage as a writer: up till now he had been primarily an essayist and belle-lettrist, but from now on his principal task was to be the writing of adventure stories.
First the map and then the story: the procedure was appropriate enough. In a story of this kind you start with the romantic idea and then proceed to embody it in a suitable narrative. "Treasure Island" was the title of the map long before it was the title of the story, which was originally entitled The Sea Cook. The object of the quest being pre-determined, the problem was simply to provide motivation and detail. If "Treasure Island" existed, it existed obviously as an object of desire, picturesque, remote, and shrouded in mystery. The story must, therefore, be cast in one of the oldest of all narrative moulds—the quest.
This basic pattern—the quest for something desirable—can be used in a great variety of ways. The object of the quest may be of itself something of such transcendent importance that it sheds its light, as it were, continuously over the whole narrative, and every episode takes on its appropriate meaning only in the light of the meaning of the object sought. Or the thing sought may be in itself of no importance whatsoever, introduced only as an excuse for the narration of the adventures which accompany its search. Between these two extremes an infinite number of gradations are possible. Ulysses sought his home, Jason sought the Golden Fleece, King Arthur's knights sought the Holy Grail, and innumerable adventurers of fact and fiction have sought simply hidden treasure. The difference between this basic pattern of the quest as used in the epic or other "serious" type of fiction and as used in the pure adventure story such as Treasure Island is just that in the former the object of the quest is itself something of supreme importance, whose possession will wholly change the life of the possessor and whose nature determines both the character and the behaviour of the searchers. In the pure adventure story, however, the thing sought has no such influence over the story as a whole. The treasure of Treasure Island does not attract only pirates or swaggering adventurers: it attracts both good men and bad, pirates, honest sailors, a doctor, a squire, and a respectable youngster. The treasure is neither good nor evil; it is in itself, in fact, of no importance whatsoever. It serves only as an excuse for the story, as a supreme motivation. Its final attainment comes as something of an anti-climax—part of it (the bar silver) is even deliberately left behind. And as for the disposal of the treasure, the matter is dismissed by the author in a sentence: "All of us had ample share of the treasure, and used it wisely or foolishly according to our natures."
It is essential to a story of this kind—a boy's story, told with a constant eye on a boy's imagination and desires—that the reader have from the beginning the assurance that in spite of all the breath-taking chances and hair-breadth escapes things are going to turn out all right for the hero and his friends. There must, of course, be an element of risk—the greater the better—but the main problem must always be how the hero escapes, not whether he escapes. If his ultimate success is known in advance, no danger can be too terrific, no threat too sinister. But that ultimate success must be foreknown; for in a story of this kind the reader is meant to identify himself with the hero, and this cannot be done with assurance unless the possibility of the hero's failure and death is removed from the beginning.
Stevenson achieves this essential requirement of a boy's story very simply and effectively by the device of having the story told by the hero himself, in the first person. If the hero survived to tell the tale, then, whatever the perils he encountered, we can be sure that he escaped them. We can safely identify ourselves with him. That the suspense with which the book is crowded is going to be kept within these necessary limits is made perfectly clear by the very first sentence of the book: "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."
This, the first paragraph of Treasure Island, is a masterly opening. It fulfils simultaneously three separate functions: it makes clear that the hero and his party survived to tell the tale, thus confining the suspense within the limits necessary in a boy's adventure story; it strikes at once the note of romance and adventure by names such as "Squire Trelawney," "Treasure Island" and "Admiral Benbow," images like "the brown old seaman with the sabre-cut," and phrases like "there is still treasure not yet lifted"; and it sets the actual story going at once by narrating, in the concluding part of the sentence—". . . first took up his lodging under our roof"—the first of the series of incidents which constitute the story. The story is thus set going in the very first sentence, with the proper note struck and the proper anticipations aroused. Stevenson had always been interested in the effective opening of adventure stories, as the examples he gives in his letters make clear.
Stevenson's choice of images in the opening paragraphs of Treasure Island is worth noting. After the opening sentence, with its immediate introduction of the "brown old seaman," the story proceeds:
"I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre-cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old seasong that he sang so often afterwards:—
'Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!'
in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. . . . "
Though the effects here are obvious (the book, after all, was written for a boys' magazine) the technique is by no means unsubtle. The device of reminiscence is used to enhance the vividness of the images, and the images themselves are very carefully chosen, moving to a climax from "inn door," "sea-chest," "nut-brown," "tarry pigtail," "hands ragged and scarred," "sabre cut across one cheek," to the sinister words of the "old sea-song" which are to ring like a leit-motiv through the book. After these two lines of song the images die away to an intriguing suggestion of decay and secrecy:
"'This is a handy cove,' says he, at length; 'and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop.—Much company, mate?'
My father told him no,—very little company, the more was the pity.
'Well, then,' said he, 'this is the berth for me.'"
We are barely past the first page and the story is well under way—not so much in terms of actual incidents, though the first of these has been told, as of anticipation, suggestion and setting. It is as difficult to remove the attention from the book at this point as at any point later on. Many a writer of mystery stories could study with profit Stevenson's method of arresting the attention of the reader at the very beginning of the book: the modern detective story, brilliantly contrived though it often is in the main body of the work, is conspicuously lacking in the Ancient Mariner touch; the reader is not held from the beginning, and the opening chapter is generally little more than a necessary penance.
Images suggestive of danger, suspicion, mystery and the picturesque having been presented to us right away, Stevenson proceeds to point out the contrast—so important to him as to so many of his predecessors in Scottish literature—between interior and exterior, between the warm inn parlour and the wind and waves outside. This gives the reader a sense of danger threatening from outside, and no sooner has this suggestion been conveyed than it is punched home with the reference to "the seafaring man with one leg" whom the sailor at the inn is half expecting with apprehension.
That contrast between interior and exterior is the only hint we are given of the difference between the normal life of the hero, Jim Hawkins, and his parents at the inn, and the new life which (though at first they do not know it) begins with the arrival of the sailor. We are told very little of the "Admiral Benbow" in normal times—that is, before the story opens. The only point that must be made is that Jim, a normal boy with nothing unusual in his background, is involved, first slowly and then precipitately, in a series of adventures in which he equips himself manfully in the midst of danger and excitement. An adventure story of this kind has little time for retrospect, for its whole effectiveness depends on its steadily gathering speed from the very first sentence, moving forward at an ever increasing pace until the climax is reached. There is another reason why it would not do to emphasize the normal routine of Jim Hawkins' life. The "Admiral Benbow," a picturesque eighteenth century inn situated in a lonely cove, is even without the intrusion of suspicious seamen an object of romance and glamour in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is one of those scenes, so dear to Stevenson, which call out for an appropriate adventure story. Life at the "Admiral Benbow" even in the quietest of times could therefore hardly be held up as the most effective foil to the adventurous life led by the hero after the story commences. The "Admiral Benbow" by its very existence adds the first note of color and adventure to the story. The contrast, therefore, between Jim's life after the arrival of the seaman and his previous life can only be made implicitly, by the sense of sudden intrusion with which the seaman's arrival is presented, and by the gradual fading out, throughout the rest of the early part of the book, of the domestic images (associated with Jim's parents) which might suggest normal life. Jim's father has to die so as to give Jim that combination of independence and responsibility without which he could not appropriately take a central part in a narrative of this kind: his mother can be put away in a less drastic manner, to take care of the inn until the hero comes home.
Bill Bones, the seaman who arrived at the "Admiral Benbow" in the first paragraph, not only provides the opening incident in the chain of events which leads to Treasure Island; he is also to foreshadow the subsequent events in a manner calculated to produce the right kind of suspense, and to arouse in the reader the emotions appropriate to a "pure" adventure story. He unites in his own person the past, present and future. His present dread of encountering "the seafaring man with one leg" is the result of his past association with Treasure Island and at the same time points forward to those future events which involve Jim and his friends in Bill Bones's past. As a technical device, Bill is a perfectly conceived character. It is he who makes the connection between the normal and the abnormal, the everyday and the picturesque, the humdrum and the adventurous, providing the bridge which enables Jim Hawkins (and therefore the reader) to cross with plausibility from the one to the other. And when Bill dies—which is not until he has brought adventure to the "Admiral Benbow" with a vengeance—his death both marks the end of the first movement of the story and motivates the second part. For it is Bill's death which enables Jim and his mother to acquire the map of Treasure Island.
Bill Bones's stay at the "Admiral Benbow" is thus a kind of overture to the story, anticipating the main themes that are to be fully brought forward later. He even produces in the good folk of the neighbourhood an emotion which is symbolic of the aim of every adventure story of this kind: "People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it: it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life." This is one of the few suggestions of that contrast between the normal and the adventurous life which, as we have seen, is for the most part hinted at rather than directly expressed.
After Chapter I—which is not allowed to conclude without an appearance by Dr. Livesey, whose character is built up in an admirable little incident, thus foreshadowing another aspect of the future—the pace begins to quicken. With the arrival of Black Dog it is clear that the rush of events is beyond the hero's control (it is characteristic of the adventure story that the hero does not take control until a fairly late stage in the story: at first he is swept into the story, and only later is he able-—since he is the hero—to establish a measure of control); and with the appearance of the blind and sinister Pew in Chapter III, with his tapping stick and "cruel, cold and ugly" voice, we know that there is no turning back for Jim Hawkins: he has been manoeuvred by chance right into the midst of a dangerous and complicated situation, and if he is to come out alive and with credit it is certainly by a different route from the one which brought him in. In the adventure story you enter purely by chance, but you get out in large measure as a result of your own contrivance.
The speed in Chapter III is terrific: we are swept along with all the emotions of suspense and excitement until Pew has handed Bill the "black spot" and Bill has responded by falling down dead, "struck . . . by thundering apoplexy." The story is rapidly moving clear of the limited environs of the "Admiral Benbow," and with Chapter IV danger and suspense ooze from every line: domestic images are now definitely finished with, and they are used only to suggest contrast—-contrast between Jim's situation and the normal situation of other people:
"It was already candle light when I reached the hamlet, and I shall never forget how much I was cheered to see the yellow shine in doors and windows; but that, as it proved, was the best of the help we were likely to get in that quarter. For—you would have thought men would have been ashamed of themselves—no soul would consent to return with us to the 'Admiral Benbow.' The more we told of our troubles, the more—man, woman and child—they clung to the shelter of their houses. The name of Captain Flint, though it was strange to me, was well enough known to some there, and carried a great weight of terror. Some of the men who had been to field-work on the far side of the 'Admiral Benbow' remembered, besides, to have seen several strangers on the road, and, taking them to be smugglers, to have bolted away; and one at least had seen a little lugger in what we called Kitt's Hole."
In this skilful passage Stevenson not only points the contrast between domestic images of warmth and security and the terror outside in which the hero is involved; he also succeeds in linking up the feeling of terror with the already ominous name of Captain Flint, and, with the vague report of the smugglers and the "little lugger," conveys the effective suggestion that these external and normally remote forces of piracy and evil are slowly but surely closing in on Jim Hawkins. The return to the inn and the searching of the dead sailor's body become, under these circumstances, acts of heroism or at least of courage, calculated to begin the transformation of Jim from a passive to an active character. This transformation, which is most important for the structure and pattern of the story, reaches its climax in Part V, where Jim slips away from his companions and for a while plays a lone hand. In Chapter XXVI Jim achieves his full stature as hero, and henceforth he need play no major part in the story.
Chapter V gives a preliminary skirmish between the forces of good and evil—presented rather as "our side" versus the others, in true adventure story style—which serves both to heighten the already excited atmosphere and to foreshadow the future. The aura of romance is deftly thrown over the incident to prevent it from appearing as a mere brawl:
"The window of the captain's room was thrown open with a slam and a jingle of broken glass; and a man leaned out into the moonlight, head and shoulders, and addressed the blind beggar on the road below him."
Pew, the blind beggar, having served his purpose, is killed off, and in the following chapter Jim is brought together with Dr. Livesey and the Squire in order to provide the proper machinery for moving the story into the more picturesque environment of Treasure Island itself. The map of the island that had been found on the dead captain's body, the evidence that treasure is hidden there, the determination of the Squire to fit out a ship and find it, accompanied by the doctor and Jim, provide the means of gracefully leaving the first part of the story behind and moving out smoothly to greater adventures.
There is a final brief return to a domestic interior as the Squire, Dr. Livesey and Jim talk things over at the Hall, and this serves to emphasize once again the contrast between comfortable life at home and the adventurous life on which Jim and his friends are about to embark, so that the reader has no chance of missing the significance of the structural watershed that divides the dangerous quest for treasure from the comfortable activities of ordinary folk in England: "The servant led us down a matted passage, and showed us at the end into a great library, all lined with bookcases and busts upon the tops of them, where the squire and Dr. Livesey sat, pipe in hand, on either side of a bright fire." The fire and Dr. Livesey's pipe are characteristic Stevensonian symbols of the good life (domestic variety), just as lonely inns by the coast, ships, maps, and pirates are symbols of the good life (department of romantic adventure). We have noted how Stevenson found it impossible to point the contrast between normal living in the "Admiral Benbow" and the new adventurous life that came to Jim after the appearance of Bill Bones: the "Admiral Benbow" was itself a symbol of romance and adventure. To get the contrast finally pointed, before the voyage starts and we set off for Treasure Island itself, we have to look in at the Hall and see the Squire at home surrounded by the comforts appropriate to the well-to-do bachelor.
In the scene at Bristol which follows, Stevenson cunningly puts the reader into the possession of significant information which is withheld from the chief characters—namely, knowledge of the real nature of the crew and of Long John Silver's true intentions. This is achieved quite simply by sketching in the character of the Squire as unsuspicious, boyish, and good-naturedly egotistical, and at the same time making use of Jim's youth and lack of knowledge of the world in letting him experience something which is revealing to the reader but not to Jim. In other words, in accordance with Stevenson's doctrine of the function of character drawing in a romance (as distinct from a dramatic novel or a novel of character), he gives his actors only as much individualization as will provide them with the necessary motives for key actions.
The fact that the reader now knows what neither Jim nor his friends know provides him with the necessary suspense to make the otherwise rather dull journey out of Bristol full of excitement. It is only when the voyage is almost over that Jim, hiding in the apple barrel, overhears the conversation of the pirates, and the truth about Long John Silver and his fellow adventurers is finally out. The hints that had been provided by Billy Bones and his adventures at the "Admiral Benbow" now take on, in retrospect, a new meaning; past and present are joined together to promise an exciting and dangerous future. In this game of balancing knowledge against ignorance Stevenson shows himself very adroit. First the reader and Long John Silver's gang know the truth, while Jim and his friends remain in ignorance; then Jim and his friends learn the truth about Silver's gang, but Silver and his gang do not know that Jim and his friends know. It is only very much later, when the action on the island is rapidly reaching its climax, that Jim in a fit of desperate bravado blurts out to the pirates the truth about his overhearing their conversation in the apple-barrel. This careful balancing of knowledge and ignorance greatly enriches the possibilities of suspense, and Stevenson makes good use of the opportunities he thus provides for himself.
The whole texture and atmosphere of the story changes once Treasure Island has been reached. No longer is the sense of adventure conveyed by the impinging of the picturesque and the unfamiliar on the familiar: everyday life has now been left altogether behind, and the story can now be told simply in terms of the rise and fall in the fortunes of either side. The arena has been cleared of all superfluous characters and scenery. We are told enough of the physical features of the island to provide an adequate setting for the drama that is being played out against it, and that is all the author now requires. Stevenson has used one of the favourite recipes of writers of adventure stories: he has set the protagonists alone on an uninhabited island. The recipe requires, however, that one new character be introduced on the island, some unexpected and unpredictable character who will be able to play a deus ex machina part in the plot if necessary. Such a character is Ben Gunn, who plays a minor yet decisive role in the story. His unknown history and unforeseeable actions prevent the story from degenerating into a mere conflict between good and bad characters of which the outcome can be calculated in advance.
In keeping Jim moving back and forth between the two groups—the Squire's group and Long John Silver's—Stevenson manages to keep a bi-focal view on the action, as it were. It is important that the pirates are not considered altogether as villains, for they, after all, provide the principal romantic interest and in a boy's story are bound to be in some degree and in some sense sympathetic characters. Stevenson solves this problem in part by the character of Long John Silver, a cunning combination of charm, strength and black villainy (W. E. Henley without Henley's virtue, Stevenson asserted) and reinforces this solution by keeping Jim in closer touch with Long John than with the "good" party. What is at stake is thus not simply the finding of the treasure by Jim and his friends, nor even their successful escape from the pirates. A much more complicated pattern of suspense is set up, which, while leaving the issue of the physical safety of the hero in doubt long enough to get some excitement out of it (though, as we have seen, not absolutely in doubt, for we knew in advance that Jim, the Squire and Dr. Livesey have all come safely out of the adventure), at the same time poses the subtler problem of the fate and intentions of Long John.
The problem to be faced by any writer of a boys' adventure story of this kind is that, while the struggle has to be essentially between the good and the bad, the real romantic interest tends to lie with the bad. Picturesque villainy is naturally more appealing in such a context than everyday virtue, and the author's task is to enlist the sympathies of the reader at the same time on the side of virtue and of the picturesque. This can be done, as it has been done in recent American popular boys' fiction and films, by substituting the G-man for the gangster and insisting that to live virtuously is often to live picturesquely and dangerously at the same time, but it makes for a much richer narrative texture if the problem is faced by shading the gradations of virtue and vice from the completely unsympathetic villain (like Israel Hands) to the complete hero (like Dr. Livesey) and by keeping in the centre of the picture a character like Long John who, though villainous in intention, is often admirable in action. It becomes important, when such a technique is employed, to detach this half-way character from the side of evil, to which he originally belongs, and, by some development of the plot, to put him in a relation with the other side which none of his companions can achieve. Stevenson has managed all this very deftly, and the part played by Silver in the latter part of the book is sufficient to arouse the reader's admiration for certain aspects of his character unmixed with any approval of villainy as such. The non-committal end of Silver—neither full fortune, like Jim and his friends, nor full misfortune, like the other pirates—lays the final emphasis on his special function in the plot.
Jim's adventure with Israel Hands, and his final success in saving the Hispaniola, gives him sufficient stature to enable him to stand for the reader in a boy's adventure story—to serve, that is, as the character with which the reader identifies himself as he reads—without removing him too far into the realm of the heroic so that he ceases to be recognizable as an ordinary boy. His good fortune is due as much to luck as to skill. "There is a kind of fate in this," Dr. Livesey tells him when he hears that the ship is safe as a result of Jim's activity. "Every step, it's you that saves our lives." And Captain Smollett tells him later: "You're a good boy in your way, Jim; but I don't think you and me'll go to sea again. You're too much of the born favorite for me." Jim has courage and resourcefulness, but it is not these qualities alone that enable him to save himself and his friends. He has a kind of beginner's luck. There are several reasons why Stevenson should have deliberately kept Jim from achieving too impressive a heroic stature. The obvious one is that he is to stand for the boy reader and must not therefore move too far above such a reader's conceivable accomplishment. Another reason is that he must not compete in picturesque bravado with Long John Silver nor in calm adult competence with Dr. Livesey. He is the ordinary boy thrown into the midst of adventure by pure chance and acquitting himself very creditably. In the course of the story he develops from a purely passive character into an experienced and resourceful campaigner. This development takes place under the reader's eyes, and the reader can see it as natural and inevitable in the circumstances. With his outwitting of Israel Hands Jim achieves his full stature as a man of action, just as in his refusal to go back on his word and escape from Silver and his men with Dr. Livesey he achieves his full moral stature.
It is a standard and necessary device in this kind of adventure story that the fortunes of the hero should be at their most critical point at the very moment when help arrives. Jim and Long John Silver face the wrath of the five pirates alone, and their fate seems sealed, but a last minute rescue is effected by the Doctor, seaman Gray, and Ben Gunn, whose action is, of course, appropriately prepared for and explained. It is important that at this critical juncture in the story Jim and Long John Silver are joined together against the five pirates, even though Silver is—or was—himself the leader of the pirates. The careful way in which Stevenson manoeuvres Silver into this position is another of his devices for keeping the reader's sympathy on the side of the picturesque, even though the picturesque is bound up with evil. Circumstances force Long John Silver to range himself on the side of Jim and his friends against the others, and thus we are able to contemplate and enjoy the good points in Silver's character without feeling that we are letting our sympathies fall on the wrong side.
The book ends, as it begins, with a deliberate pushing of the whole story into the past: it is a retrospect, a thing finished and done with, something to be talked over by the fire on a winter's night:
"The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen 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 still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! pieces of eight!'"
Thus once again the two aspects of Stevenson's bohemian ideal are brought together: talk and reminiscence on the one hand, and actual adventure on the other. The story begins and ends as a recollection, from the comfort of the present, of the adventures and discomforts of the past. The pattern is, in a large sense, the same as that of The New Arabian Nights where cigar smoking bachelors narrate their adventures in the comfort of Mr. Godall's Bohemian Cigar Divan.
Treasure Island first appeared in serial form in Young Folks from October 1881 to January 1882, as by "Captain George North." Stevenson followed this up with another serial for the same boys' magazine in 1883. The Black Arrow: a Tale of Two Roses was also attributed to the fictitious Captain, in spite of the incongruity of attributing a highly artificial "historical" romance to a bluff seaman. The Black Arrow, however, need not detain us: Stevenson described it as "tushery" and he was right. It is an uninspired and mechanical piece of work, written in a hurry to make some badly needed money, with fake mediaeval dialogue, and all the tricks of the trade employed with a sullen determination that robs the book of all life and glory. It has neither the technical brilliance of Treasure Island nor the elemental power of Thrawn Janet, and if no worse it is certainly no better than hundreds of other boys' books of the period.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7724
SOURCE: "Stevenson's Method in Treasure Island: The Old Romance, Retold," in Essays in Literature, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 180-93.
[In the following essay, Hardesty and Mann attempt to show "how certain common elements of Victorian boys' books were adapted and surpassed in Treasure Island" by investigating the stock elements of adventure fiction used by Stevenson "and how he changed them or, occasionally, turned them upside down."]
Robert Louis Stevenson's first novel, Treasure Island, began as an entertainment for his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. After devising a map just to break the monotony of the summer of 1881 in Braemar, Scotland, Stevenson followed it immediately with a story whose "characters . . . began to appear [on the map] visibly among imaginary woods; and [whose] brown faces and bright weapons . . . passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection."1 The delight Louis and Lloyd found in the exciting yarn was soon communicated to the rest of the family group; by the time three chapters were done, Stevenson could write to W. E. Henley that they had been "heard by Lloyd, F[anny, Lloyd's mother], and [Stevenson's] father and mother, with high approval."2 Shortly thereafter he got friendly criticism from visitors to the family circle.3 This genesis is the key to the nature of the novel: it is vivid, exciting, and universally appealing. At the same time it survived close criticism as it was developing and thus became economically composed and lucidly written.
The exuberance with which Stevenson began this new project is even more remarkable when we remember that he not only was embarking on a wholly new type of writing but also before 1881 had produced neither a juvenile work nor a novel. Nevertheless, judging from Stevenson's own remarks at the time of setting down the early chapters of Treasure Island, he consciously was writing for adolescents. In the same letter to Henley, he announced that the text was to go to Routledge, publishers of juvenile fiction by W. H. G. Kingston and F. Mayne Reid.
Later recalling the conception of Treasure Island, Stevenson openly listed his adult, respectable sources, in his essay "My First Book." Yet he was reluctant to mention the boyish backgrounds alluded to in his prefatory poem, "To the Hesitating Purchaser." We shall work with these popular children's books in order to demonstrate that, in using them, Stevenson did not (in most instances) consciously borrow specific items, but rather worked with the stuff of his childhood favorites: "Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave, / Or Cooper of the wood and wave. . . ." Heretofore, there has been little speculation about the nature of Stevenson's debts to these three writers and their literary kin. Indeed, Roger Swearingen's study of Stevenson's early reading specifies only three titles by R. M. Ballantyne (the most relevant being The Coral Island), one by James Fenimore Cooper (The Red Rover, in the dramatization by Edward Fitzball), and none by W. H. G. Kingston.4 We shall discuss appropriate works by these three authors; though Stevenson may not have read Kingston, Stevenson does mention him in the prefatory poem, and Kingston's works were published by Routledge. We shall also treat the analogues between Treasure Island and the celebrated boys' story of an earlier generation, Masterman Ready by Frederick Marryat, since Stevenson specifically cites this tale in "My First Book".5
This paper is not intended to be a source study—investigations of that type have been done6—but to show just how certain common elements of Victorian boys' books were adapted and surpassed in Treasure Island. In order to demonstrate Stevenson's artistry, we shall investigate what stock elements he used, and how he changed them or, occasionally, turned them upside down. The basis for our implicit theory that a writer's excellence is shown in his going beyond the conventions is provided by Stevenson himself, in an essay, "A Note on Realism," published in the same year (1883) as the book version of Treasure Island: "The old stock incidents and accessories," he says, "tricks of workmanship and schemes of composition (all being admirably good, or they would long have been forgotten) haunt and tempt our fancy, offer us ready-made but not perfectly appropriate solutions for any problem that arises, and wean us from the study of nature and the uncompromising practice of art."7 The danger in their use is that the writer who leans too heavily on them may "become null and lose all grip of fact, particularity and passion". Ultimately, "the artist must decide for himself what stock elements to use and how to use them; moreover, the artist must "decide afresh and yet afresh for each succeeding work and new creation". As his theory indicates, Stevenson usually refused to take his predecessors too seriously; his approach to conventional elements of the boys' adventure novel employed surprise and even parody, since his theoretical bias forced him to rethink the handling of stock conventions that would come under the scrutiny of his original audience. Stevenson's realization that he had to tell a good story concisely and that he had to make it fresh created a new form of the genre, one exciting and plausible but without preaching.
Traditionally, the core of the boys' adventure novel has been the plot, for it is excitement that the reader seeks; picking up the book is intended to bring him thrills. To the modern adult taste, these thrills are created rather artlessly: stories are quite complicated, depending too frequently on outrageous coincidence and implausible melodrama, in accordance with Victorian tastes established for over fifty years before Treasure Island. One kind of complexity is found in the involuted plot of The Red Rover, in which the protagonist Harry Wilder is a Royal Navy officer operating undercover in order to bring to justice the famous pirate of the title. In doing so, he becomes the Rover's agent aboard a merchantman, survives an incredible storm by floating a lifeboat off the deck of the sinking ship, and loses a pitched sea-battle to the Rover after his real identity is disclosed. Taken prisoner, he is saved because he turns out to be the long-lost son of the older companion of his beloved, that older companion actually being (as nearly as we can tell) the Rover's sister. Another sort of complexity—one even more difficult to follow—can be seen in the novels with multiple protagonists, such as Kingston's Three Midshipmen, in which the boys of the title survive illness, shipwreck, battle, capture by infidels, and torture while learning their sea-going trade. Whereas Cooper's protagonist has a specific goal—and the plot, therefore, builds jerkily to a single climax—Kingston's heroes move from adventure to adventure without a specific dramatic end in view. The result is the incredible piling of shock upon shock and extravagance upon extravagance. Though the unbelievability is mitigated somewhat by the author's devising of separate plots for each of the characters (so that not all the dangers befall a single person), the book is consequently marred by the confusion of three unrelated adventures.
To move from these typical works to Treasure Island is, for a modern reader, to move from mechanical plotting to a clear, well-motivated story. Stevenson's single protagonist is the focus and narrator of all the action, except in the three chapters needed midway in the novel to explain what happens to his allies. The action is carefully balanced around the central section narrated by Dr. Livesey. Before that, Jim Hawkins is the bewildered, passive target of unexplained violence; after the doctor's narrative, Jim coolly takes the initiative and helps mete out violent justice to his antagonists. Furthermore, this balanced plot is carefully coordinated with the settings: the opening Part (called "The Prologue" when the novel was first published, as a serial in weekly installments) takes place in a realistic English setting in which Jim is an ordinary boy who discovers a map; the second Part moves the story into the fantasy world of the map; the remaining four Parts allow Jim to achieve the stature of a romantic hero.8 Chronology is straightforward, except in the section narrated by Livesey (which, however, doubles back in time for only a few hours), and incidents are carefully orchestrated so that the violence and the thrills are greater at each successive turn.
Not only is the plot well balanced; it is also logically designed. Given the basic notion of a boy who has come into possession of a treasure map, all else follows plausibly. Of course, the pirates are going to try to steal it back; failing that, they will attempt to subvert the treasure hunt and turn it to their purposes. They will resort to violence when their plans are thwarted. And their violent natures will lead them, ultimately, to fall to squabbling among themselves. Meanwhile, the boy who has pluck enough to obtain the treasure map will show his mettle in active ways; if his luck holds, he will succeed in his wildest gambles. All of these elements of the plot follow almost inevitably from the givens of map and the expected happy ending. Contrast this with the more usual handling of plot by Cooper, whose story goes off on a new tack with every new coincidence: the Rover and Wilder are always meeting each other unexpectedly, or meeting someone else who can effect the course of the plot. Equally implausible is the sudden arrival of pirates at Ballantyne's Coral Island, their kidnapping of only one of the three boys, and their subsequent dealings ad seriatim with missionaries, good natives, and hostile ones. Stevenson moves toward a climax developed from what has gone before, eschewing subplots and excursions; Cooper derives his climax from previously unnoticed events, diverting us with several subplots, most left unresolved; Ballantyne writes in a series of episodes, seeming to resolve his basic situation only when he has made his book long enough. Hence, the superior artistry of Stevenson is apparent throughout in his handling of his story.
Even in stock episodes, Stevenson is a more careful craftsman than his predecessors. Take, for example, the catalogue of supplies with which the protagonist and his companions must survive their shipwreck or abandonment—a common enough element in these adolescent novels (going back to Robinson Crusoe). Masterman Ready quite earnestly scrawls a census of animals and an inventory of tools on a plank before he and the remaining crew leave their wrecked ship (I, 95-96). The tone of the passage is serious: Marryat is demonstrating Ready's competence by showing how firmly he controls himself and his environment. Equally seriously, the three boys on Coral Island itemize the few possessions which survive their shipwreck, even enumerating their clothes; the list takes over two pages (pp. 30-32) and ends with a peroration typical of Ballantyne: "This was all we had, and besides these things we had nothing else; but, when we thought of the danger from which we had escaped, and how much worse off we might have been had the ship struck on the reef during the night, we felt very thankful that we were possessed of so much, although, I must confess, we sometimes wished that we had had a little more".
Stevenson seems to recognize the essential absurdity of these lists, which exist mostly to underline the difficulty of the protagonists' situations. (The inventory of goods salvaged from the ship does, of course, fill up pages and make the reader wonder just what the poor shipwrecked boys can do to use the accumulated junk: Ready lists a cow, for instance, but "she has lain down and won't get up again, I'm afraid, so we must kill her" [I]; Ralph's only tool on Coral Island is a "small penknife with a single blade broken off about the middle and very rusty . . ."). So, when Captain Smollett in Treasure Island takes an inventory of supplies with which the loyal party must survive until rescue, Stevenson alters the tone of the stock catalogue. In the preceding paragraph, the loyal servant Redruth has died. Abruptly, Stevenson's narrator shifts his interest to the captain, "wonderfully swollen about the chest and pockets," who promptly lays out the contents of a fairly sizeable storeroom: "the British colours, a Bible, a coil of stoutish rope, pen, ink, the log-book, and pounds of tobacco." Stevenson shifts the reader rapidly from the bathos of Redruth's death scene (itself a parody but in a different way) to a more neutral mood; the change is managed through this absurd set of items which the captain then sets about counting up "as if nothing else existed". Stevenson's joke is at the expense of the pompous captain as well as the readers taken in by the fully equipped maroons of such works as Johann Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (1812-13).
Stevenson also modifies the requirement that the hero prove his mettle by single-handed deeds of derring-do in the teeth of his enemies. The two most frequent variations on this situation show the protagonist captured by the villains, and the protagonist separated from his fellows with a single villain as companion. For example, Wilder fences verbally with the Red Rover alone in the Newport Tower and again secretly aboard Dolphin, the Rover's ship, as the two try to reach an accommodation. Later, after Wilder's true identity and mission are revealed, he is held prisoner aboard Dolphin, his life threatened by the crew and guaranteed only by the iron will of their leader. In The Coral Island, similarly, Ralph is captured by an unnamed, Byronic pirate chieftain, and held prisoner aboard his schooner; Ralph escapes by stealing the schooner in collaboration with the pirate Bloody Bill. Finally, Jack Rogers, one of Kingston's Three Midshipmen, is captured by slavers and held in their fort.
Following the tradition, Stevenson uses both sorts of encounter. First, Jim sails Hispaniola around the island, in company only with Israel Hands; then, having beached the ship and killed Hands, Jim hikes back across the island only to stumble into pirates' custody in the stockade, which they now hold. Stevenson wrings added suspense out of both situations. Jim knows Hands is armed—he has seen Hands conceal the knife—and expects an attack; when it comes, Jim discovers to his (and the reader's) horror that he has neglected the elementary precaution of reloading his damp pistols. Stevenson delights a sophisticated reader by the manner in which he carefully increases the tension during the whole Hands' episode, making Hands a fearfully unregenerate, treacherous villain who is always doing something unexpected. Furthermore, Jim's capture by the pirates is more convincingly frightening than similar incidents in the other books because Jim and Silver have a carefully developed relationship. Though Silver's affection for Jim is genuine, the pirate's affection for himself is paramount. Whereas the Rover's nobility is, for example, an absolute guarantee of Wilder's safety so long as the Rover lives, Silver's self-serving pragmatism could result at any time in the sacrifice of Jim in some stratagem. In adapting these stock situations, Stevenson again employs a mixture of thrilling events and underlying realistic psychology. The situations are exciting, but their dangers possess more verisimilitude than the artificial tensions crafted by Stevenson's predecessors.
In most fiction for children, characterization consists of the author's setting up cardboard figures and moving them around. Fully realized, well motivated characters are seldom found in melodramatic tales: villains are swarthy blackguards, whereas heroes are young knights questing for fame and fortune, undertaking miraculous feats, and surviving despite insurmountable odds. Few readers remember their names or their features. To be sure, Stevenson also uses a number of persons who are little more than names. Several characters—Jim's mother; Dance, the revenuer; the servants Joyce, Hunter, and Redruth; the pirates Black Dog, Tom Morgan, George Merry; Job Anderson, the boatswain—are only functionaries. They serve as foils to other characters or as plot devices, since any novelist with whatever audience in mind will have a share of persons merely for the convenience of plot.
More significant than these functionary characters in Treasure Island are those who are types, or slightly modified stock characters, including Billy Bones, Pew, Israel Hands, Ben Gunn, and Captain Smollett. Here, Stevenson takes some care to make the types more individual and lifelife. Bones, for instance, is a blustering, braggart sailor who paradoxically has a deadly fear of his old shipmates. His personality is built up during the first few chapters by the addition of a number of details, in the handling of which Stevenson's mature craftsmanship is evident. For example, both Stevenson and Cooper use the contents of sea chests to characterize seamen. When, in The Sea Lions, a search is made of Jason Daggett's chest, those present, "the deacon [who has stolen the map] excepted, all supposed that [in] those contents were a profound secret.". But the chest is actually "more than half empty, [and] the articles it [does] contain [are] of the coarsest materials; well-worn sea-clothes that [have] seen their best days." Here, Cooper gives no real insight into Daggett. In Treasure Island, however, both the mundaneness of Daggett's sea chest and the easy symbolism of the flags in The Red Rover (discussed below) are surpassed by the brilliant inventory of the contents of Billy Bone's chest (Ch. 4). An unworn "suit of very good clothes" is on top; below it, the tools of his seafaring trade and souvenirs of his roving life. Underneath all this there is more clothing and then, at the bottom, a bag of coins "of all countries and sizes" and an oilcloth packet which contains the treasure map. Stevenson's catalogue epitomizes Billy Bones—his piracy, his travels, his violent streak, and his sentimentality, all of which have become apparent in his months at the "Admiral Benbow." Additionally, Stevenson hints at the search for treasure and the fighting to come: given the quantity and variety of coin in the chest, the bulk of the treasure must be staggering, for Bones needed "Two brace of very handsome pistols" to defend his knowledge of its location. That Billy Bones is no longer merely a "brown old seaman, with [a] sabre cut" is the result of Stevenson's deft selection of detail.
Of the other slightly modified stock characters, two are handled ironically: Pew, who tries to cloak his menacing aspect under the seeming helplessness of being blind, and Israel Hands, who is both a master gunner and a cynical sea-philosopher. On the other hand, Captain Smollett, the thoroughly British master of Hispaniola, lives entirely by the nautical code. (Smollett's name may also recall the sea stories of Tobias Smollett, written a century earlier.) Finally, Ben Gunn is that essential character of pirate novels, the maroon. By carefully establishing that Ben Gunn had been a member of Flint's crew, Stevenson makes this conventional character useful in the plot. Since Ben has spent his exile digging up the treasure and carrying it to his cave, there is nothing for the pirates to find when they arrive at the X on the map. Ben's responsibility for this climactic irony is the more engaging because, in a clever Stevensonian twist, the jittery old man has been ignored by Flint's other crewmen—"'dead or alive, nobody minds him . . . nobody minds Ben Gunn'" (Ch. 32).
Two important characters in the treasure hunt, Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey, are expanded stock figures. By contrast, not one of the three companions in either Kingston's The Three Midshipmen or Ballantyne's The Coral Island comes alive; they are interchangeable and indistinguishable. In Cooper's The Red Rover, likewise, Wilder's companions are mere stereotypes: Richard Fid is the stalwart tar and Scipio Africanus the comic-but-heroic, loyal Black retainer. However, Squire Trelawney is unexpectedly naive, garrulous, and impetuous, hiring Long John Silver and the pirate crew, spilling the information about the treasure hunt, and almost coming to blows with Captain Smollett in an argument that is of Trelawney's own making. In the final chapters, Squire Trelawney almost disappears. His power as the chief country landholder is dissipated by his removal from Devonshire, so that all that remains to him is a hollow title. His friend Doctor Livesey, a voice of reason (albeit with an overtone of Johnsonian pompousness), increasingly takes charge as the novel progresses. As the country magistrate, he refuses to be bullied or intimidated by Billy Bones; on the island he remains the fair-minded Englishman who will not go back on his word, even to the crafty Silver; his ruling passion is the notion that all things should be done with reason and in proper order. Both of Jim's companions from home, then, act like human beings: they have their virtues and vices; they make mistakes and achieve triumphs; they have traits recognizable to old and young alike; they are people we could know or have known. In fact, when preparing the serialized text for book publication, Stevenson took the greatest care to differentiate their characters, rewriting much of Dr. Livesey's narrative. Not only has Stevenson individualized them, but he has also shown subtly changing perceptions of each, so that they are capable of surprising the reader.
The major achievement of Stevenson in characterization is the establishment and development of his main characters, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. And Stevenson's success here is demonstrably far greater than that of his predecessors. Stock tags like "the boy hero" simply will not fit Jim Hawkins. As the central protagonist, Jim shares something of the characteristics of each of his companions. Like Trelawney, he is impetuous, twice running off from his friends; but like Livesey he is not to be bullied, facing up to Silver when captured in the stockade. Again like Livesey, he can be pompous, as in his moralizing to Hands. However, he possesses an opportunistic cleverness his elders lack, illustrated by his capturing and beaching the ship and by his taking advantage of secret information (both from the pirates while he is in the apple barrel and from Ben Gunn on shore). There is no question that he is extraordinarily lucky; but perhaps he earns this luck with his innate sense of when to grasp opportunity and of how to use it with both skill and daring. Throughout, Jim discovers new capabilities in himself and unexpected traits in his shipmates, both loyal crew and pirates; his responses to his discoveries make him a rounded character, and lead to increased reader empathy.
Although the reader empathizes with Jim, the most memorable character in Treasure Island is Long John Silver. He dominates the text: the image of a one-legged man haunts Jim's dreams as early as the first chapter, and Silver is the last character Jim speaks of at the end of the book. A cruel and greedy rogue, Silver acts selfishly for the most part. Despite Silver's selfishness, however, a reciprocal affection grows between him and the boy—one so strong that it has even led James Cox to suggest that Silver functions as a surrogate father for Jim.9 Though Jim is earlier terri fied by the notion of a one-legged pirate, he is readily befriended by Silver when he first encounters the amiable sea cook hopping about the "Spyglass" inn with a crutch under his left shoulder. Before they leave the "Spyglass," Jim says he "would have gone bail for the innocence of Long John Silver" (Ch. 8). Moreover, Jim's first impression is immediately supported by Livesey ("John Silver suits me") and Trelawney ("the man's a perfect trump"). During the voyage Jim notices that all the crew respect and even obey Long John, yet the sea cook has time to "have a yarn" in the galley with Jim (Ch. 10). But Jim's night in the apple barrel strips away his illusion of a benign Silver. Subsequently, on the island, when Jim watches Silver throw his crutch at a sailor's back, then stab his defenseless victim twice, Silver becomes a "monster" in the boy's view (Ch. 14). Ben Gunn, whom Jim meets shortly thereafter, reinforces Jim's new opinion by his intense and long-time fear of Silver. The unmasking of Silver thus has been prepared for by Stevenson's careful foreshadowing.
When Jim returns from his sea adventure, he arrives at a stockade now commanded by Silver, whose account of the pirates' gaining possession of the stockade Jim only "partly believe[s]" (Ch. 28). Even after Jim's outburst concerning the part he played in alerting the loyal crew to the pirates' design, he cannot "decide whether [Silver] were laughing at my request, or had been favourably affected by my courage" (Ch. 28). Still it is Long John Silver who saves Jim from the angry pirates who want to cut the lad's throat, saying to them that Jim is "more a man than any pair of rats of you in this here house" (Ch. 28). The morally ambiguous Silver contrasts sharply with the stock villains of Victorian boys' books and melodrama. His paradoxical conduct helps make the pirate chieftain a fully developed character. Stevenson has here created the Falstaff of children's literature; just as Shakespeare took the stock miles gloriosus and made him a living man, so Stevenson has developed the stock pirate into one of the most memorable personalities in children's literature.
Just as Stevenson expands stock characters, so also he reduces the routine didacticism found in Victorian boy's adventure novels. The nineteenth-century public and publishers did not expect a book to be merely entertaining: it had to be instructive as well. But, as Maurice Rooke Kingsford says, "Treasure Island represents almost a complete break from the traditions of the past. The story was not designed to teach anything at all, but . . . to provide untrammeled hours of spontaneous refreshment and delight."10 The earlier boys' books are, in fact, now virtually impossible to read straight through, owing to their frequent and overt digressions into instruction—a fault they share with much Victorian literature. The writers are forever lecturing. Stevenson's boyhood favorite, Mayne Reid, may be the worst of the lot—his chapters seem to a modern reader to consist of two sentences of plot and several pages of useless information on such topics as how to cook locusts.11 This sort of information is omitted from Treasure Island. Although Stevenson does describe the island thoroughly, his descriptions are necessary to the setting of the scene or to the explanation of the action; there are no mere catalogues of flora and fauna. (In fact, Stevenson's island is inaccurate, being Californian rather than Caribbean in its details.12) More importantly, Stevenson, in refusing to lecture or preach, also refuses to write down to his youthful reader. Mayne Reid would often address his audience avuncularly: "Believing, boy-reader, that they might also instruct and interest you, I here lay [these facts] before you" (The Bush-Boys, p. 4); the combination of sympathy and irony which constitutes Stevenson's tone is wholly different.
A devotional, even more than an instructional, attitude pervades earlier novels, to the inclusion of pious phrases in chapter heads and running titles.13 As one might expect, religious characters abound. The most admirable of Ballantyne's characters are the missionaries Ralph encounters; and even without clergymen, Marryat's characters gather each night for Bible reading and prayers of thanksgiving. Stevenson's admirable characters, on the other hand, are secular: a doctor, a squire, a ship captain. Moreover, there are only two Bibles on Treasure Island—the Captain's, a talisman which is never opened, and Dick's, which is cut in order to serve Silver the black spot. Silver's response to this desecration exemplifies Stevenson's tone: "A Bible with a bit cut out! . . . It don't bind no more'n a ballad-book" (Ch. 29). When piety does occur, it seems to be perfunctory. Livesey threatens Bones with a claim that rum will cause the pirate to "die, and go to [his] own place, like the man in the Bible" (Ch. 2)—an ambiguous reference, and one not in the original serialized text. Similarly, Jim's final hopes are for Silver's happiness in this world, "for his chances of comfort in another world are very small" (Ch. 34)—a pompous, smug wish that wholly belies his earlier relationship with Long John.
When using other symbols of patriotic and religious fervor, Stevenson shows a decidedly irreverent attitude. Flags, for example, are significant in the novels of both Stevenson and his predecessors. The Red Rover reveals his identity to the protagonist Wilder by showing him a series of flags, one of which is the red pirates' banner; much later, the Rover explains to Wilder that he sails under the red flag because (the year being 1759) there is no flag symbolizing his identity as an American. At the end of the novel, the Rover reappears to Wilder, now a captain in the new United States Navy, and unrolling the Stars and Stripes, dies "laughing hysterically," because of his ironic vindication. In The Coral Island, Ralph identifies his pirate captors by their black flag, which disproves their captain's claim to be an honest sandalwood trader. In similar instances in Treasure Island, the reader notices a different tone. To be sure, Stevenson uses the standard conventions. The pirates hoist the Jolly Roger to the peak of Hispaniola soon after they take possession of her (Ch. 19), and Jim strikes the flag as one of his first acts after retaking the ship (Ch. 25, entitled "I Strike the Jolly Roger"). But when the loyal party identifies itself by flying the Union Jack over the stockade, Stevenson's tone becomes ironic. The Captain's first action at the stockade is to climb on the roof and "run up the colours" (Ch. 18). He then climbs off the roof and, producing another flag, reverently spreads it over Redruth's body. When the squire quite reasonably points out that the first flag makes an excellent target for Israel Hands' gunnery, the captain is aghast and refuses to strike his colors, a policy all agree with "as soon as he [has] said the words . . . For it [is] not only a piece of stout, seamanly, good feeling; it [is] good policy besides, and show[s] our enemies that we despise . . . their cannonade." Stevenson here pokes fun not only at the implausible flag-consciousness of his predecessors, but also at his bluff, English-sea-dog captain.
Conversion to Christianity is as important to these novels as patriotism. In The Coral Island, Ralph escapes from pirate captivity in the company of Bloody Bill, an "always taciturn and often surly" pirate with a heart of gold. Bill is badly wounded and dies on the voyage back to the Coral Island; but Ralph is able to convert Bill, thereby making his death glorious through his salvation. Jim gets similar notions of converting Hands when the two are alone on the schooner and Hands is wounded. Jim pompously tells the pirate to repent: "'You can kill the body . . . but not the spirit; you must know that already . . . O'Brien there [whom Hands has recently murdered] is in another world, and maybe watching us'" (Ch. 26). Not even Ralph's sermon, a lengthy one with numerous Biblical paraphrases, is more poignant in its appeal. Stevenson's ironic tone is clear in Hands' reply: "'Well, that's unfort'nate—appears as if killing parties was a waste of time. Howsomever, sperrits don't reckon for much, by what I've seen. I'll chance it with the sperrits, Jim.'" Hands' lack of contrition, then, may be amusing, but it does serve as moral justification for his later death.
The situation involving Hands and Jim is part of Stevenson's response to a third potentially didactic element in these books, the pathetic death of a faithful retainer. The most protracted death is that of Bloody Bill, who lingers for ten pages between the time of his wound, inflicted by the pirate captain, and his demise. The reader can be appropriately sad that a good man—if a rather belated Christian—is lost. Cooper's shorter death scenes are classics of exaggeration. A typical example is the death of Scipio, who receives a mortal wound defending Wilder: "As Wilder placed his own [hand] within the grasp of that of the dying negro, the latter succeeded in laying it on his lips, and then, flourishing with a convulsive movement that Herculean arm which he had so lately and so successfully brandished in defence of his master, the limb stiffened and fell, though the eyes still continued their affectionate and glaring gaze on that countenance he had so long loved, and which, in the midst of all his long-endured wrongs, had never refused to meet his look of love in kindness" (The Red Rover.)
In contrast, this obligatory scene is handled with great restraint in Treasure Island. The mortally injured Redruth, Trelawney's old servant, does not end his life with a conversion, although he does at the last suggest that "somebody might read a prayer. 'It's the custom, sir,' he add[s], apologetically" (Ch. 18). When Redruth dies, the absurd inventory of the captain's stores precludes an over-emotional response; and after the captain's brief praise of Redruth's doing his duty, the survivors instantly return to the business at hand. Stevenson refuses to protract the scene beyond its absolute minimum, and modulates the tone rather than lapse into bathos. This modulation of tone is frequent in the novel, for Stevenson continually understates the elements which lead, in other writers' hands, to melodrama.
Shortly after beginning the book, in fact, Stevenson listed the classic elements he proposed to employ: ". . . it is about Buccaneers,. . . it begins in the 'Admiral Benbow' public-house on the Devon coast, . . . it's all about a map, and a treasure, and a mutiny, and a derelict ship, and a current, and a fine old Squire . . . and a doctor, and another doctor, and a sea-cook with one leg, and a sea-song" (Letters, II, 57-58). Yet Stevenson surprises the reader even as he selects items from this list. Of the thirty-four chapters of this sea story, only two (one of which Jim spends in the apple barrel) are devoted to the voyage, which passes without the customary storm; the whole of the book is the story of a hunt for buried treasure, but when the protagonist arrives at the cache, the treasure is gone; and, as we have already noted, a major character, Silver, is an anomaly, a genial killer. Such alteration of the reader's usual expectation about plot, setting, and character aids Stevenson in achieving a unity of effect.
What further unites all the elements is style, "the invariable mark of any master" ("A Note on Realism,"). Stevenson's prose is indeed masterful. A typical passage, demonstrating just how successful Stevenson is in creating a unified effect, can be found in Chapter 29, when Silver gives Jim the black spot passed to him by the pirates.
". . . And now, shipmates, this black spot? . . . Here, Jim—here's a cur'osity for you," said Silver; and he tossed me the paper.
It was a round about the size of a crown piece. One side was blank, for it had been the last leaf; the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: "Without are dogs and murderers." The printed side had been blackened with wood ash, which already began to come off and soil my fingers; on the blank side had been written with the same material the one word "Depposed." I have that curiosity beside me at this moment; but not a trace of writing now remains beyond a single scratch, such as a man might make with his thumb-nail.
The reader must remember Jim's condition at this time: he does not know whom to trust. The pirates are threatening both him and his protector Silver. He cannot trust the pirates, but neither can he put any confidence in the sea cook. Moreover, Jim has had very little sleep in the past forty-eight hours; his energies have been sapped; he is wounded from his fight with Hands; and he is exhausted from his single-handed beaching of Hispaniola. In the present state of affairs, Jim does not know where to turn, and he does not know what has happened to his companions. The simplicity of Stevenson's prose contrasts sharply with the complex situation in which Jim finds himself. Furthermore, one must remember that Jim is recalling all this at a later period of time—a fact that Stevenson is careful to point out, perhaps to account for the calm, analytic prose in which Jim expresses himself.
In order to render the complex emotions felt by Jim the man and Jim the boy, Stevenson uses homely language—the odd word being "Depposed," which Stevenson quotes from the pirates' own misspelling, without comment. Other nouns are plain and simple—"round," "leaf," "verse." The verbs too are ordinary—"contained," "blackened," "written." The images are also commonplace—the black spot is compared with a "crown piece," thus anchoring it in the reader's experience (while also, perhaps, reminding us of the quest and the potential danger to Jim). The literary citation on the reverse leaf of the black spot is to the most familiar of books. Moreover, it is wonderfully appropriate to the situation: "Without are dogs and murderers." In keeping with the general simplicity, Stevenson has carefully expurgated the verse (Revelation 22:15), which reads in full: "For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie." The quotation furthermore picks up the animal imagery found so frequently in reference to the pirates, more evidence of Stevenson's use in the novel of the Bible for its literary aptness rather than its moral values. Finally, the animal imagery is only one of several echoes in the passage. Most importantly, this second black spot reminds the reader of the earlier black spot delivered to Billy Bones, when Jim first witnessed physical violence; now the passing of the black spot directly to Silver (and from Silver to Jim) threatens to involve Jim in the violence. The novel has come full circle, but Jim, no longer an intrigued spectator, is now in grave danger. Stevenson's deft repeating of events and actions unifies the effect of the novel.
As the novel's narrator, the adult Jim has the "round" before him, giving the tale verisimilitude. He ironically picks up Silver's word "cur'osity" in describing the still extant bit cut out of the Bible. Yet the word written in wood ash has been rubbed off, and only the piece itself is left to remind Jim of the events. This "cur'osity" attests to the reality of the episode, but it is, nevertheless, ambiguous; only a possible thumb mark remains. Though it proves that the events occurred, this disfigured circle emphasizes the dreamlike state into which they have receded.
The reader should, finally, observe the organization and pacing of the paragraph that begins with a short sentence of eleven words (only one of which, "about," is polysyllabic), followed by three carefully balanced sentences. The first ("One side was blank, for it had been the last leaf; the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: 'Without are dogs and murderers'") directs the reader from the blank to the printed side on which Jim finds appropriate words written. The second ("The printed side had been blackened with wood ash, which already began to come off and soil my fingers; on the blank side had been written with the same material the one word 'Depposed'") moves us from the printed side to the verso and the one word no longer visible, with its piratical misspelling. It may have happened as Jim tells us, but it is receding in his memory: the ash is returning to dust even as Jim handles the round, and he is soiled. The third and last sentence in the paragraph ("I have that curiosity beside me at this moment; but not a trace of writing now remains beyond a single scratch, such as a man might make with his thumb-nail") gives the reader the tangible evidence that, although the ash and the word are obliterated, the circle of paper still "might" show the human touch of a mark by a thumb nail. The entire paragraph demonstrates Stevenson's literary craftsmanship at its best. Diction is precise and suitable; syntax and sentence length are carefully manipulated to achieve the desired rhythm and, hence, pace; tone is thus controlled by both choice of diction and pacing. The contrast with the extravagances of Cooper's much less controlled style, quoted earlier, is marked; the superiority of Stevenson to the others is emphasized by one's realization that Cooper's limp art noticeably surpasses that of Kingston, Ballantyne, and Marryat. The self-consciousness of Stevenson's style—of its architectural syntax and its insistence on le mot juste—is mitigated by its clarity, its sharp impact, and, above all, its suitability to the self-conscious narrator.
Seen in relation to a variety of Victorian's boy's novels, then, Treasure Island is a great achievement. Stevenson's plot is swifter and cleaner, his characterization (though in some cases stock) less exaggerated and more real, his style more precise and graceful. A careful reading of the novel, with its analogues in mind, raises Treasure Island above the tradition in which it was born: the gripping tale of taut excitement is cleverly modulated by the effects of Stevenson's conscious artistry. We remember Stevenson's remark that he improved the usual flat characterization of boys' books "because he was himself more or less grown up."14 What we have established is that Stevenson altered and improved various elements of the juvenile novel and thus created a wholly new standard for adolescent fiction.
1 "My First Book," in Treasure Island, Skerryvore ed. (London: Heinemann et al., 1925), II, xxx. Citations to letters and essays of Stevenson other than Treasure Island are to the Skerryvore edition, hereafter cited as Works. Citations to the text of Treasure Island are to the first edition (London: Cassell, 1883) and include both chapter and page numbers. Since no other reliable text exists, we are in the process of preparing a critical edition.
2Letters, ed. Sir Sidney Colvin (London: Heinemann et al., 1926), II, 58, Works, XXVIII; hereafter cited in text as Letters.
3 Alexander H. Japp, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial (New York: Scribner's, 1905), p. 13.
4 "The Early Literary Career of Robert Louis Stevenson[,] 1850-1881: A Bibliographical Study," Diss. Yale 1970, II, 515-20, 528, 530. Other critics have proposed various popular works as sources for Treasure Island. Of these, W. H. Bonner, in Pirate Laureate: The Life and Legends of Captain Kidd (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1947) gives the most extensive list; he makes a case for Stevenson's heavy reliance on Cooper's The Sea Lions (p. 201).
5 We have used the following editions of the novels cited: R. M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1867); J. Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover, ed. William S. Walker (1828; rpt. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963) and The Sea Lions, or the Lost Sealers (1849; rpt. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, n.d. [Knickerbocker ed.]); W. H. G. Kingston, The Three Midshipmen (1859; rpt. London: Dent and New York: Dutton [Everyman's Library], 1906); Captain [Frederick] Marryat, Masterman Ready; or, The Wreck of the Pacific, Written for Young People (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1841-42), 3 vols.
6 Harold Francis Watson, Coasts of Treasure Island: A study of the backgrounds and sources for Robert Louis Stevenson's romance of the sea (San Antonio: Naylor Co., 1969), is an exhaustive source study which incorporates previous investigations of Stevenson's borrowings. For a concise treatment, see Roger G. Swearingen, The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980), pp. 63-70.
7 "A Note on Realism," in Essays Literary and Critical, Works, XXIV, 82. Further citations to this essay are given in the text.
8 A full discussion of the relationship between setting and structure can be found in W. H. Hardesty and D. D. Mann, "Historical Reality and Fictional Daydream in Treasure Island," Journal of Narrative Technique, 7 (1977), 94-103. The most extensive discussion of the romantic adventure is by Robert Kiely, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964), since Edwin M. Eigner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), comments on Treasure Island only in passing; neither book deals directly with the structure of the novel.
9"Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer," Folio, 18 (1953), 17, n. 2.
10The Life, Work, and Influence of William Henry Giles Kingston (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1947), p. 205.
11 F. Mayne Reid. The Bush-Boys (1856; rpt. New York: James Miller, 1875), Ch. IV. "A Talk about Locusts," pp. 31-32. Reid goes so far as to use the scientific Latin terms for flora and fauna: "the third species (Catoblepas taurina) is the 'ko-koon' of the natives" (p. 222). Swearingen, Literary Career (II, 513f), notes Stevenson's debt to Reid and his distaste as an adult for Reid's didacticism.
12 George R. Stewart, "The Real Treasure Island," The University of California Chronicle, 28 (Apr. 1926), 207-13. The article is founded on Stewart's unpublished M.A. thesis, "Stevenson in California: A Critical Study" (California-Berkeley, 1920), esp. pp. 87-100. Stevenson himself said "the scenery is Californian in part, and in part chic" (Letters, II, 226).
13 Such references occur offhandedly amid other mundane events. One of Ballantyne's chapter heads reads:* "The voyage—The island, and a consultation in which danger is scouted as a thing unworthy of consideration—Rats and cats—The native teacher—Awful revelations—Wonderful effects of Christianity" (Ch. 30, p. 366). Marryat's running titles for one chapter (I, Ch. 6) are: p. 87, "Juno praying"; p. 88, "Building storehouse [sic]"; p. 89, "On the beach"; p. 90, "Employment happiness"; p. 91, "Tommy killing beetles"; pp. 92-96, "Creation"; pp. 97-98, "The Heavens"; pp. 99-101, "Christianity."
14 A Humble Remonstrance," Memories and Portraits, Works, XXV, 162.
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Bell, Ian. "Exile: 1880-1884," pp. 143-59. In Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1992.
Discusses the biographical context surrounding Stevenson's composition of Treasure Island and emphasizes the author's poor health at the time.
Damon, Lindsay Todd. Introduction to Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Lindsay Todd Damon, pp. 27-29. New York: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1904.
Discusses Stevenson's artistic temperament in relation to the creation of Treasure Island.
Kiely, Robert. "Adventure as Boy's Daydream." In Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure, pp. 61-108. Harvard University Press, 1964.
Discusses the thematic elements that contribute to the essential feeling of freedom, or "casting off of encumbrances that pervades Treasure Island.
McLynn, Frank. "Davos." In Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, pp. 180-208. New York: Random House, 1993.
Includes discussion of the biographical circumstances and literary sources surrounding the genesis of Treasure Island.
Colebatch, Hal. "A 'Treasure Island' Mystery: What Are We to Make of It?" Treasure Island Quadrant 32, Nos. 1-2 (January-February 1988): 85-87.
Examines the "mystery" of time discrepancies in the plot of Treasure Island and interprets them as evidence of Jim Hawkins's occasional unreliability as a narrator.
Hardesty, Patricia Whaley, William H. Hardesty, and David Mann. "Doctoring the Doctor: How Stevenson Altered the Second Narrator of Treasure Island." Studies in Scottish Literature XXI (1986): 1-22.
Discusses Stevenson's recasting of Dr. Livesey's character in his revised version of Treasure Island following initial serial publication of the work.
Noble, Andrew, Introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson, by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Andrew Noble, pp. 7-22. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983.
Discusses Stevenson's ambivalent position as both a popular and a literary writer, and the impact of this status on his mixed critical reception.
Saposnik, Irving S. "A Pursuit of Nightingales: Treasure Island." In Robert Louis Stevenson, pp. 105-09. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Discusses Stevenson's narrative techniques in Treasure Island and articulates the novel's distinction from conventional adventure fiction.
Additional coverage of Stevenson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volumes 5 and 14; DISCovering Authors; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 10 and 11; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 57, 141, 156, and 174.
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SOURCE: "The Toy Theatre, Romance, and Treasure Island: The Artistry of R. L. S.," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VIII, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 409-21.
[In the following essay, McKenzie examines the influence of the nineteenth-century toy theatre upon Stevenson's aesthetic sensibility. She focuses on elements of excitement, imagination, chance, and playfulness in both the toy theatre and Stevenson's fiction.']
Treasure Island, a six-part romance first published in a boys' paper, has been charming readers as a kind of archetypal adventure tale for a century. Its rapid but1 predictable incidents, swashbuckling characters, and exotic settings combine with the enthusiasm of the young narrator to create the impression of a youthful day-dream rather than a serious quest. The story's2 apparent naivete, however, conceals interesting elements of the author's carefully considered ideas about art and life that were then influencing his developing literary theories. Its construction also foreshadows in unsophisticated form some of the striking techniques that find mature expression in his later fiction. The book is not designed to teach a lesson about morals or even to expose the irresponsibility of the adult members of the "faithful party": its straightforward simplicity points to Stevenson's views that art unravels life's complexity, not by direct imitation, but by providing patterns whereby the imagined world reflects certain aspects of the familiar one. As he began to put this idea into practice in writing fiction, he frequently relied on some of the conventions of melodrama as they had become familiar to him through the toy theatre. "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured" (1884) indicates the part the toy theatre played in shaping his own aesthetic sense, while many of his discussions of the art of fiction between 1874 and 1888 suggest how closely, if unconsciously, he associated his experience with the toy theatre with his expectations of romance. The art of both the toy theatre and Stevenson's fiction exerts a fascination that completely absorbs the reader; both cater to his love of excitement; both depend upon the imagination to reveal patterns of meaning beneath the welter of reality; both celebrate the precedence of circumstance over will and both derive from man's love of play. Finally, the technique of Treasure Island, particularly the point of view of Jim, through whose eager and dazzled eyes we see setting, incidents, and climactic scenes, demonstrates for us not only the delights of a fanciful yarn, but also the writer's ability to say something fairly serious in a pleasant way.
As a boy, Stevenson enjoyed playing with the Juvenile Dramas published by Skelt for the toy theatre. This widely popular amusement was a favourite of a host of nineteenth-century children including Dickens and Ellen Terry; Charles Dodgson had a model imported from Germany and somewhat later both Churchill and Chesterton fell under its spell. For many Victorian children, as for Stevenson, the flamboyant sheets of characters and settings, which apparently evolved from the popular theatrical portraits of the early part of the century, afforded the only possible introduction to the theatrical world. The earlier custom of taking even very young children to see the regular repertoire declined as the Victorian penchant for protecting the morals of the innocent increased. Nevertheless, the Juvenile Dramas continued to flourish and to be considered suitable entertainment for the young. There is a certain irony in their respectability because of their close resemblance to the actual performances. In his History of the English Toy Theatre, Robert Speaight points out the similarity in order to show what a marvelous introduction to the melodrama the plays provided. He writes: "The Juvenile Drama grew out of the Adult Drama, the toy theatre was just exactly the big theatre in miniature; actors, costumes, scenery were all copied from actual performances on the London stage, and reproduced for their miniature performance."3 And so, even though young Stevenson's Calvinist background obviously precluded his attendance at the theatre, his fascination with melodrama, that staple of the nineteenth century, was nurtured by its toy counterpart.4 Among the plays he enjoyed in this way he lists such popular melodramas as The Miller and His Men, Der Freischütz, The Waterman, and My Poll and My Partner Joe, all also offered repeatedly on the legitimate stage. In their toy representations, the characters, like their counterparts on the real stage, were decked out in vivid costumes representing their simple moral natures and posed against brilliantly coloured copies of the stage sets. The combination of characters and settings, designed to convey emotions ranging from terror to joy, manages to evoke a mixture of excitement and mystery.
The long-range effects of these pictures on Stevenson's imagination were various, although all relate to his abiding affection for melodrama. In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties, a period overlapping that of the composition of both Treasure Island and "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured," he and Henley collaborated on a series of melodramas set in the reign of George III. Although only three were completed, largely because of Stevenson's lack of enthusiasm for writing plays, this "attempt to recreate the Romantic Drama in terms of prose," as Henley later described5 it, indicates Stevenson's interest in the relation between melodrama and romance. Around the same time, Stevenson also rekindled his interest in the toy theatre by visiting shops in London where Juvenile Dramas were still sold. From these visits came the essay "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured" where he celebrates the enchantment of his childhood, now clearly connected in his mind with "O. Smith, Fitzball, and the great age of melodrama" (XIII, 118). While describing in detail the child-purchasers' reactions to selection, viewing and colouring, he slights the importance of both text and performance. It is the pictures of settings and characters that embody the "staginess" or "Skeltery" that he claims is "a quality of much art." The plates immerse him in the theatrically exciting period earlier in the century with which he associates "the presence of a great unity of gusto; of those direct clap-trap appeals, which a man is dead and buriable when he fails to answer; of the footlight glamour, the ready-made, bare-faced, transpontine picturesque, a thing not one with cold reality, but how much dearer to the mind" (XIII). The boldness of the adjectives strikes the keynote of Stevenson's requirement for a vigorous art in an age that was to applaud its own decadence. His glorification of the world of make-believe at the expense of "cold reality" suggests the direction his own fiction would take in presenting the truth he so prized.
To the Juvenile Drama Stevenson gave the credit for a good measure of his adult capacity for aesthetic pleasure. Of its immediate effects he writes: "The world was plain before I knew [Skelt], a poor penny world; but soon it was all coloured with romance" (XIII). One can indeed speculate that the life of a sickly, coddled Edinburgh boy who secretly longed for adventure was much enlivened by the escapades of the cardboard characters, but Stevenson suggests that the influence went deeper than the immediate relief of childhood tedium: "Indeed, out of the cut-and-dry, dull, swaggering, obtrusive, and infantile art, I seem to have learned the very spirit of my life's enjoyment . . . acquired a gallery of scenes and characters with which, in the silent theatre of the brain, I might enact all novels and romances" (XIII). Skelt supplied him with archetypal images of delight with which to compare both nature and art, so that in later years even "a good old melodrama" was "but Skelt a little faded" (XIII). The origin of his joy in this art form was physical, specifically the visual impact of the bold colouring; the result was spiritual. The images, embodiments of joy, remained "in the silent theatre of the brain" until an adult experience called them forth.
This enchantment of the eyes and consequent captivation of the imagination and memory form one element in which the art of Skelt coincides with Stevenson's aims for romance. In fact, he makes several parallels between playing with the pictures and reading romances. Looking at them is "like wallowing in the raw stuff of story books" (XIII); they delight like Arabian Entertainments; they are "budgets of romance." Although he laments the passing of the age when they were more readily available, "in the mind of their once happy owner all survive, kaleidoscopes of changing pictures, echoes of the past" (XIII). Here he repeats the metaphor of the "kaleidoscopic dance of images" from "A Gossip on Romance" where it explains the power of romance to transport us "clean out of ourselves" (XIII). In the same essay he had used another comparison emphasizing the power of romance. While the changing pictures charm the mind's eye, "the words . . . should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers" (XIII), and in "A Humble Remonstrance" he writes of the "luxury" of being "submerged by the tale as by a billow" (XIII). The sea with its mystery, constant motion, and potential threat offers him an image for both life and art as well as a favourite setting for fiction. It performs the latter function in Treasure Island where Jim Hawkins describes its constant turmoil: "The sun might blaze overhead, the air be without a breath, the surface smooth and blue, but still these great rollers would be running along all the external coast, thundering and thundering by day and night" (VI). This noise is a prominent element of Jim's "worst dreams" after the conclusion of the adventure. Through the boy's sensitivity, Stevenson presents the onomatopoeic "thundering" of the sea as a symbol for the lure of adventure and the "great billow" of romance that answers that longing by engulfing the reader-adventurer.
In its use of the sensational rather than the humdrum, Skelt's melodrama offered Stevenson another element he required of romance. To engage in challenging activity appeared to him at once a source of life's delight and a virtue; therefore, excitement was, he thought, an important ingredient of any art seeking to represent life. "Danger, enterprise, hope, the novel, the aleatory, are dearer to man than regular meals," he writes in "The Day After To-morrow," where he goes on to lament that "already in our society as it exists, the bourgeois is too much cottoned about for any zest in living" (II, 252-53). Romantic art, recreating exciting action in unusual settings, not only provides an escape from the ordinary, but, according to Stevenson, it also does great good for the reader by enlarging the compass of his views beyond his personal experiences and biases. In "Victor Hugo's Romances" he praises6 that writer's art for showing readers "a larger portion of life . . . one that it is more difficult for them to realise unaided," by bringing them to "some consciousness of those more general relations that are so strangely invisible to the average man in ordinary moods" (V). Travel played an important part in expanding the writer's own understanding, while his frequent use of the journey as a structural device in his fiction suggests its metaphoric function in delineating the escape from the limiting confines of immediate surroundings to a clearer perception of larger possibilities. The voyage in Treasure Island removes adventurers and readers from the predictable world to one where the inescapable demands of the situation challenge their accustomed responses.
This extension of the reader's vision in both melodrama and romance depends upon the power of the imagination to illuminate certain "general relations" that a close scrutiny of details tends to obliterate. Stevenson's understanding of this function of the imagination led him to accord it a central role in the search for truth in both life and art. A consideration of reality charged with duality, ambiguity, and changeability led him to conclude that the enunciation of any view inclusive enough to be called true poses a great difficulty for the writer. His statement in 1887 that "a human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays" (XXVII) is typical of his comments on this matter, yet, paradoxically he always urges "truth to the fact" as a sacred duty incumbent on the writer. Both science and religion, he thought, fall short of the truth because their tendency to "pin the reader to a dogma" limits his view and, in a certain sense, deceives him. While allowing in "Books Which Have Influenced Me" that "works of fiction are the truest in their influence," he specifies that it is works where the imagination forms the design that lead to truth, for "they repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life" (XXVII). Implicit here again is the writer's criticism of the Realists and Naturalists and his choice of romance as a genre more beneficial to society. Writing in "The Lantern Bearers" of his own romantic view of the imagination derived largely from Hazlitt, he describes it as a "great search-light" directing man's considerations beyond the actual and the specific to the larger and more significant patterns that underlie existence: "For no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chambers of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls" (XIII). The writer, then, must lead his readers into this realm, not by transcribing observable details into recognizable literary imitations of reality, but by giving the imagination the freedom to create a new reality. Stevenson was very outspoken in his distaste for the Realists' aims, taking issue even with James for his suggestion in "The Art of Fiction" that a novel must "compete with life." A novelist, Stevenson insists in "A Humble Remonstrance," must "bear in mind that his novel is not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity" (XIII).7 Seeking patterns of "significant simplicity" for his own fiction, he was frequently to turn, as he did in Treasure Island, to the world of melodrama so vividly impressed on his memory by the art of Skelt. The stereotypes and exaggerations of melodrama, which Skelt's pictures highlight, make little pretension to realism, while the essential excitement and the fragility of human affairs permeate the art.
In the immobility of the pasteboard characters Stevenson perhaps found an image of the essence of his conception of man's relation to reality: the limits of his will. Using his favourite figure of the breaker, he writes in "A Gossip on Romance": "Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstances, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future" (XIII), and concludes that involuntary dealings with situations predominate over deliberate control of them in human experience. Because so small a part of life consists of deliberate decisions that control one's fate, moral considerations need not occupy a prominent place in literature. While he insists in "A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas's" that "there is no quite good book without a good morality" (XIII), he also points out in "A Gossip on Romance" that "there is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply non-moral" (XIII). Just as Skelt's characters are limited by the confines of a static art form, so man's choices in life occur only within the perimeters of "circumstances," including, as he points out in "Victor Hugo's Romances," nature, national interests, and "the forces that oppose and corrupt a principle" (V). The writer of romance views life from the perspective of "problems of the body and of the practical intelligence," whereas the serious dramatist or realistic novelist stresses "the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience," he continues in "A Gossip on Romance," declaring that "Drama is the poetry of conduct; romance the poetry of circumstance" (XIII). His preference for the latter as both truer and more delightful is evident in all his discussions of the matter. By placing man at the centre of contending forces where he cannot and need not control his destiny by acts of the will, the romancer can write "lively, beautiful, buoyant tales . . . where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it" (XIII, 134). In his own career, writing a boys' story such as Treasure Island with its innocent young adventurer and lack of interior analysis gave him an opportunity to test his theory by excluding moral considerations. Particularly through his use of the boy as narrator, he focusses our attention almost entirely on how things happen while suspending our desire to ask why.
The spirit of play which underlies Stevenson's conception of an imagined world where action freed from moral dilemmas predominates provides a further link between his fascination with the toy theatre and his aims as an artist, one that has a direct connection with the composition of Treasure Island. In order to emphasize the unquestioning faith the artist must have in his work, he used the image of children at play. Literature, he claimed, is make-believe, but make-believe that must be taken seriously in order to succeed. In the face of the difficulty of conveying the truth to his readers, the writer must never give way to doubt in the power of his art: "Is it worth doing?—when it shall have occurred to any artist to ask himself that question, it is implicitly answered in the negative. It does not occur to the child as he plays at being a pirate on the dining-room sofa, nor to the hunter as he pursues his quarry; and the candour of the one and the ardour of the other should be united in the bosom of the artist" (XXVII). This metaphor of the playing child is by no means an attempt to trivialize the artist's efforts. Stevenson believed in the particularly human quality of play deriving from its freedom from external necessity which philosophers have recognized from Heraclitus to the present. In our time, J. Huizinga has shown the relation of play to the development of culture through the ages, pointing out that because of its voluntary, disinterested nature, "play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil" and so "into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection." We 8recognize here Stevenson's requirements for non-moral subject matter as well as his conviction that art seeks the truth through simplification rather than by direct imitation. In play with its spontaneity and seriousness, its flight from the actual and its accordance with its own laws, he found an essential element of his art.
Both the inspiration for Treasure Island and its actual composition relate to play. First, there is the game of the map drawn by the author with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne's paints during a rainy season in the Highlands. In "My First Book: Treasure Island," he describes his own reaction to the imaginary place: "The shape took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance Treasure Island" (VI). Commenting on the evolution of the novel, he writes: "The map was the chief part of the plot," for from its features emerged first the terrain of the island, then the characters and finally the incidents as a list of chapter headings. In the novel itself, Jim's accidental discovery of the map, "shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up" and bearing "every particular" (VI) for the adventure, initiates the game of treasure hunting which enchants both the squire, who unhesitatingly flings himself into it, and the doctor, who cautions secrecy. A similar spirit of play seized the Stevenson household where three generations offered suggestions and criticisms of the emerging tale. In the mornings Stevenson wrote; in the afternoons he read to an admiring audience that included Lloyd, the author's father, and Dr. Alexander Japp, who recommended the story to Henderson for publication in Young Folks. About halfway through the tale, as inspiration failed, the family made their usual move to Davos for the winter. On the way Stevenson probably visited a toy theatre shop in London, for Mrs. Stevenson tells in her Preface to the South Seas Edition of the novel how they carried with them to Switzerland some penny plain sheets and paints for Lloyd in the same box with the unfinished manuscript and how she and her husband spent one whole night during the trip colouring the sheets (VI). Once arrived in Davos, he resumed his writing, filling in the leisure hours by playing complicated war games with Lloyd. The origin of the novel, then, was surrounded by playfulness both in Stevenson's imagination and in his activity. It seems, more than any of his other fictions, to provide the source for his remarks in "A Gossip on Romance" two years later: "Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance" (XIII). In its spirit of play, then, Jim Hawkins's enthusiastic account displays a quality that lies close to the heart of the author's idea of romance.
In Treasure Island, the incorporation of this playfulness with Stevenson's aim of absorbing the reader in a pattern of imagined activity that yields meaning depends largely on three techniques relying on visual appeal which are outlined in "A Gossip on Romance." The influence of the toy theatre is clear in Stevenson's discussion of these techniques, namely the necessity for vivid settings, the primacy of incidents that can be visualized and the dramatic possibilities of the sensational scene. Rapid action, filled with danger and suspense, answers man's longing for escape from routine to an expanded vision of reality. However prominent incident may be in romance, alone it is insufficient to woo the reader out of himself. The physical atmosphere is equally important and the reader's ability to see it in his mind's eye is part of the magic of romance. "There is a fitness in events and places," he writes, "certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck" (XIII). The impression made by romance depends on its mysterious power arising from the combination of exciting material and artistic control. This interaction leads to Stevenson's own adaptation of the sensational scene of melodrama to what he calls "the epoch-making scent" in fiction where "the threads of the story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration" (XIII). In these scenes the action is arrested in a manner that is "remarkably striking to the mind's eye" (XIII). As Stevenson gained more control over this last device in his later fiction, it became the hallmark of his mature dramatic strength, while Treasure Island offered opportunities for experiment with it.
Jim, the boy-narrator, is the poet of circumstance unifying setting, incident and scene in an absorbing "kaleidoscope of changing picture." The characters, like Skelt's stereotypes, lack psychological depth and contribute to the visual effect rather than the moral meaning of the tale. Occasionally Stevenson escapes from the limits of the youthful point of view by endowing Jim with ironic insights that do not accord with his character, but for the most part the simplicity of straight-forward narration prevails. The boy's role as narrator exemplifies the author's idea that life offers more opportunities for skillful collaboration with circumstances than for deliberate control over them. His enjoyment of the story he tells is largely that of an onlooker while even his active participation is more involved with what he sees and hears than with what he does. In contrast, the doctor's narrative, which occupies three chapters, gives a matter-of-fact account of the sensible and tedious activity in which he engaged with the faithful party in Jim's absence. The boy's most memorable intervention in the action is his opportunity to warn his friends of the mutiny; his information is acquired entirely by the coincidence of his presence in the apple-barrel while Silver is discussing his plans. In this situation the involuntary quality of Jim's action is emphasized both by the rocking of the boat that lulls him to sleep and the lurch of Silver against the barrel that awakens him. From his first glimpse of Billy Bones to his last backward glance at the island, he is an observer escaping physical combat and moral commitment almost completely. Even his sallies away from his friends are mostly efforts to get a better view of the action, while the capture of the Hispaniola consequent on his second escape is a kind of happy accident. The doctor's excessive praise and the pirates' accusing threats, both reported by Jim, of course, really show more about his braggadocio than his efficiency. On three occasions the boy is threatened physically and must act; his narration of these events through the author's device of the "epoch-making scene" expresses visually the indeliberateness of his action in all three situations.
The boy's daydreams about the island frame the story and highlight its location in "the warm phantasmagoric chambers of the brain," while his highly visual recollections of it as the setting for his adventures display its power over his emotions. Before he leaves his familiar world, the island lives in his imagination as a marvelous place of challenging conflicts all happily concluded: "Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought; sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us; but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventure" (VI). After the episode on the island, the place remains in his memory to visit him in dreams of "the surf booming about its coast" and the parrot screaming "pieces of eight" (VI). Between these two dreams of the island the actual adventure there takes place under the shadow of the pirates' treachery. The island's appearance reflects and intensifies Jim's emotional shifts from eager anticipation to apprehension and to the joy of exploration. Its fascination seems to lessen even further his ability to control his fate deliberately. He first regards it as a rather disappointing spot "with its grey, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires" (VI). Here Stevenson, the ironist, invests the scene with extra foreboding by his use of images of church architecture derived from his own experience of the massive Edinburgh edifices that he associated with gloom. Jim has to admit: "From that first look onward, I hated the very thought of Treasure Island" (VI). When he does set foot there, however, the exoticism of the place overrides his fears and the "joy of exploration" supersedes antipathy. Trees, plants and animals fascinate him and even the poisonous rattlesnake appears interesting and innocent. Jim is not a mythical wise child; he does not recognize rattlesnakes any more than he was able to see beneath the veneer of Silver's geniality. But he is susceptible to the enchantments of the toy theatre setting.
The theatrical world impinges upon the adventure world particularly in the matter of colouring, which evokes once again the flamboyance of Skelt. Commenting on the flourishing art of scene and costume painting that was a significant aspect of the spectacle of melodrama, Speaight writes: "The plays themselves are, I suggest, the least important things about the early nineteenth-century drama; the subject becomes a fascinating one if it is approached from the viewpoint of the audience, and as a vehicle for the magnificent impressionism of scene painters and costumiers." In "A Penny Plain 9and Twopence Coloured" Stevenson names the three primary colours, "gamboge," "crimson lake," and "Prussian blue," whose various combinations created all the vivid effects, while he also recalls that colouring was indeed a great part of the joy. In Jim's narrative, gamboge, a "hated name, although an exquisite pigment," according to the author (XIII), is associated with the initial disappointing appearance of the island; crimson dots the cap of Israel Hands's mate both as he climbs the stockade and later fights and dies on the ship, while blue distinguishes Silver's garb from that of the other pirates. The green that Stevenson praised for "such a savoury greenness that to-day my heart regrets it" (XIII), lends a "poisonous brightness" to the swamp and colours the "tossing foliage" (VI). Scanting detail was part of Stevenson's rejection of the method of the Realists, and Jim's transposition of sweeping visual effects from toy theatre to fiction directs the appeal of the setting to the reader's sense of unity and capacity for absorption.
Jim's positions for viewing the main incidents of the action are significant in emphasizing his role as a fascinated observer, like a child playing with toy theatre plates, or watching a show through a small opening. Places of concealment are his usual observation posts, sometimes of his own seeking, sometimes provided by circumstances. In the early chapters he watches Black Dog and Billy Bones from behind a door and observes Blind Pew's first approach from the inn entrance. Creeping out from beneath the bridge that conceals his mother and himself on the night the buccaneers storm the inn, he is an eye-witness to Blind Pew's death beneath the trampling hooves of the revenue officers' horses, a sudden end to that man's wicked ambitions. Later he hesitates on the doorstep of the inn at the sign of the "Spy-Glass" to get a clear view of the person his imagination had pictured to him "in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions" (VI) now a "plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling" host (VI) bent on genial conversation with his customers. During his first "French leave" to visit the island, he peers through "an aperture among the leaves" (VI) to watch Silver strike Tom with his crutch and dispatch him with a knife. Displaying great agility in the bouncing coracle, he grabs a rope dangling from the Hispaniola to look in a cabin window where Israel Hands and his mates are "locked together in a deadly wrestle, each with a hand upon the other's throat" (VI). Once on board, a swinging boom and the cover of a companionway give him further sheltered views of scenes that reveal his danger. On shore, a loophole in the stockade affords an excellent observation post for two thrilling scenes: the arrival of Silver in his "immense blue coat, thick with brass buttons" (VI) to treat with Smollett when the faithful party controls the fort, and the later pirates' conference to depose Silver during his command of the same fort. Of the first episode, Jim comments: "It was as good as the play to see them" (VI), while the parallel between the two scenes underlines the rapid changes of fortune. Finally, having chosen to remain in Silver's captivity rather than attempt to escape with the doctor, Jim has a marvelous opportunity to view the futile treasure hunt and the triumph of the faithful party. His inability to act is ensured by the rope on which Silver leads him "like a dancing bear" (VI), while his danger is increased by Silver's shifting loyalties. Throughout the novel, these clearcut, vividly realized scenes pass before the boy's eyes evoking for the reader an underlying pattern of the limits of the protagonist's will and the instability of human affairs. Several times the boy comments in wonder on how quickly decisive events change men's lives as, for example, after the violent death of Tom when everything looks the same, he can scarcely believe "murder had been actually done" (VI).
The power of circumstance and the fragility of fortune are further exemplified in those few parts of the action where Jim is physically engaged. Stevenson turns to an early version of his "epoch-making scene" with its antecedents in the sensational scene of melodrama and the arrested action of the toy theatre. The prototype of such scenes was probably the explosion of the mill in The Miller and His Men which appears in the toy theatre version as a horrifying affair in red and yellow signalling the defeat of evil. Treasure Island offers10 some examples of such scenes where stillness at the height of emotional and physical tension replaces any spectacle such as an explosion. Stevenson climaxed the action in "The Pavilion on the Links," a story written shortly before Treasure Island, with a fire, but his finest "epoch-making scenes," such as those in The Master of Ballantrae, are invested with a stillness that heightens the impact of emotion.
Three scenes in Treasure Island make spectacular use of arrested action to convey the limits of the protagonist's will at crucial moments amid rapidly changing fortunes. In his clash with Anderson during the defence of the stockade, Jim sustains only a scratched knuckle and escapes harm by a fortuitous tumble down the hill. His passivity even in action is revealed in his remarks when he regains his feet: "Well, so short had been the interval, that when I found my feet again all was in the same posture, the fellow with the red night-cap still halfway over, another still just showing his head above the top of the stockade. And yet, in this breath of time, the fight was over, and the victory was ours" (VI). The passage conveys a curious sense of the separation of the surface action from the really important changes that are unseen. The splash of colour, the head peeking above the stockade show that everything looks the same, while the impersonal phrases "the fight was over" and "the victory was ours" force upon us the impression of great changes beyond the control of human will. On the Hispaniola, Jim is "pinned by the shoulders to the mast" where, immobilized in body and will, he shoots Israel Hands: "In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment—I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim—both my pistols went off, and both escaped out of my hands" (VI). Besides neatly absolving him of any suggestion of guilt, Jim's sense of powerlessness intensifies our sense of the strength of circumstance. Through lighting effects, Stevenson lends a touch of sensationalism to the scene where Jim blunders into the stockade unaware that Silver now controls it. "An immense fire" offers a clue that the boy misses and upon his stealthy approach "the red glare of the torch . . . showed me the worst of my apprehensions realised" (VI). The silence is shattered by the parrot and once again Jim is confronted with a view of things whose whole significance has changed while their appearance remains the same: "There was the cask of cognac, there were the pork and bread, as before" (VI), but in the glance of that terrible moment they are now signs of tragedy, not security.
After the doctor's ingenious solution of the conflict, the Hispaniola sails away from Treasure Island; Silver disappears at a port of call on the way home; the island recedes to a dream in Jim's memory; and the reader closes the book. Stevenson, following the lifelong "mania" described in "My First Book," has made "a plaything of an imaginary series of events" (VI), attempting to draw the reader out of himself into an imagined world filled not only with the fantasy of rollicking adventure but with some general resemblances to our own. For underlying the colour, rapid movement and excitement of the action, the limits of the human will and the fragility of fortune emerge as patterns of reality. By endowing the reader with the vision of an adventure-struck boy who sees everything without having to make many serious decisions, the narrative skirts moral issues and submerges the reader in "the poetry of circumstance" which in Stevenson's view is the essence of romance. This method, which unifies the visual and emotional power of setting, incident and scene, derives at least in part from the author's enjoyment of the art of Skelt, while illustrating the truthful simplicity that is the aim of his own art.
1Treasure Island was first published in Young Folks, 18 and 20 (1 October 1881-28 January 1882). It was republished in book form in 1883. All references to Stevenson's works will be to The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, South Seas Edition, 32 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925).
2 David Daiches, Robert Louis Stevenson (Glasgow: William Maclellan, 1947), and Robert Kiely, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), Chapter II, "Adventure as Boy's Daydream," both discuss the relation of the novel to the genre of adventure fiction. Hayden W. Ward, "Pleasure of Your Heart: Treasure Island and the Appeal of Boys' Adventure Fiction," Studies in the Novel 6 (1974), 304-17, considers the continuing appeal of the novel to adults. Irving S. Saposnik, Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1974), pp. 107-09, reads the novel as "a paradigm of that commercial spirit which has become the basis of modern capitalism" in which the "metaphor of money dominates the action," concluding that "like its author, it stands midway between a fanciful impulse towards romantic adventure and a necessary acknowledgement that the greatest adventure is the life we endure."
3 Robert Speaight, The History of the English Toy Theatre, revised ed. (London: Studio Vista Ltd., 1969), p. 14.
4 Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 4th ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1908), p. 135, notes that there is no record of Stevenson having visited a theatre before December 1874, when he was twenty-four years old.
5 W. E. Henley, "R.L.S.," Pall Mall Magazine 25 (1901), 513.
6 E. San Juan, "Toward a Definition of Victorian Activism," Studies in English Literature 4 (1964), 548, suggests that Stevenson's love for travel is related to his philosophy of life: "The instinct for travel served a moral purpose for him besides reasons of health and survival, for in the journey itself he sought the variety of life so that he might inform his conscience of such contrasts and oppositions that make existence a continuing challenge."
7 James modified the phrase "compete with life" which he used in the original Longman's Magazine (September 1884) version of "The Art of Fiction" to "represent life" when the essay was reprinted in Partial Portraits (1888).
8 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 6 and 10.
9 Speaight, p. 33.
10 Speaight, p. 68.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6895
SOURCE: "Mirror in the Sea: Treasure Island and the Internalization of Juvenile Romance," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 7-12.
[In the following essay, Blackburn considers Treasure Island in the context of the evolution of the literature of romance and adventure "from fiction in which incident is more important than character to fiction in which precisely the reverse is true."]
The adventure story is one of the hardiest of all literary genres—and it has often had need to be so. Ever since Gilgamesh (third millennium B.C.) "saw mysteries and knew secret things. . . . went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor, and returning, engraved on a stone that whole story," tales of man's journeys into the unknown have held an audience—and have done so in triumphant defiance of the common limitations of their authors, the frequent ignorance of their audience, and the pallid disdain of the Academy. Such disdain is familiar to all students of children's literature, for we have all encountered the glib assumption that children's literature, like the adventure story, is inherently shallow and second-rate, generically inferior to "serious" literature. The Academy can forgive anything except popularity—a fact made abundantly clear in the historical evolution of children's literature.
The connection between children's literature and the literature of adventure goes back at least to the Renaissance, and the Humanists' contempt for the barbarous splendor—and the widespread popularity—of medieval romance. Ascham's condemnation of the 1Morte Arthur ("the whole pleasure of which book standeth . . . in open manslaughter and bold bawdry") is typical of the Humanists' disdain for a literature of action which they found devoid of serious moral concerns, literary excellence, and redeeming social values. By the second half of the sixteenth century, the invidious distinction between serious and popular literature was well established, and the medieval romance which Sidney had fondly described as "a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner," was abandoned to children, the lower classes, and the uneducated. So the romances of the Middle Ages, and the adventure stories patterned crudely after them, were consigned to the chapbooks—where they inevitably influenced the rise of modern children's literature in the eighteenth century. B. A. Brockman notes that "this decadent medieval literature, closely associated throughout the Renaissance with children and with childishness, was in academic minds—and quite possibly in publishers' minds—the paradigm for literature written expressly for children . . . a vague but powerful preexisting academic conception of children's literature as the chapbook derivatives of medieval romance . . . colored henceforth the academic reaction toward the new literature expressly for children." 2
There are, of course, significant differences between adventure stories written for children and those written for adults. The formula for the latter demands an encounter with the unknown in conditions involving sex (however sublimated) and violence. In accordance with the wisdom of the tribe, literature for children is denied the resource of sex; whatever children's literature can rely on, it cannot rely on the 42D blonde with the torn blouse. But the encounter with the unknown and the experience of violence are shared by adult and juvenile adventure, and the latter can somehow get along, even though it must forego sugarplum visions of Bo Derek cavorting on a tropical beach in the remnants of her handkerchief.
Now, historians are well aware of the activities of Thomas Boreman and John Newbery, and rightly trace the origins of modern children's literature to the mid-eighteenth century. The result of this historical awareness has been an emphasis on those qualities distinguishing imaginative literature written and marketed for children from other kinds of literature. But similarities are also worth exploring. Juvenile and adult adventure have common features, and a common source in medieval romance, and Mr. Brockman's remarks suggest a question worth asking. The literature of adventure is now a legitimate (if not always a prudent) academic interest; in this too it resembles children's literature. The question is: how has the literature of adventure earned the right to be taken seriously? And what does the evolution of medieval romance into modern adventure have to teach us about the evolution of children's literature?
Now, the key to the rehabilitation and metamorphosis of romance is in the internalization of the romance quest. The new direction is marked by Cervantes, in The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1616). Since the right of succession so often demands the shedding of blood, it is appropriate that this, the first modern European novel, should deal the death-blow to medieval romance. Cervantes's hero clatters out in search of the adventures of Amadis of Gaul, but what he finds is more terrible than any adventure: truth. What Quixote finally learns is not that the quest-romance is doomed—that had been kindness—but that it is absurd. Since Quixote's adventures are trivial and ludicrous, the focus of the novel is internal; what holds us is not the tilting at windmills, but the slow, inexorable breaking of the old man's dreams despite the greatness of his heart. Cervantes is the portal between medieval and modern romance; his shift of focus from external event to psychological drama indicates a line of development continuous in fiction until the present day. Harold Bloom describes English Romanticism as "an internalization of romance, particularly of the quest variety." The first stage of this internalization is marked by the hero's "deep involvement in political, social, and literary revolution, and a direct, even satirical attack on the institutional orthodoxies of European . . . society"; the second is typified by "a relative disengagement from revolutionary activism . . . so as to re-center the arena of search within the self and its ambiguities." Bloom is3 making a distinction between two sorts of romances—a distinction which is also useful in evaluating juvenile romance. In the first sort of adventure, the enemy, the other who is to be confronted and overcome, is external; in the second sort, the other lies within the hero. It is of this second sort that Yeats was thinking when he said, "I do not know why we so honor those who die upon the field of battle; a man may show as reckless a courage entering into the abyss of himself." It is this second sort that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had in mind when he remarked, "War is not adventure; war is a substitute for adventure."
Paul Zweig also traces the tendency to internalization in post-Renaissance fiction. Observing that "Descarte's cogito defines the self in terms of inward qualities," Zweig4 relates this definition to the subsequent decline of subject matter and the growing interest in psychology. In general, serious fiction since the eighteenth century has been more interested in what a character is than in what he does. Zweig notes that, even in popular romance "the substance of adventure has been displaced inward". The primary encounter with the unknown takes place in an interior, not an exterior landscape; "for modern writers like Conrad, T. E. Lawrence, and Malraux, adventure will no longer be a form of travel literature, but of autobiography". In our time, romance has become "the exploration of interior space".
When we consider the evolution of romance and adventure, we see the general truth of the observations made by Bloom and Zweig. If we trace the line of descent that leads from the picaresque to the Gothic novel to Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, we move from fiction in which incident is more important than character to fiction in which precisely the reverse is true. Picaresque and Gothic fiction concentrate on what Bloom identifies as the first stage of romance, romance whose main interest in gratifying what Stevenson once called the reader's lust for "the brute incident"; by the time we get to Melville and Conrad, events are less important than their impact on the hero's psyche. The darkness in which Kurtz and Marlowe find themselves is both internal and external; the jungles of the Congo are less obscure than the heart of man.
Of course, not all such literature has shifted its focus from the external to the internal arena; writers still turn out vast quantities of literature which looks no further than "the brute incident." But any modern work of adventure or romance which aspires to be taken seriously must give serious attention to the internal domain. Action is not to be neglected, of course; few lovers of adventure would wish to see striking action replaced by the interminable maunderings of Richardson's heroines. But the best modern adventure fiction—even such eventful novels as Stephen Becker's The Chinese Bandit, Clair Huffaker's The Cowboy and the Cossack, and Trevanian's The Eiger Sanction—strikes a true balance between external adventure and psychological exploration.
What does this internalization of romance and adventure have to do with the development of children's literature? We have seen that modern romance can be traced back to medieval romance, as mediated by the chapbooks, and that the Renaissance contempt for medieval romance influenced the academic conception of children's literature. We have also seen that the internalization of romance is the key to its evolution. Can we postulate a similar internalization, a similar evolution, for juvenile romance? How can such a postulate be supported? And what, if true, does it have to teach us about children's literature?
Making allowances for the inevitable differences between romances written for children and those written for adults, we can risk the assertion that juvenile romance does indeed show a growing tendency to internalization as it develops through time. We may verify this by following the course of such romance from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe through the welter of nineteenth-century adventure stories, to the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin. The work of earlier days demonstrates abundant enthusiasm for "the brute incident"; Tolkien and LeGuin, though they do not neglect the stimulus of action, are constantly aware of the internal dimension of the hero's quest. Tolkien is far less interested in the changes in the hero's fortunes than he is in the changes in his hero's character. Bilbo Baggins, the central character of The Hobbit, is no cardboard superman; a chance stone removes him from the action before the novel's climactic battle is well begun. His most significant victories are solitary and internal, as in his decision to spare Gollum's life, to defy his friends and sacrifice the Arkenstone to the cause of peace, and to master his fear at entering the Dragon's cave: "It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait." A similar emphasis on the internal dimension is apparent in Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, for instance at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged knows that the baffling and elusive enemy he seeks and dreads is none other than—he himself.
So we can argue that generally speaking, juvenile romance has evolved as adult romance has evolved—by means of the internalization of the romantic quest. Tolkien and Le Guin are two of the finest modern writers of juvenile romance, and the works of Richard Hughes, William Golding, and Rosemary Sutcliff (among many others) manifest a like concern with "inner space." If this concern is indeed typical of the best of modern romance, when did it begin to manifest itself in children's literature? Can we at least sketch its development through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? And how can we do so with any degree of confidence or precision?
The problem requires both a set of literary texts and a line of approach. Now, when surveying the canon of juvenile adventure, one cannot long avoid noticing Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Though not intended expressly for children, Robinson Crusoe "filtered through to the schoolroom well before the end of the eighteenth century, and was often found in truncated chapbook versions." Its immense success inspired a5 horde of imitations, and our enduring fascination with island-stories is evident in the line of descent which goes from Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (English translation, 1814) through Marryat and Ballantyne to Treasure Island and Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies. Crusoe and all his offspring share many features, and their differences are sufficient to indicate the progressive internalization of this strain of juvenile romance.
As for a precise line of approach, the internalization of serious romance provides us with a clue. Certainly one of the most striking marks of this internalization is the treatment of landscape. One need only think of the hallucinatory landscapes of The Prelude and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," of Browning's "Childe Roland" and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to grasp the importance of the blurring of the distinction between inner and outer. Landscape becomes both a psychological arena and a mirror of the psyche; and D. H. Lawrence's description of the soul of man as "a dark vast forest with wild life in it" sums up the principle rather neatly: the treatment of landscape is one way of assessing the internalization of romance.
The treatment of landscape is particularly suggestive in those tales set on islands, for there is obviously something fascinating about the island landscape itself. Since its appearance in 1719, Robinson Crusoe has never been out of print. Our delight in seeing civilized man thrown utterly on his own resources on a desert island, has induced generations of readers to tolerate even the turgid chronicle of the Swiss Family Robinson. The fascination survives much sloppy treatment—not for nothing did Stevenson call the Swiss Family Robinson "that dreary family"—because it is a fascination with the self and its potential. Atlantis, or Utopia, or the island of Dr. Moreau, we make our islands in our own image.
So the island can be a splendid stage for "the brute incident," an arena for the trial and triumph of the hero, as it is in Robinson Crusoe and countless other Robinsonnades. It can also be much more. In many such stories, the triumph of European values is absolute—but this is by no means always the case. The island is also a place where civilized man may be transformed by what he encounters. Speaking of the American frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner notes that "the frontier is . . . the meeting point between savagery and civilization. . . . Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment," and the result of this encounter is "a new product." When the hero is changed by his experience6 of the wilderness—as Jim Hawkins is changed in Treasure Island—the treatment of landscape is of central significance. As we shall see, Stevenson's handling of the island masks a significant extension—and internalization—of the tradition he inherits from Defoe.
This potential for internalization exists because an island is, above all other things, a figure for the self. Students of Jung will need no urging to recognize the island as an archetype of the self. As an image of the7 fully integrated self, the island is often an earthly paradise—it makes no difference whether we speak of Avalon, or the Isles of the Blessed, or even the Garden of Eden. For the Garden of Eden is, according to tradition, located on the top of a mountain; and when Mandeville speaks of it as "so high that the flood of Noah might not come to her," he is merely pointing out that Paradise is, imaginatively if not literally, an island. It is, therefore, an image of the self. Speaking8 of the thirteenth-century Romance, A. Bartlett Giamatti notes "how things are beginning to turn inward; how the earthly paradise, no longer securely anchored by faith and a rigid literary tradition to a place in the 'real' world, will become increasingly a general symbol . . . for the soul of man." So when J. M. Barrie9 identifies the lost Paradise of childhood with the island of Neverland in Peter and Wendy (1911), his internalization of Paradise is informed by a tradition going back to medieval romance.
The island landscape thus offers a number of visions of the self, and we recall Jung's assertion that archetypes are determined only as to form, not as to content. The island can embody any vision of the self10 which the author chooses to present; Northrop Frye reminds us that "it is, of course, only the general comic or tragic context that determines the interpretation of any symbol. This is obvious with relatively neutral archetypes like the island, which may be Prospero's island or Circe's." (Prospero's island is, in fact, a11 perfect example of the island as psychological mirror. There Gonzalo envisions his ideal commonwealth, Ferdinand finds his princess, Sebastian and Antonio find only a desert fit for murder, and Prospero himself finally learns to be a piece of the continent, a part of that main.) For all these reasons, then, the treatment of the island-landscape is a key to the central concerns of the romance in which it figures. In the field of juvenile romance, the treatment of landscape in Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Peter and Wendy illuminates for us the progressive internalization of such romance.
Now, if we would understand the treatment of landscape in Robinson Crusoe, we must recognize the novel for what it is: the first great celebration of imperialism in English prose fiction, a celebration as wholehearted as anything to be found in the pages of Hakluyt. Defoe might have taken as an epigraph the injunction to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. I.28). Crusoe may not be a perfect adventurer—he triumphs not because of his great heroism, but because of his great aversion to unnecessary risk—but he is certainly the perfect colonist. Finding himself shipwrecked and "a solitaire . . . banished from human society," Crusoe immediately begins to prove that Yorkshire remains implacably Yorkshire, even on a desert island. In the best traditions of the Georgics and the Protestant work-ethnic, Crusoe sets out to subdue, occupy and possess his island domain. Though "the country . . . looked like a planted garden," Crusoe soon notices that its fruits are "wild and, for want of cultivation, imperfect." His island is an archetype of the self only insofar as it provides the raw material with which Crusoe can actualize himself. It exists only to be dominated by the "labor, application and contrivance" of a man secure in the possession of Christian revelation and a bulging chest of carpenter's tools. Crusoe is forever building walls and enclosures; his attitude to nature is nowhere better demonstrated than by the way in which he plants trees to form a living wall "so monstrous thick and strong that it was indeed perfectly impassable." Crusoe's taming of his islands makes the whole novel a paean to civilized man and all his wonderful ways, even down to the bourgeois glee Crusoe takes in the fact that "now I had my country-house and my seacoast house" and that "Leadenhall market could not have furnished a table better than I." His success is a monument to the ethos of colonialism: "it was a merry reflection . . . how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own mere property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected. I was absolute lord and lawgiver; they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives . . . for me." And finally, like any good colonist, Crusoe returns to Europe—leaving behind him three mutineers to carry on the colony he has founded.
So Robinson Crusoe establishes a basic paradigm: European man, stranded in the wilderness, subdues it to his needs and eventually returns home in triumph. This is not to say the hero is unchanged by his adventures, but the emphasis is on the struggle against external threats. The essential point is that the changes in Crusoe—his piety and industry—simultaneously fit him to survive on the island and also to take his proper place in European society upon his return. The desert island, that landscape so rich with symbolic possibilities, merely provides the arena in which Crusoe—as he so interminably insists on reminding the reader—can subdue the natural man in himself by subduing nature. Though many later novels will find darker possibilities on desert islands, Robinson Crusoe is serenely dedicated to the triumph of civilization over savagery, and the hero's commitment to the values of that civilization remains unshaken. In essence, all that Crusoe learns from his sojourn on the island is that he can and must subdue it, and Defoe's limited internalization of nature characterizes the island-romance until12 we come to a book which internalizes the island in quite a different way, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
Though Stevenson gleefully described Treasure Island as being "as original as sin," he was in fact well aware of his debt to his predecessors, and to Defoe in particular—witness his appropriation of Crusoe's parrot and that delightful parody Ben Gunn, who is Crusoe redivivus, repentance and all. Nevertheless, despite his declared intention to revive "all the old romance, retold / Exactly in the ancient way," Stevenson's island does not reflect the triumphant imperial self displayed in Robinson Crusoe. Their superficial resemblance notwithstanding, the adventures of Jim Hawkins do not produce the same effect as those of Robinson Crusoe, and the lessons Jim learns from his experience are radically different from those gleaned by Defoe's hero.
As we have seen, Stevenson follows Defoe's paradigm: hero voyages to island, has various heart-in-mouth adventures, and returns home. But everything Crusoe learns confirms the wisdom of his society and his father (who obviously knew what he was about when he decided his son should study law). Everything Hawkins learns calls into question the unshakeable certainties of his childhood, and he is thrown on his own resources in a way in which Crusoe never was. And, as one might well expect in a romance—and especially in one which had its genesis in a map —the treatment of13 landscape is particularly significant. The island bulks large in Jim's daydreams: "I approached that island in my fancy, from every possible direction; I explored every acre of its surface; I climbed a thousand times to that tall hill they call the Spyglass, and from the top enjoyed the most wonderful and changing prospects. Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought; sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us; but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventures." Jim's first sight of the island contrasts the daydream with the reality in a way typical of the novel's continual undermining of the boy's expectations. The foliage "had a kind of poisonous brightness. . . . A peculiar stagnant smell hung over the anchorage—a smell of sodden leaves and rotting tree trunks. I observed the doctor sniffing and sniffing, like someone tasting a bad egg.
'I don't know about treasure,' he said, 'but I'll stake my wig there's fever here.'"
In the novel's last paragraph, we meet a Jim Hawkins very different from the lad who once dreamed of going treasure hunting: "Oxen and wainropes 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 still ringing in my ears. . . ." These three visions of the island sum up Jim's experience; the movement from daydream to nightmare is a pattern central to the novel.
I do not wish to accuse Stevenson of modern morbidity; the author of Treasure Island was not trying to be J. D. Salinger. He was well aware of the limitations imposed by his intended audience—a letter records his dismay in writing the novel and having "to work it off without oaths. Buccaneers without oaths—bricks without straw. But youth and the fond parent have to be consulted" —but this did not impede his deft and quiet14 marking of Jim's fall from innocence to experience. Crusoe's father was an infallible guide, but Jim's father is too sick and weak to deal with Billy Bones. Other adults are likewise unreliable: his mother, failing utterly to understand their situation, insists on having her due and not a farthing over, and promptly faints when her myopic rectitude gives the pirates time to overtake them; or Squire Trelawney, who is simply Jim writ large "all dressed out like a sea officer, in stout blue cloth . . . and a capital imitation of a sailor's walk." The obligatory rattlesnake Jim blunders across on the island is deplorably obvious: Jim learns many things more happily left unknown. One of his more educational experiences comes when, after a deadly parody of a child's game ("it was such a game as I had often played at home about Black Hill Cove"), Jim is cornered by Israel Hands. Confident in the civilizing power of his brace of pistols, Jim "was drinking in his words and smiling away as conceited as a cock upon a wall, when . . . back went his right hand over his shoulder. . . . I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast. In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment—I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim—both my pistols went off. . . . the cockswain loosed his grasp upon the shrouds, and plunged head first into the water." Stevenson artfully spares the sensibilities of his readers, but there can be little question that here we touch one of the sources of the boy's nightmares. Like Nick Adams and Huck Finn, Jim has reason to have bad dreams.
The ambiguity of the island also reflects the pervasive moral ambiguity of the novel. F. J. H. Darton—who really should have known better—castigates Stevenson's novel because "the expedition was launched by greed and decorated with murder and treachery, and concluded by luck rather than righteousness." What Darton fails utterly to realize is15 that the moral ambiguity he so energetically deplores is central to the novel. On his island, Crusoe learned that man is the monarch of all he surveys, that he is indeed the master of his fate. Crusoe is justified by his success—but the success of Hawkins and his friends, as Darton notes, proves nothing at all. Unlike Crusoe, Jim Hawkins is not justified by his works; material success does not resolve moral uncertainty. Nowhere is Stevenson's deliberate ambiguity more apparent than in his handling of Long John Silver. Silver is a liar, a cheat, and a thief; he commits murder before our eyes and—what must have been little less reprehensible in the eyes of many of Stevenson's contemporaries—he lives with "a woman of color." Yet Silver has intelligence and courage—the preeminent virtues of the Doctor Livesey Jim so admires—and this makes his case problematical. So much so, that when this blackest of villains escapes scot-free at the novel's close (and four hundred guineas to the good), few readers can be so heartless as to wish the case otherwise. 16
Thus we see that the ambiguous landscape of the island designedly mirrors the ambiguity of the novel as a whole. The unreliability of adults, winning "by luck rather than righteousness" (the accident of the apple barrel; the fact that Jim's friends triumph through his disobedience and desertion of his post, not through Jim's being a good bunny), and the complexity of Long John Silver all emphasize "the limits of the human will and the fragility of fortune . . . as patrons of reality."17 Crusoe's island was merely an elaborate commentary on the wisdom of his father and his society; Jim's island continually corrodes the bright certainties of his childhood. Just as the island is not what he imagined it to be, neither is anything else; the ambiguity of the landscape figures the larger ambiguity of which Jim has become so nightmarishly aware. Stevenson, by his internalization of landscape, enriches and extends the tradition he inherits from Defoe—and breaks the trail which will be followed by the serious juvenile romances of the twentieth century. Stevenson is not their only begetter, but he determined the direction they could not choose but follow.
Of all those writers who labored in the shadow of Treasure Island, none was more audacious in following Stevenson's lead in internalizing romance than J. M. Barrie, in his novel Peter and Wendy (henceforth Peter Pan; 1911). Though Barrie assembles his novel out of the rag-and-bone shop of the Robinsonnades and other nineteenth-century juvenile romance, his concerns are different from those of his sources. We have seen that, in the paradigm established by Robinson Crusoe, the hero's return to Europe is essential. Crusoe returns happily, leaving his island behind him; Jim Hawkins's return is qualified by his nightmares. But the essential drama of Peter Pan is not whether or not the hero will return victorious; it is whether or not the hero will choose to return at all. Barrie's variation on the traditional pattern highlights his internalization of romance; in an introduction to The Coral Island (1913), Barrie remarks that "To be born is to be wrecked on an island." That is, the island paradise is also the prison of the self. Barrie's archly ironic and subconscious narrative style confirms that Peter's exploits against Indians and pirates, the brute incidents of his life, are trivial. The only sort of adventure which we can take seriously in the novel is internal. Neverland is not only a college of desert islands; it is also "a map of a child's mind." The real enemies against which Peter contends are not Hook and his crew, but the forces which keep him on the island, the fears which so flamboyantly prevent him from growing up. 18
The real subject of Peter Pan is one deftly adumbrated in Treasure Island: the loss of innocence which growing up demands. Barrie's internalization of the island as the self of the child enables him to emphasize maturation as a process of loss. Of the Neverland, he tells us: "On these magic shores, children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more." Adults cannot hope to return to Peter's island, which is not a place but a state of mind, "though if you shut your eyes and are a lucky one you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colors suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape and the colors become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment." We all recognize the lost heavenly land behind the wall of flame; Barrie's subtle invocation of the Garden of Eden guarded by the angel with the sword of fire (Gen. 3.24) reminds us that childhood is indeed a type of the lost paradise.
The unreflecting and spontaneous freedom of childhood is incarnate in Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up. His flight from the perils and responsibilities which lie in wait for all children is apparently a complete success. "Innocent and gay and heartless," Peter "had his first laugh still." Entirely free of the adult's need to calculate: Peter "just said anything that came into his head." Unlike Hook or Mr. Darling, Peter need not fret about his social position, for Peter "did not know in the least who or what he was." The boy's freedom from the mundane tyranny of fact is absolute; to him "make-believe and true were exactly the same thing," and he frequently disconcerts the boys who follow him when "in the middle of a fight he would suddenly change sides." Peter also enjoys the blessing of forgetfulness—"Peter had seen many tragedies, but he had forgotten them all."—and so he does not share the vulnerability of other children. Pan is, as his name implies, the god of all in Neverland.
There he lives in splendid anarchy, exempt from time and memory and remorse, waging a jolly and unending war against the adult world (represented by Hook and the Piccaninny Indians), his every whim gratified.
The sweetness of Peter's life is underscored by the fate which befalls the children who decide to return to the mainland with Wendy: "Before they had attended school a week, they saw what goats they had been not to remain on the island." "It is sad to have to say that the power to fly gradually left them" and sadder yet to see that they also lose the power of belief: "the bearded man who doesn't know any stories to tell his children was once John." Even Wendy, who "grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls," cannot hold back her tears when she sees Peter for the last time and must tell him that she has grown up.
So, in all these ways, Barrie reminds us of the cost of maturity. Yet this romantic view of childhood, influential though it is throughout the novel, does not do full justice to the complexity of Barrie's thought. Despite the persistent romantic misreading of the novel, Peter does not enjoy Barrie's full approval. Peter has bad dreams, a reflection of his isolation ("for hours he could not be separated from these dreams, though he wailed piteously in them"). He internalizes external dangers rather too readily; Crusoe is serene in himself, Jim Hawkins is occasionally shaken—but Peter has no sense of self at all. Peter saves Tiger Lily from the pirates by giving "a marvelous imitation" of Hook's voice, and, once the pirate chief has been dispatched to the crocodile, Peter is only too eager to add Hook to his repertoire of roles ("he sat long in the cabin with Hook's cigar-holder in his mouth, and one hand clenched, all but the forefinger, which he bent and held threateningly aloft like a hook.") Peter's emotional growth is arrested by his decision to remain on the island. At the novel's opening, Peter needs Wendy to tell him what a kiss is, and he fails utterly to understand Wendy's maturing interest in him. When Tinker Bell saves Peter's life by drinking the poison left by Hook, the baffled boy can only ask "But Why, Tink?" Peter maintains his freedom and security by forfeiting the possibility of ever knowing love.
Barrie's most profound criticism of the temptations of Peter's island paradise is implicit in his summation of children as "innocent and gay and heartless," "the most heartless things in the world." We have seen that Peter's life in Neverland is based on his rejection of the adult world, the world of time and memory. He is "the only boy on the island who could neither write nor spell, not the smallest word. He was above all that sort of thing." Since Peter has opted out of history and time, death is meaningless to him. He must lose everyone and everything he knows, but he need never remember the loss. To Peter death seems only "an awfully big adventure"; therefore he remembers nothing, not even Wendy. Peter's inability to remember saves him much pain, but it is also the source of his heartlessness. When Wendy is astonished that Peter does not remember Captain Hook, Peter can say grandly "I forget them after I kill them." But he also asks "Who is Tinker Bell?" and such insouciance likewise grates when we meet it in other contexts, as in the Spartan epitaph "Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten." Exempt from time, and its burden of an irrevocable past, Peter is likewise exempt from remorse and love; as his final meeting with Wendy demonstrates, to be without memory is to be without a heart.
Barrie insists that the heart has a price, a price Peter is unwilling to pay. One can find a heart only by leaving Neverland—and this is the consolation Barrie offers us for the loss of Paradise, for our exile from those magic shores whence "we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more." Like Peter, Hook and Mr. Darling, because they cannot leave childhood behind, cannot find hearts. Barrie contends that it is only in the acceptance of time, and of loss, and of the risks of love, that a heart is to be found. And this proves to be the one adventure of which Peter is incapable; he chooses to remain forever free—and forever heartless.
So Barrie's novel is perfectly frank about the fact that childhood is a lost paradise, but it also tells us why it may be a paradise well lost. One is unaccustomed to finding Leibnitz in the nursery, but the fact of the matter is that, by his internalization of the landscape and conventions of juvenile romance, Barrie has turned that romance into a kind of theodicy. So he has done for juvenile romance what Bloom asserts the Romantic poets did for quest-romance—he has found a way "to re-center the arena of search within the self and its ambiguities." Following the lead of Defoe and Stevenson, Barrie so internalizes the myth of island-adventure that he leaves us with one final question: Since children's literature can so successfully ape the development of mainstream fiction, how are we ever to tell a good book for children from any other sort of good book? And that question is the final and enduring legacy of the best of island romance.
1 See Robert P. Adams, "Bold Bawdry and Open Manslaughter: The English New Humanist Attack upon Medieval Romance," HLQ, 23 (1959-60), 33-48
2 "Robin Hood and the Invention of Children's Literature," Children's Literature 10 (1982), 7, 13.
3 "The Internalization of Quest Romance" in The Ringers in the Tower (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 15, 22.
4The Adventurer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974, rpt. 1981), p. 9.
5 John Rowe Townsend, Written for Children rev. ed. (1974; rpt. Penquin, 1976), p. 59. For another useful summary of the 'Robinsonnades,' see also Kathleen Blake, "The Sea-Dream: Peter Pan and Treasure Island," Children's Literature 6 (1977), 165-81.
6 "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893), in An American Primer, ed. Daniel J. Boorstin (1966; rpt. New York: Mentor, 1968), pp. 545-46.
7 Those who do should consult Chapter Six of C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, ed. A. Jaffe, trans. R. and C. Winston (New York: Vintage, 1963); and the Index to the Bollinger edition of the Collected Works, sub "Island."
8The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, 23. Paradise shares with the island remoteness and isolation, both conducive to the pastoral idyll.
9The Earthly Paradise and The Renaissance Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966) p. 83.
10 In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung writes, "It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree. A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it has become conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience."
11 Northrop Frye, "The Archetypes of Literature" in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), p. 20.
12 Like Robinson Crusoe, the Swiss Family Robinson ends with the establishment of a colony on the island—as do many other 'Robinsonnades.' The Coral Island (1857) is one of the best of its breed, but there too the values of Europe triumph absolutely; Ballantyne's three heroes are snatched from the jaws of death by the providential conversion to Christianity of the novel's principal villain.
13 "On one of these occasions I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and, with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance 'Treasure Island,'" R. L. Stevenson "My First Book—Treasure Island," in The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. E. Gosse (London: Cassell, 1907), 15, pp. 369-70.
14The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. S. Colvin, (New York: Scribner's, 1899), I, 268.
15Children's Books in England 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p. 302.
In a letter to W. E. Henley, Stevenson makes an 16astute observation on Silver's power to fascinate: "It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver . . . the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you" (Letters, I, 216).
17 Sister M. L. McKenzie, "The Toy Theatre, Romance and Treasure Island: The Artistry of R. L. S.," English Studies in Canada, 8, 4 (Dec. 1982), 420.
18 In 1922, Barrie noted that "long after writing P. Pan, its true meaning came back to me, desperate attempt to grow up but can't"; V. K. Blake, op. cit., p. 176.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5181
SOURCE: "Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island: The Ideal Fable," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, ChLA Publishers, 1985, pp. 242-52.
[In the following essay, Gannon examines the way Treasure Island effectively addresses young readers, emphasizing the theme of the romantic quest, the use of retrospective narration, and the presence of mystery.]
Treasure Island has the direct appeal of a sailor's yarn yet offers young readers the psychological satisfactions of a quest romance. While it has some of the thematic complexity that marks an interesting adult novel, the whole spell-binding story is told with careful attention to the needs, the habits of mind, and the special sensitivities of Stevenson's chosen audience: youngsters. Perhaps Henry James said it best: "Treasure Island is a 'boy's book,' in the sense that it embodies a boy's vision of the extraordinary; but it is unique in . . . that what we see in it is not only the ideal fable, but as part and parcel of that, as it were, the young reader himself and his state of mind: we seem to read it over his shoulder, with an arm around his neck. It is all as perfect as a well-played boy's game, and nothing can exceed the spirit and skill, the humour and the open-air feeling, with which the whole thing is kept at the critical pitch" (James and Stevenson 154).
If we look beneath the theatrical trappings—the pieces of eight, the Jolly Roger, the flashing cutlasses—at the heart of Stevenson's "ideal fable" is every child's favorite story of the young adventurer who leaves home on a romantic quest for treasure, a journey full of difficulties and dangers. Like many another adolescent in literature, Jim Hawkins discovers his quest to be a psychological journey also, its most precious reward being a modest degree of self-knowledge. In traditional literature, the treasure found by the quest hero is often interpreted as symbolizing the fullness of life—wisdom, wholeness, maturity. Since the pirate treasure in Stevenson's tale is, after all, blood money, it is not surprising to find that his story conveys in symbolic terms—which even young readers can grasp—the human cost of growing up in a world where it can be very hard to tell the respectable citizens from the pirates.
But all of this makes Treasure Island sound more like some gloomy Hawthorne fable than like the splendid entertainment it is. The moment the nut brown old sailor with the tarry pigtail and the sabre scar arrives at the Admiral Ben Bow Inn, the magic of Stevenson's story takes hold, and the book becomes almost impossible to put down. The whole tale is spun out so smoothly and engagingly that it is easy to underestimate the skill with which Stevenson has adapted his storytelling technique to the specific needs of a young audience.
The choice of a retrospective narrator whose own younger self can serve as the main focalizing agent in the story is an especially shrewd stroke. The sympathies and interests of young readers are readily engaged by the young Jim Hawkins, whose perspective on events will seem very familiar. Yet the narrator, an older Jim, can plausibly supply the kind of assistance inexperienced readers need. He can establish possibilities, clarify the significance of events, illuminate motivation, define terms, hint at what is to come, and comment on what has already been told. It is largely by means of this narrator that Stevenson can, as James put it, describe "credulity with all the resources of experience" and represent "a crude stage with infinite ripeness" (James and Stevenson 131).
The manner in which Stevenson invites young readers to enter into the game of looking over Jim Hawkins's shoulder to take the measure of his experience is worth a closer look. He presents the entire story as a document written by an older, more experienced Jim Hawkins, some time after his voyage. Adult or experienced readers can come to know this narrator well enough to read some of his fallibilities back into his account of his youthful adventures. Younger readers may miss some of the nuances of this characterization, but even they will soon recognize that the young man telling the story is very different from the boy whose story is told. They may sense a certain priggishness or lack of enthusiasm for adventure in the storyteller, whose reluctance altogether to identify himself with the "born favorite" whose story he tells is pretty clear.
The younger Jim's recorded observations are often perceptive enough to make clear—even to younger readers—what is going on. When, in the first chapter, the rum-soaked old sea-farer, Billy Bones, appears at the Admiral Ben Bow Inn, Jim—and the young reader—easily see through Billy's transparent cover story. Jim is even shrewd enough to notice that the locals who shiver at Billy's dreadful stories about murder on the high seas rather enjoy the experience of being scared out of their wits.
Because Jim is presented as a sensitive boy, as well as an observant one, his dreams sometimes express an emotional understanding of situations he might not be able to analyze rationally. Jim's early nightmares about being pursued by a one-legged sailor carefully prepare the inexperienced reader for what is to come and add an interesting tension to the first scenes in which Long John Silver appears. On the other hand, young Jim's innocent reveries early in the story, his "sea dreams" of adventures to come, need to be put in perspective, and the older Jim can comment in his rueful way, "in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventures."
Sometimes the boy's emotional reactions to a person or an event will be complex and confused. At such times, Stevenson has a way of centering on some small external incident which will carry the emotional charge he wishes to convey to the young reader. Jim's wrenching discovery of what leaving home really means to him is brought out in terms any child can understand, as the narrator describes his boyish reaction to the nameless stranger who takes his place at the Admiral Ben Bow: "It was on seeing that boy that I understood for the first time, my situation. I had thought up to the moment of the adventures before me, not at all of the home I was leaving, and now at sight of this clumsy stranger, who was to stay here in my place beside my mother, I had my first attack of tears."
Stevenson explains the strangely mixed feelings young Jim has toward Billy Bones by listing some of the things that puzzled Jim about him. Billy's musical repertoire includes both rough sailor's songs and tender love ballads. The young reader is given some chilling entries from Billy's journal, detailing murder and treachery, but also is told that the "five or six curious West Indian shells" in the old pirate's sea chest set Jim to wondering about the sort of man who would carry such shells "with him in his wandering, guilty, haunted life." The descriptions of Billy's raucous carousings are quite vivid, and it is fairly clear that the strain of dealing with the obstreperous old pirate may have shortened the life of Jim's father. Yet when Billy, whose presence at the Inn Jim has betrayed to the other pirates, drops dead of an apoplexy after receiving the Black Spot, Jim is startled by the force of his own reaction to the event. The narrator explains it this way for the young reader: "It is a curious thing to understand, for I had certainly never liked the man, though of late I had begun to pity him, but as soon as I saw that he was dead, I burst into a flood of tears. It was the second death I had known, and the sorrow of the first was still fresh in my heart."
Part of the fun of reading Treasure Island comes from the way Stevenson manages his narrative so that young readers can become actively engaged in the game of solving mysteries along with the young Jim. There are a number of riddles to be solved: the meaning of the enigmatic jottings in Billy's book, the real import of the all-too-revealing letter from Squire Trelawney outlining his acquisition of ship and crew, the mysterious hints from Ben Gunn that all is not as it seems, the treasure map itself, with its instructions. In order to help the young reader play detective, Stevenson's narrator carefully refrains from telling too much, too soon.
David Daiches has commented on the brilliance with which Stevenson even manages to put the young reader "into the possession of significant information which is withheld from the chief characters—namely the knowledge of the real nature of the crew and of Long John Silver's true intentions". He does this by allowing two ingenuous characters—young Jim and the Squire—to be completely fooled by the wily Silver. But the young reader, helped by broad hints and admissions from the narrator that "Silver was too deep and too ready and too clever for me," will readily see what has happened.
Much of Treasure Island is in brilliantly handled dramatic dialogue, salty enough to convey the tang of piratical talk yet chaste enough to pass muster with the most respectable of parents. Frequently, Stevenson must find a way to clarify some point which has arisen in dialogue, beyond any possibility of misunderstanding. He often achieves this by means of a brief interjection from the narrator; sometimes he uses one of the more intelligent and reliable of the adult characters instead. For example, after Captain Smollett has heard the treasure hunters' plans, and has taken the measure of his crew, he suggests some precautions to the Squire and the Doctor concerning the bestowal of men and supplies. For the benefit of any young reader who has failed to catch the Captain's drift, Stevenson has the Doctor cut in: "In other words, you expect a mutiny."
An examination of the famous apple-barrel scene demonstrates something of Stevenson's care in conveying to inexperienced readers the full impact of an oblique adult conversation. To begin with, Stevenson cues the reader to the importance of what is going to be related; Jim says, "But good did come of the apple barrel as you shall hear, for if it had not been for all that we should have had no note of warning and might all have perished by the hand of treachery." And he points out that before he'd heard a dozen words, he had "understood that the lives of all the honest men aboard depended" upon him alone. Alerted, the reader attends to the lively dialogue in which Silver plays up to a young sailor, even as he had flattered Jim earlier on the voyage. Lest the reader should miss the delicious irony of this, Jim adds "You can imagine how I felt when I heard this abominable rogue addressing another in the very same words of flattery as he had used to myself." Throughout the scene, Stevenson shows a most attentive care for readers, defining terms, summarizing, and interpreting ambiguous remarks. And by the end of it, young readers will have a pretty clear picture of the strategies and aims of the villains. Since the action will take some swift twists and turns once the island is actually reached, this sort of preparation will be extremely useful.
Stevenson's skill at storytelling for young people is really tested in the Treasure Island sequences in the book, for children can find it difficult to follow two or more developing lines of action at the same time. The interweaving of the activities of the various parties on the island is brilliantly handled. Like a skilled film director, Stevenson provides "establishing shots" to orient the reader to the landscape whenever necessary, and frequently places the action with reference to the map he has made so central to the plot. Stevenson describes the varied terrain of the island—dazzling beaches, fetid swamps, piney woods—precisely and economically, aware that nothing can put a young reader to sleep so quickly as an over-extended descriptive passage, however "finely" written.
Stevenson was very much aware of the need to supplement children's experience of human nature. He observed once that the child "does not yet know enough of the world and of men. His experience is incomplete. That stage-wardrobe and scene-room that we call the memory is so ill-provided, that he can body out few stories, to his own content, without some external aid" Virginibus Puerisque 142).
For Stevenson, the art of characterizing the personages of romance was an art of illusion. Characterization was to be achieved by the use of vivid, suggestive details. But of course, a child audience might sometimes need a little extra help, and Stevenson had a number of artful ways of supplying it. For minor characters there is direct definition. We are told flatly of one of the sailors that he is a "hero." And when Dr. Livesey assures Jim that Captain Smollett is a better man than he, a young reader will do well to believe it. After Jim has met the decidedly odd Ben Gunn, Stevenson lets the Doctor give a medical and psychological analysis of Gunn, suggesting that if there can be any doubt in Jim's mind as to whether the man he's met is mad or sane, he's probably sane: "A man who has been three years biting his nails on a desert island, Jim, can't expect to appear as sane as you or me. It doesn't lie in human nature."
Jim only learns to interpret the behavior of his elders gradually; as each habitually acts according to his inner nature, Jim (and readers) come to recognize familiar cycles of action and response in their behavior.
Squire Trelawney jumps to conclusions, fails to see difficulties, blusters and boasts, but can be "silent and cool" in a tight spot, and is a dead shot. Doctor Livesey is a confident, forthright man, ready to face down Billy Bones and to deal with Silver, but willing to tend his enemies when they are sick, even if it's only to save them for the gallows. Only Long John Silver really remains something of an enigma, and that because of the imagination, energy, and cunning that give him many faces, many voices.
Stevenson is famous for his trick of letting the external appearance of a character reveal his nature. Thus Jim describes the welcome sight of the sprightly Dr. Livesey at the Admiral Ben Bow: "I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder white as snow, and his bright black eyes and pleasant manners made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting far gone in rum, with his arms on the table." Stevenson's use of physical deformity to signal moral limitation in his characters may give some modern readers pause, but it is clear from the first that the infirmities of the pirates—from Billy Bones's scar and his alcoholism to the wounds of Pew and Silver—are meant to be souvenirs of their desperate adventures on the high seas, and so to be the natural outward manifestations of their inward natures. That each is pitiably marked and hurt, yet also terrifying, conveys marvelously the special perspective on evil this story offers. What you do, here, materially affects what you become. And evil, though appallingly costly to the evildoer, can also bring a momentary advantage: the power of utter ruthlessness. Silver's swift hurling of his crutch as a weapon graphically demonstrates the error of the brave man who turns his back on the rascal. And Blind Pew's voice alone is enough to compel Jim's obedience: "I never heard a voice so cruel and cold and ugly as that blind man's. It cowed me more than the pain . . ."
The narrative perspective announced on the first page of Treasure Island assures child readers that the protagonist and his two best friends will survive all the perils to be related. And though the story includes a great deal of violent action, it is handled with surprising tact. Violent deeds are often mentioned, but not always described in any detail. Billy Bones tells dreadful stories, but we never hear them. Silver may threaten to strangle the Squire and Pew to put Jim's eyes out, but these remain empty words.
In fact, Jim seems to lead a charmed life. When the pirates attack the Admiral Ben Bow it is only after Jim and his mother have slipped out. When Jim witnesses violent acts, it is usually from a safe distance. He is hidden in some bushes when Pew is trampled down, as he is again, on the island, when he witnesses Silver's murder of a faithful hand. When the attack on the stockade would seem to confront Jim with a situation in which he must kill or be killed, he very conveniently trips and rolls down a soft sandbank to safety, and when he regains his footing, "in this breath of time, the fight was over."
Jim's shooting of Israel Hands is similarly managed by Stevenson so as to minimize the boy's responsibility. Pursued by the murderous Hands, Jim climbs the mast of the Hispaniola. Hands pretends to offer him a deal, but suddenly throws a dagger which pins Jim's shoulder to the mast. In the surprise and pain of the moment, both of Jim's pistols go off, and without Jim's "volition" or "conscious aim," Hands is shot. The shooting becomes a matter of reflex action, and in a sense, Hands is made to bear the primary responsibility for his own death.
The island the treasure seekers were so eager to explore turns out to be a poisonous, disease ridden place, full of unpleasant surprises. Young children will not immediately see the island as an image of the protagonist's own state of mind, but that it is a sick, nightmarish landscape in which opposing parties of shifting loyalties wage deadly warfare will be clear enough. Stevenson may have moderated the violence of his story a bit out of consideration for his readers' nerves, but he played fair where it counts. For the thematic development of Treasure Island explores troubling problems of conscience. And though Stevenson was working within a literary form which more or less demanded a "happy ending" with a clear-cut resolution, he found a number of ways to signal even to his younger readers his misgivings about the values that make for success in the world in which Jim Hawkins comes to man's estate.
Stevenson's fascination with divided natures and conflicting impulses is well known. His strategy for depicting this sort of character in his adult fiction is to give his protagonist a "double," who represents some set of impulses or appetites which, if uncontrolled, can cause disaster. Frequently for such a protagonist, disintegration of the personality and loss of identity become the penalties of a failure to maintain the balance of a divided nature.
In Stevenson's adventure novels for children, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, and the David Balfour stories, he chooses a symbolic method more appropriate to his audience, for whom it is natural enough to look toward parents as role-models. Each of Stevenson's young protagonists loses his natural father early in his story, and goes on to encounter a series of alternative father figures who function as potential doubles, future selves, suggestions of the kind of man a child might become, given certain moral choices. If the youngster chooses carefully, he may find a way to live which will allow him to keep his moral balance and live at peace with himself. But given the nature of this world as Stevenson sees it, such a choice is likely to be expensive.
Jim Hawkins has been brought up to be a decent, law-abiding boy. But in what happens to his meek and unresisting father he plainly reads an important lesson for himself. In the other older men he meets, he sees an inclination to bold action which finds an echo in his own nature. Jim's curious reaction to the death of Billy Bones may be our first broad hint that Jim himself harbors certain buccaneer qualities. But an alert reader will notice the ease with which Jim betrays Billy to his pursuers, will catch Jim's impatience with his mother's "honesty and her greed . . . her past fool-hardiness and present weakness," will see that it is Jim who advises her to take all of Bones's possessions in settlement of the pirate's debt, and that when the two of them are interrupted rifling the old man's sea chest, it is Jim who snatches the treasure map to square the account.
The formidable Captain Smollett, chief exponent of self-discipline and devotion to "dooty" in the book, is clearly the sort of man who becomes for others a model of right conduct. Perhaps significantly he is the one indispensible man on Treasure Island: the only person who is capable of navigating the ship on its return to "civilization." Jim admires the Captain, but resents being ordered to work because the Captain will "have no favorites" aboard his ship. The Captain's principles are not only uncomfortable for his party at times, but sometimes downright dangerous. Stevenson slyly underlines this when the Captain's insistence on flying his country's flag only helps the pirates to find the range of the blockhouse when they want to lob a few cannon balls at it. Fortunately for his companions, the Captain, who acts as a sort of conventional conscience for the group, is early disabled in a fight with the pirates. Once this severe moralist is sidelined, Jim feels freer to act on impulse, and Dr. Livesey begins to make some interesting deals with the pirates. Late in the book, Captain Smollett, who is "stiff on discipline" and disapproves very severely of Jim's methods, make it clear that, for him, how you play the game is more important than whether you win: "You're a good boy in your line, Jim, but I don't think you and me'll go to sea again. You've too much of the born favorite for me!"
Jim admires and respects Dr. Livesey, who is clever and cool in dealing with Billy Bones. Livesey prides himself on his ability to make difficult decisions quickly and to stand by them resolutely. He accepts Captain Smollett's code of honor to the extent that he blames Jim for deserting his duty, and calls him a coward. He tells Jim he'd done his best to protect the interests of those who stood their duty, and pointedly asks: "If you were not one of those, whose fault was it?" Yet Livesey's harsh view of Jim's conduct is not incompatible with his telling Jim that finding Ben Gunn was the best deed he ever did. When Jim agrees with the Doctor that he shouldn't have deserted, and says he deserves to die and fears only that the pirates will torture him, Dr. Livesey is moved to suggest that Jim break his word of honor to Silver and make a run for his freedom. Interestingly enough, the Doctor's impulse to save life, whether Jim's or the pirates' when they are ill, puts him several times at risk. It is clear enough to the narrator of the story that the only reason the Doctor is not killed by the pirates when he comes to tend them is that Silver has the imagination and insight to see that he will behave according to his principles as a medical man and a gentleman.
Though Jim reveres Captain Smollett and admires Dr. Livesey, the adult in the story he most resembles is that resolute player of a lone hand, Long John Silver. The charming but utterly amoral Silver, like Billy Bones, arouses mixed feelings in Jim. As Jim first imagines him, the one-legged seaman he's been warned about is a nightmare figure "with a thousand diabolical expressions." Yet the affable sea-cook easily charms Jim. After Silver's treachery has become clear, Jim is appalled at his former favorite's capacity for evil: "I had taken such a horror of his cruelty, duplicity, and power, that I could scarce conceal a shudder when he laid his hand on my arm." But Long John's wit, audacity, and vigor continue to have a strange appeal. And as Jim's own exploits begin to demand some of the very qualities epitomized in Silver, Jim becomes unwilling to judge the pirate too harshly. Late in the story, when Jim has deserted his mates, stolen the ship, and killed Israel Hands, he stumbles into Silver's camp by accident, and the old rascal welcomes him warmly as "a lad of spirit and the picter of my own self when I was young and handsome." His own conscience a bit uneasy, Jim begins to feel sorry for Silver as the tide of events turns against him. Jim says, "My heart was sore for him, wicked as he was, to think on the dark perils that environed and the shameful gibbet that awaited him." Of course, as matters turn out, the resourceful Silver emerges from his difficulties wealthy and safe, while Jim is left to his nightmares and to whatever release and enlightenment he can find in setting down the story of his adventures as his friends have requested.
Though consciously a dutiful and law-abiding boy, "a gentleman born," Jim Hawkins, like Dick Shelton of The Black Arrow and the David Balfour of Catriona, discovers in himself a frightening capacity for the sort of violent and ruthless action which his world appears to demand of those who would contest for its prizes. When the treasure he sought has been successfully won and the goal of his quest achieved, what Jim finds in that sandy cave is soberly, even grimly, described: "That was Flint's treasure that we had come so far to seek and that had cost already the lives of seventeen men from the Hispaniola. How many it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow, what good ships scuttled on the deep, what brave men walking the plank blindfold, what shot of cannon, what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell."
Jim wants this treasure, and will receive "an ample share" of it. But he clearly dreads to become the kind of man who would feel quite comfortable with it. The moral dilemma presented by a world in which it seems impossible to succeed without becoming the sort of person you don't want to be is conveyed here not only through the use of a set of very flawed adult role models for Jim, and through the deadly imagery associated with the island and its guilt-tainted treasure, but also through Stevenson's creation of a world of romance, where luck favors, not the simple-hearted and generous, but the lad with his eye on the main chance.
While the world of romance tolerates a good deal of improbability, it is usually enlisted in support of the principle that the moral nature of an action should be made clear by its results. Here, as Captain Smollett and Doctor Livesey point out, when Jim forgets "dooty" he does surprisingly well for himself; and when he tries to do what the Captain would approve and behave like a gentleman, he very nearly gets killed. Still, while luck, fortune, what Dr. Livesey calls "fate," seems to support with its blessings a cool opportunism, Treasure Island is not a Golding-like fable of moral depravity. The authoritative voice of the narrator throughout the novel is raised in praise of duty and virtue. He regrets having broken the rules, even when following them might have led to disaster.
Furthermore, the Christian tradition in which Jim has been raised, is powerfully invoked to raise the possibility that the rewards and punishments of another world may balance the score for those fate does not treat according to their desert here and now. Stevenson's use of providential coincidence in support of opportunism, his willingness to resign final judgment to the hereafter, his narrator's readiness to offer regretful apologies for transgressions fortunate in their outcome, all lend the story a haunting moral ambiguity likely to be felt keenly by younger readers whose expectations of certainty are systematically defeated by the mixed signals the storyteller sends them.
As Long John Silver slips out of the story to wealth and freedom, a good deal of the vitality and excitement of the tale go with him. Jim Hawkins, like Dick Shelton and David Balfour, chooses to reject the life of active struggle for life's prizes. Jim says: "Oxen and wainropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island." The novel ends on a sobering note as the appealingly natural and impulsive boy with whom young readers have been encouraged to identify themselves stiffens into the older, wiser man who tells the story. Stevenson's genius as a storyteller for children is never more apparent than in Treasure Island. It goes far beyond his ability to catch children's interest, hold it, and satisfy their desire for the picturesque and extraordinary. It even goes beyond the superb technique with which he meets the needs of his readers at every turn. It rests, finally, in the subtlety with which he manages to make available to young readers a complex and ambiguous vision of experience, honestly rendered.
Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions Books, 1947.
James, Henry and Robert Louis Stevenson. Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record of Friendship and Criticism. Ed. Janet Adam Smith. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1948.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.
——. Virginibus Puerisque and Memories and Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4661
SOURCE: "Treasure Island as a Late-Victorian Adults' Novel," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 72, Fall, 1987, pp. 28-32.
[In the following essay, Jackson discusses "the [Victorian] romance revival's ideological motivation for appropriating the conventions of children's literature," and argues that Treasure Island reveals a conservative ideological agenda, despite Stevenson's theory of romantic fiction as "a value-free field for harmless imaginative play.]
Two years after the publication of his extremely popular King Solomon's Mines (1885), H. Rider Haggard launched a moral attack on French naturalism: "Lewd, and bold, and bare . . . the heroines of realism dance, with Bacchanalian revellings, across the astonished stage of literature". Haggard's essay, "About Fiction" (1887), typifies the conservative ethos of the revival of romantic fiction led by him and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson, the focus of my essay, is the subtler moralist and more influential figure, but Haggard offers us a direct route to the ideology of what we will call the romance revival.1
Haggard discerns three strains of fiction in the 1880's: American naturalism, French naturalism, and English realism. Each, he writes, is at a dead end: American naturalism is a "laboured nothingness," French naturalism "an obscene photograph taken from the life," and English realism "namby pamby nonsense" Like all members of the romance revival, Haggard wants literature to have a morally salutary influence on society. The three varieties of realism he attacks, however, "lower and vitiate the public taste". The age, he says, is low enough without having literary realism drag it any farther down and he therefore calls for a new fiction, one that reaffirms such traditional values as valor, duty, and manliness.
Haggard's argument is not only moral but also aesthetic. The romantic fiction he advocates would, he claims, have a good influence on society and it would make for better works of literary art: "This age is not a romantic age. . . . neither our good nor our evil doing is of an heroic nature, and it is things heroic and their kin and not petty things that best lend themselves to the purposes of the novelist, for by their aid he produces his best effects". The notion that romantic adventure is the ideal subject for fiction runs through arguments in behalf of the romance revival.2
Because the romance revival was a conservative literary response to the ideological crisis of late-Victorian England, the reception of Treasure Island must be understood in relation to the horizon of literary and moral expectations shared by Haggard, Stevenson, and their many middle-class readers. The romance movement distrusted scientism and deliberately idealized life. We can contrast it to the various realistic movements (in America, France, and England) which welcomed nineteenth-century advances in social and natural science and aimed to tell the unvarnished truth about the human condition. The leaders of this progressive movement included Emile Zola, William Dean Howells, and George Gissing.
Of the two movements, it was the conservative that seized the imagination of readers in 1883. The British reading public welcomed the cultural nostalgia for traditional values that they saw embodied in Treasure Island (1883), King Solomon's Mines (1885), and Kidnapped (1886). They also welcomed something which has become an interpretive and evaluative problem for current critics, the fact that these and virtually all leading texts of the romance revival were "boys books" of adventure.3 Although recent critics of the movement like Robert Kiely and Edwin Eigner have not known how to discuss this central feature of the romance revival, the solution is offered by a reception-based approach to the movement.4 A reception-based approach reveals the romance revival's ideological motivation for appropriating the conventions of children's literature.
Like the other 1880's romance writers, Stevenson sought and attracted a dual audience of boys and adults. His strategic advantage in appealing to adults through a beautifully-crafted "boys' book" was that the reader's attention could be deflected from such "adult" concerns as social values and class relations. Stevenson's theory of romantic fiction for boy-adults envisions the romance as a value-free field for harmless imaginative play. However, his practice reveals an ideological agenda as conservative as, and more effective than, that of Haggard, Hall Caine, and others who explicitly stated the values and goals of the romance revival.
To uncover Stevenson's conservative ideology, we must resist Treasure Island's narrative seductiveness. Despite Stevenson's claims that his early romances are amoral and ahistorical, Treasure Island is a simplified account of eighteenth-century hierarchical society which Stevenson combines with the reader's personal nostalgia for his or her own childhood. This clever melding of two different nostalgias offers the reader imaginative escape from late-Victorian anxiety at the same time that it celebrates a reactionary and hierarchical social order.
Stevenson's theory of fiction is laid out in a series of essays of the 1880's, most importantly "A Gossip on Romance" (1882) and "A Humble Remonstrance" (1884). Stevenson's a program sets out to do no more than depict "the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure" (Stevenson 12: 200). Its desired effect on the adult reader is to have him or her "consciously play at being the [child] hero" (12: 200). "Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child" (12: 201), he writes, with no apology for what was even then criticized by realists as a frivolous proposal.
Stevenson describes his concept of "child's play" in an essay of that name (1878), in which child's play is seen as a crude and literal-minded imitation of adult behavior. Children act not out of conscious admiration of what they imitate, but from a lack of imagination. In Stevenson's view, they inhabit a world of "dim sensation" (2: 177); they are surrounded by an adult world which they perceive as "dread irrationality" (2: 181). Most importantly, children are incapable of higher moral thought; they do not understand the abstract reasons for good conduct and need corporal punishment to learn right behavior: "There is nothing in their own tastes and purposes to teach them what we mean by abstract truthfulness" (2: 182). As we will see, this analysis of child behavior is put to work in Stevenson's depiction of the pirates in Treasure Island as bad boys.
Stevenson is able to conjure with childhood by virtue of his ability to recreate such seductive aspects of juvenile experience as daydream. His technique for getting adults to play at being children is to evoke memories of childhood and to induce the state of childhood daydreaming. For Stevenson, romantic narrative should "satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and . . . obey the ideal laws of the day-dream" (12: 192). At its best, romance can have a seductive pull on the reader's mind. If the seduction succeeds, the reader escapes the dreary world view of the time, a world view reflected in naturalist novels which emphasize, in Stevenson's words, the "mud and iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget" (12: 261).
Stevenson's ideological appropriation of childhood and children's literature conventions achieves its height in Treasure Island. The rigid social hierarchy which dominates the world of Treasure Island can be approached first in relation to setting and then in two less obvious but quite rewarding ways. First, the romance's5 social philosophy is revealed in Stevenson's ideological use of "childhood." Second, certain aspects of the romance's rhetoric reinforce the scheme of class relations. In particular, Stevenson plays rhetorically with different class pronunciations of the key ideological code word of the novel, "duty."
Let us begin by considering Treasure Island's idealized eighteenth-century setting. The romances's two chief settings, the English countryside and a sea voyage, if anything emphasize the hierarchical and class-biased structure of eighteenth-century social life. The rural setting is centered in the Hall, with its Celtic-named retainers like Tom Redruth, which is headed by Squire Trelawney. The Hall functions as the Olympus of the romance: "the white line of the Hall buildings looked on either hand on great old gardens" (5: 56). The sea setting is centered in the ship, the Hispaniola, which is headed by Captain Smollett.
In both settings the premium virtue is duty-unquestioning loyalty to the hierarchy which the authority figure heads. As we will see, Stevenson casts authority figures as "adults," and those who are lower-class or have rebelled against authority as "children." The chief authority figure in the romance, Squire Trelawney, is deferred to as owner (of the Hispaniola) even by the imperious Smollett. Squire Trelawney may be a comic figure, but his buffoonery has no subversive force since the world of the romance has such firm and conservative social values.
Treasure Island's hierarchical class structure is accompanied by a pronounced class bias. The adult Jim's narration occasionally betrays a telling snobbism. Early in the romance, for example, Jim unfavorably compares the rural people who live near the Admiral Benbow with the upper-class Dr. Livesey: "I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow, and his bright, black eyes, made with the coltish country folk . . ." (5: 17). Class consciousness also affects characterization: Long John Silver's extraordinary personal qualities are overlooked by Ben Gunn when he explains to Jim how Silver gained ascendancy over the vicious pirate captain, Flint: "Flint . . . was afraid of none, not he; on'y Silver—Silver was that genteel" (5: 166; emphasis mine). Surprisingly, Silver's resourcefulness, ferocity, and courage are not as potent in the world of the romance as his mock gentility.
Seen from a class-biased viewpoint, Long John Silver is typical of the characters of Treasure Island. Jim-the-narrator describes all of the lower-class characters of the novel as childish; he likens the dutiful servants from the Hall and the loyal sailors to "good children." Only the Squire, the Captain, and the Doctor (who is also a magistrate) are presented as adults: stern adults to the novel's "bad children," loving adults to the novel's "good children."
Stevenson's ideological use of childhood and adulthood can be analyzed with reference to Philippe Aries' landmark study, Centuries of Childhood (1962). As Aries explains, throughout much of history childhood has functioned as a social rather than biological category, and subservient people have been treated and addressed as children (26). Stevenson, by equating rebellious lower-class characters with bad children, implicitly affirms a hierarchical view of society that his conservative reading audience would have found comforting.
The pirates, despite being chronological adults, fall decisively into the category of "bad children." The Squire's retainers and the loyal members of the ship's crew are "good children." However, the categories are not always fixed; a character's behavior may cause him temporarily to change classification. When Dr. Livesey abandons his post at the stockade, for example, he becomes a "bad child" and is reprimanded by the unwaveringly adult Captain Smollett.
Dr. Livesey most obviously plays the role of stern and good adult when, in chapter thirty, he visits the pirates at the stockade to treat their malaria. The doctor employs the same clam, offhand manner that he used at the beginning of the narrative in humiliating Billy Bones, the pirate who had commandeered the Admiral Benbow Inn. The pirates generally become docile when Livesey puts on a paternal, professional manner. They take Livesey's medicine "with really laughable humility, more like charity school-children than blood-guilty mutineers and pirates" (5: 275; emphasis mine).
Perhaps the best example of an obedient lower-class character who functions as a "good boy" is Abraham Gray, the vacillating mutineer Smollett talks into joining the lawful side when they abandon the Hispaniola. "Gray . . . I am leaving this ship, and I order you to follow your captain. . . . I have my watch here in my hand; I give you thirty seconds to join me in" (5: 151). The tone is paternal and the response groveling: "out burst Abraham Gray with a knife-cut on the side of the cheek, and came running to the captain, like a dog to the whistle" (5: 151). A second "good boy" is red-faced Tom, "one of the honest hands" (5: 128). Silver tries to convert Tom to the mutineers' side. But when Tom resists, his virtue is solely a function of his firm sense of duty. "If I die like a dog, I'll die in my dooty," Tom declares, and then is brutally murdered by Silver (5: 129).
The worst of the "bad children" are the unrepentant pirates. Throughout the story they behave irresponsibly, squandering their resources and acting only on impulse. Jim comments in chapter thirty-one on their prodigality with food: "I never in my life saw men so careless of the morrow. . . . Even Silver . . . had not a word of blame for their recklessness" (5: 283). The pirates show the same imprudence in picking their campsite: "The doctor staked his wig that, camped where they were in the marsh, and unprovided with remedies, the half of them would be on their backs before a week" (5: 173).
Silver, as the novel's "bad boy"par excellence, invites analysis in terms of "Child's Play." Silver is incapable of truthfulness—either of executing or of valuing it—and he succeeds only through his clever imitation of "adult" behavior and values. The key to his power is language: he has mastered some of the speech patterns and, more importantly, the ideological code words of the Squire and his lieutenants. This gives him authority in both the "adult" and "child" societies of Treasure Island. As one of the mutineers says to Jim Hawkins in explaining Silver's appeal to the buccaneers: "[Silver's] no common man. . . . He had good schooling in his young days, and can speak like a book when so minded" (5: 93).
The word with which Silver most frequently and effectively conjures is the name of the ultimate value in the adult world of Treasure Island—duty. Duty cements the social structure of the romance, giving it the ideological rigidity which was so appealing to Stevenson's audience. Smollett, the perfect servant of the Squire and of the feudal hierarchy the Squire heads, introduces himself to his ship's owner by saying simply, "You'll find I do my duty" (5: 87). When Tom Redruth, the Squire's gamekeeper, is fatally wounded by one of the pirates, Smollett intones, "All's well with him; no fear for a hand that's been shot down in his duty to captain and owner. It mayn't be good divinity, but it's a fact" (5: 162). "Owner" here of course refers to the owner of the ship, but the feudal overtones are unmistakable. They are made even more audible by Redruth's dying words. When Trelawney asks Redruth to forgive him for taking him to the tropics to die, Redruth responds, "Would that be respectful like, from me to you, squire? Howsoever, so be it, amen!" (5: 161).
As a "good child," Redruth instinctively understands the meaning of duty, even though he never uses the word and gives no evidence of ever consciously thinking about it. Silver, on the other hand, uses the word constantly, or at least tries to. In his lower-class mouth, however, the word comes out as "dooty." The orthographic difference reflects the class distinction that in part prevents Silver from being what his gifts qualify him for—a recognized leader. Silver daydreams that he will one day become a member of Parliament, but in fact he is never more than the leader of a mutiny. And even as a pirate captain, he is unrecognized and denied his title by Smollett and the other true authority figures.
Like Smollett, to whom he is deliberately contrasted, Silver introduces himself with the ideological code word in his mouth: "dooty is dooty," he says (5: 79). When the pirates try to depose Silver, their first recourse is to steal his magic word. They will follow the "rules" to dethrone a pirate chief, "as in dooty bound" (5: 265). When, at the end of the narrative, all of Silver's plans have failed, he returns obsequiously to the ruling camp, announcing to Smollett, "Come back to do my dooty, sir" (5: 309).
The adult characters mock Silver's invocation of an ideal of which he is ignorant. When Livesey, out of loyalty to his profession, comes into the pirate camp to treat the malarial buccaneers, he drily remarks, "duty first and pleasure afterward, as you might have said yourself, Silver" (5: 273). Livesey's irony is well-placed, as we see when at the novel's end Silver remonstrates with Livesey for giving medical treatment to his enemies, the pirates. Silver cannot grasp loyalty to anything larger than self-interest. Livesey, whose purpose is only to keep the mutineers alive so that they may be properly hanged by the authorities back home, despairs of enlarging Silver's childish point of view.
Livesey's condescension to Silver, who is the far more appealing and memorable character, would have been reassuring to Stevenson's first readers. This conservative, middle-class audience was prepared to be amused by Silver's mutiny, but they did not care to see him rise to the full height of his potency. Depicting him as a child, as childhood is conceived in "Child's Play," enables Stevenson to give his readers a lovable lower-class rogue who can never endanger the prevailing social order.
There is ample testimony that Treasure Island succeeded in captivating adult readers. Various documents, from personal letters to book reviews, show that the romance fulfilled the program Stevenson set out in "A Humble Remonstrance" and "A Gossip on Romance." Many readers of 1883 empathized with the boy-hero and were seductively drawn into the romance's simple view of conservative social hierarchy.
A surprising admirer of Stevenson's romantic art is the premier Anglo-American realist of the period, Henry James. In a noteworthy essay on Stevenson (1888), James analyzes the appeal of Treasure Island to the dual audience of men and boys: Treasure Island, he writes, "fascinate[s] the mind weary of experience" by giving readers the perspective of "the young reader himself and his state of mind: we seem to read it over his shoulder, with an arm around his neck" (Smith 154). James finds an apt way of describing Stevenson's appropriation of the conventions of children's adventure: "In a word, he is an artist accomplished even to sophistication, whose constant theme is the unsophisticated" (Smith 132).
We would not expect James-the-critic to stray farther from formalism than the nearer shores of psychology. However, several of his remarks on Stevenson's relation and appeal to his time are revealing. James characterizes the world of 1888 as a time when traditional values and systems of explanation were being questioned. He then presents Stevenson's theory of romance in relation to the times: "He [Stevenson] would say we ought to make believe that the extraordinary is the best part of life, even if it were not, and to do so because the finest feelings—suspense, daring, decision, passion, curiosity, gallantry, eloquence, friendship—were involved in it, and it is of infinite importance that these precious things should not perish" (Smith 152). Himself no radical or even progressive (his cool review of Nana makes an interesting contrast with this and other warm writings on Stevenson), James here shows his sympathy with the conservative ideology of Treasure Island.
James's article (he calls it a "literary portrait") appeared five years after the publication of Treasure Island, but we can see in reviews from 1883 and 1884 the same receptivity to Stevenson's melding of the adult and child audience. An unsigned review in the Academy, for example, notes that Treasure Island "fascinate[s] the old boy as well as the young," adding that the adult reader "can scarcely fail to share in the anticipations of Jim Hawkins" if he is "a lover of perilous adventures and thrilling situation" (Maixner 129). Writing in the Saturday Review, W. E. Henley attests even more strongly to Stevenson's success in addressing his dual audience: "Primarily it is a book for boys, with a boy hero and a string of wonderful adventures. But it is a book for boys that will be delightful for all grown men who have the sentiment of treasure-hunting and are touched with the true spirit of the Spanish Main" (Maixner 132).
A number of reviewers go even farther, saying that the romance is more likely to appeal to adult than boy readers. Boys, Arthur John Butler speculates in the Athenaeum, will be put off by the violation of poetic justice when Silver escapes at the end (Maixner 130). The anonymous reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette puts the question even more directly: "will 'Treasure Island' be as popular with boys as it is sure to be with men who retain something of the boy?" (Maixner 138). (The evidence suggests that it was not.) This reviewer also testifies to the powerful impact the romance had on him as a reader: "A book for boys which can keep hardened and elderly reviewers in a state of pleasing excitement and attention is evidently no common Christmas book" (Maixner 138).7
This review ends with a blunt suggestion that Stevenson now turn his hand to "a novel for men and women" (Maixner 139). It was to be five years before Stevenson published The Master of Ballantrae (1888), his first full-length romance exclusively for and about adults. He would write two more excellent "boys' books" before then, Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888). Stevenson's own view of the world had to change before he could release the Charming Rogue, his favorite character type, from the nursery. Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart can, as charismatic bad boys, be safely sup-pressed by the dullest and least potent authority figures. Given that all of the romances for children center in a quest for conventional, middle-class adult identity, it is important to restrain lovably evil figures.8
In the romances for adults, however, Stevenson is willing to let his charismatic villains, from James Durie (The Master of Ballantrae) to William John Attwater (The Ebb-Tide: A Trio & Quartette), honestly challenge the guardians of bourgeois social order. In every case the result (adumbrated by the 1885 short novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is the destruction of conventional authority and, more importantly, the destruction of the bourgeois ideal of a respectable public self. Generally, the representative bourgeois figure, the equivalent to Dr. Livesey and Mr. Rankeillor (Kidnapped), is shown to be unloved, neurotic, and ineffectual (e.g., Henry Durie in The Master of Ballantrae).
Stevenson died a confirmed critic of the conventional social order he had affirmed in the early romances of children. (His last two completed romances, The Beach of Falesa and The Ebb-Tide: A Trio & Quartette, are psychological and moral attacks on empire.) He was, as David Thorburn and others have pointed out, the true and central forerunner of the early Conrad.9 This is the great untold story in Stevenson criticism and also in the history of late-Victorian/early-modern literature. My essay has related another untold story, one, paradoxically, about works (Treasure Island and Kidnapped) among the best-known in our language.
I have shown that Treasure Island can be taken neither at face value nor simply as Stevenson asks in his theory of romance. Treasure Island's remarkable reception can be understood only by looking beyond the work's fine surface (admired by Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino in addition to Henry James). Underlying the narrative sheen is a reactionary ideological agenda perfectly in keeping with the crude pronouncements of Haggard, Hall Caine, and Stevenson's other colleagues in the romance revival. Their part was baldly to state what the movement was about. Stevenson's part was to embody the romance agenda, but to embody it so artfully that many critics and literary historians have missed it altogether. 10
1 There are a number of historical studies of the movement and its conflict with realism. See especially Graham, 62-69; Stone, 50-55; and Lionel. Stevenson, 407-410. Volume 4 of René Wellek's History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 is unhelpful on romance but very useful on naturalism and realism (14-20, 213-237). A valuable collection of 1880's novel criticism was edited by John Charles Olmsted in 1979.
2 George Saintsbury'e essay, "The Present State of the Novel" (1887), presents a typical argument. "Unfortunately [he writes], most of our best proved writers continue to write the novel and not the romance. . . . They we do not . . . get the best things" (417). What makes romances the "best things" is that, unlike novels of manners, their subject matter is universal and unchanging: "But the incidents, and the broad and poetic features of character on which romance relies, are not matters which change at all" (415).
3 "Serious" critics of the 1880's were also troubled by the "boys' book" premise, as Andrew Lang testifies: "The flutter in the dovecots of culture caused by three or four boys' books is amazing. Culture is saddened at discovering that not only boys and illiterate people, but even critics not wholly illiterate, can be moved by a tale of adventure" (689).
4 Kiely, ignoring evidence that Stevenson saw childhood as the first step in a process of maturation, accuses the author of clinging to a "golden" illusion of childhood (54-55). Eigner, on the other hand, misreads Stevenson's boy-heroes as adults paralyzed by indecision (66).
5 True to Stevenson's practice in his criticism, I will refer to his works of long prose fiction as "romances" rather than "novels."
6 Robert Leighton, who later edited Young Folks (the magazine in which Treasure Island appeared), testified that the work "as a serial [was] a comparative failure." Not only did it fail to raise circulation, but the magazine received a number of letters complaining about Treasure Island (Swearingen 66).
7 James makes a similar point about Kidnapped when he writes, "There would have been a kind of perverse humility in his keeping up the fiction that a production so literary as Kidnapped is addressed to immature minds" (Smith 157).
8 My dissertation, "Robert Louis Stevenson and the Romance of Boyhood" (Columbia U, 1981), develops at length the quest for adult identity which unifies Stevenson's romances for children.
9 In a typical passage, Thorburn points out that "the critics of our time have tended to ignore or at best minimize what Conrad's reviewers understood to be crucial: that the author of Lord Jim had a great deal in common with Robert Louis Stevenson" (5). Thorburn is, I believe, the only published critic to draw explicit connections between the later, little-known Stevenson and the Conrad of Heart of Darkness: "the escapist elements in Stevenson's work are far from dominant in his later books, several of which anticipate with distinction Conrad's treatment of similar characters and themes" (25). In a footnote to this passage, Thorburn singles out The Ebb-Tide, "a dark fable of human weakness . . . that has not received its due even from Stevenson's sympathetic critics" (25).
10 A book-length manuscript on Stevenson I am currently preparing places his entire career as a romance writer in historical context by focussing, as the present essay has done, on the original reception of his work.
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
Caine, Hall. "The New Watchwords of Fiction." Contemporary Review 51 (1887): 172-80.
Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.
Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.
Graham, Kenneth. English Criticism of the Novel: 1865-1900. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.
Haggard, H. Rider. "About Fiction." Contemporary Review 51 (1887): 172-80.
Jackson, David H. "Robert Louis Stevenson and the Romance of Boyhood." Diss. Columbia U, 1981.
James, Henry. "Nana." The Parisian 48 (1880): 9.
Kiely, Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.
Maixner, Paul, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
Olmsted, John Charles. A Victorian Art of Fiction: Essays on the Novel in British Periodicals, 1870-1900. New York: Garland, 1979.
Saintsbury, George, "The Present State of the Novel," The Fortnightly Review 48 (n.s. 42) (1887): 410-417.
Smith, Janet Adam. Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record of Friendship and Criticism. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1948.
Stevenson, Lionel. The English Novel: A Panorama. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1960.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson: Vailima Edition. Ed. Lloyd Osbourne. 26 vols. London: William Heinemann, 1922.
Stone, Donald David. Novelists in a Changing World: Meredith, James and the Transformation of English Fiction in the 1880's. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.
Swearingen, Roger G. The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1980.
Thorburn, David. Conrad's Romanticism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.
Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 4. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6233
SOURCE: "Youth on the Prow: The First Publication of Treasure Island," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXV, 1990, pp. 83-99.
[In the following essay, Angus considers the additions and editorial changes that Stevenson made to the text of Treasure Island following its initial serial publication.]
Between October 1, 1881, and January 28, 1882, there appeared in the Victorian children's magazine Young Folks, mostly placed near the middle or end of each number, a serial story entitled Treasure Island, or The Mutiny of the Hispaniola. By Captain George North. Thus did Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist, make his first unobtrusive appearance before the public eye.
The young folks in question (that segment of the public eye that first looked upon Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist) were neither entertained nor amused, and said so. The development of the tale was for them too slow, too deliberate, and lacking the right spice of constant hectic action.
The editor, James Henderson (he had already rescued the story from its disastrous original title, The Sea-Cook), spared it a single woodcut illustration and an initial vignette on its first appearance, but after that he did not trouble his artists with it. Henderson thought of Treasure Island as an unrewarding "passenger" (i.e., space-filler). It was not until it reached the adult reading public in November 1883 in book form that the tale took flight, artistically and commercially.
In The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide, Roger G. Swearingen has pointed out that "Stevenson made numerous changes, deletions and revisions in the (Young Folks) text for its publication in book form. . . . the book form edition was set from his revised original manuscript. . . ." 1
Swearingen does not indicate how numerous these changes were. In fact there are about 250 alterations to the original printed text, of varying degrees of importance. Nor does he attempt to classify these in any detail, though they can be so classified under some twenty different headings. He is, however, fully justified in these omissions, for the subject of the effect of Stevenson's alterations requires an article to itself—perhaps more than one. I hope that what follows will convince the reader that this is so.
A first reading of the Young Folks text (and the reader must be prepared for very large pages of very small print in four columns, 148 lines of print to each unillustrated complete column) involves us in a number of surprises, some pleasant, some less so. For instance, the sea-lions flopping about the shores of Treasure Island turn out, disappointingly, to have been mere seals in the original.
Jim (or Stevenson), in the early version, has no sense of direction and constantly gets his compass bearings muddled. Nor can Jim recall where Captain Flint (the pirate) died. Sometimes it is Palm Key; sometimes Key West; sometimes Port Royal. (Stevenson settled in the book for Savannah). The other Captain Flint (Long John Silver's parrot) turns out to have been a hen—"preening her green coat"!2
Then there are unexpected bits of personalia in the first text. When Jim Hawkins is counting the treasure at the end, he includes coins he calls "Lewises." The French coin was, of course, a Louis. Lewis was one of Stevenson's given names, later altered to Louis, and the Christian name used by his friends. We note too that the ballad-book, to which Long John Silver favorably compares a Bible in Chapter XXIX of the book, was originally a play-book. Did little Louis turn to his model theatre one Sabbath and get caught? How many of the touches of piety in the book version were retrospective sops to Mrs. Thomas Stevenson, perhaps shocked by the conspicuous lack of them in the original? Such touches there certainly are:
When Captain Billy Bones, on sight of Black Dog, has "the look of a man who sees a ghost," Stevenson adds in the book "or the Evil One."3 When, in the same chapter, Dr. Livesey forecasts that Billy Bones will die unless he gives up rum, he solemnly adds, in his warning to Bones, "die and go to your own place, like the man in the Bible."4 Even Long John Silver, reprobate though he be, is thus affected. In Chapter X of the book he says of his parrot, "if anybody's seen more wickedness, it must be the Devil himself."5 Originally, and weakly, he merely had said "I don't know who he is."6 And in the next chapter, talking to other pirates, not Jim, Silver's "and spilin' my little game"7 becomes "like the Devil at prayers." 8
Ben Gunn the maroon is affected too, as this lengthy addition in Chapter XV of the book makes clear:
'Now for instance, you wouldn't think I had had a pious mother—to look at me?' he asked.
'Why no, not in particular,' I answered.
'Ah, well,' said he, 'but I had—remarkable pious. And I was a civil pious boy, and could rattle off my catechism that fast, as you couldn't tell one word from another. And here's what it came to, Jim, and it begun with chuck-farthen on the blessed gravestones! That's what it begun with, but it went further'n that; and so my mother told me and predicked the whole, she did, the pious woman!' 9
None of this appears in Young Folks.
Finally, when the pirate Dick (he who tore a leaf out of his Bible to provide the "black spot" handed to Silver in Chapter XXIX of the book) is frightened by the eldritch voice of Ben Gunn (Chapter XXXII), we read in the book version: "Dick had his Bible out and was praying volubly. He had been well brought up, had Dick, before he came to sea, and fell among bad companions."10 This is also new, and gives Silver an opportunity for further devout reflections on the next page:
Dick alone still held his Bible and looked around him as he went with fearful glances, but he found no sympathy, and Silver even joked him on his precautions.
'I told you,' said he—'I told you you had spiled your Bible. It it ain't no good the swear by, what do you suppose a sperrit would give for it? Not that!' and he snapped his big finger, halting a moment on his crutch. 11
Setting the Bible to one side, I turn now to touches of humane feeling—it might be called sentiment—that first appear in the book edition. In any case, the boyish callousness of the original is markedly softened.
A few examples must suffice. In Young Folks, when Jim Hawkins is leaving the Admiral Benbow to go on his adventures, he gives never a thought to the late Billy Bones. But in the book, "one of my last thoughts was of the captain who had so often strode along the beach with his cocked hat, his sabre-cut cheek and his old brass telescope."12 And at the end of the book (in Chapter XXXIV), an additional reason for not picking up the three surviving pirates left upon the island is given. Not only could the Hispaniola "not risk another mutiny," but "to take them home to the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness."13 The considerable moderation of Dr. Livesey's language when applied to the pirates in general, which we shall note shortly, adds to the effect of a pervasive softening of tone and feeling.
In Young Folks we find a Jim Hawkins (Jem until the compositors learned better) who is unexpectedly nervous, unheroic, and given to a rather hollow bombastic swagger. Stevenson himself would scarcely have passed for a boy's boy when young, being a sickly, mollycoddled invalid more often at home than at school. The sensitive and susceptible Jim of this version represents, I fancy, a memory or projection of those unhappy days of his Edinburgh childhood. In the pirates' attack on the stockade (Chapter XXI in the book), the Young Folks version is a good deal more confused than the other because of the boy hero's own confusion at the time, as Jim the narrator admits, "The events of the next few minutes came so thick that my mind is confused as to the order of their occurrence."14 (Stevenson was to rewrite the account of the attack completely for the book.)
The seat of the trouble was the earlier Jim's acute nervous susceptibility. "Hurry of the moment" was originally "hurry and fever of the moment."15 In a few lines he tells us "I was like one petrified in all this din, and knew not where to turn and what to do."16 A moment later Jim is "blinded and stunned" as he dashes out into the sunlight;17 and when Livesey kills a pirate with a cutlass, Jim exclaims, "I shall never forget that sudden crimson streak."18 All these instances of Jim Hawkins's very natural boyish reactions are excised from the book version. When Jim (Chapter XXV of the book) boards the Hispaniola by himself and catches his first sight of Israel Hands sprawled beside the pirate he has killed in a drunken brawl, we are given the full shock in Young Folks of the lad's reaction, in a one-sentence paragraph: "I believe I must have jumped in the air."19 That too is omitted from the book. But, and this also is typical of the Young Folks Jim, is a few minutes, confronting the apparently helpless, drinksodden Hands, he tells us "I was ready to crow over his distress." 20
In Chapter XXVIII of the book, when Jim has inad-vertently walked into the pirates' arms and been captured, Stevenson allows him to retain some of this cocksureness: "'The laugh's on my side; I've had the top of this business from the first; I no more fear you than I fear a fly,'"21 But in Young Folks the bombastic side of Jim is allowed to get out of hand altogether:
'And if you ask me how I did it, tortures wouldn't drive me, in the first place; and, in the second, much good would it do you, now the harm's done, and you ruined. And now you can kill me if you please. The laught's on my side, I've as good as hanged you, every man, and I'm not fifteen till my next birthday.' 22
In a moment he tells Silver to his face "'I hate you,'" and demands that he inform Dr. Livesey, if he, Jim, is killed by the pirates, of "'the way I took the thing,'" and adds "'even if I get frightened after this, you'll tell him I outfaced you all at first'"—a curious encapsulation of this Jim's nervous instability and boyish braggadocio. 23
In the book, at this point in the story, Jim is less out-spoken and more astute: "'If you spare me, bygones are bygones, and when you fellows are in court for piracy, I'll save you all I can. It is for you to choose. Kill another and do yourselves no good, or spare me and keep a witness to save you from the gallows.'" 24Here again, in a curious way, humanity wins out.
Then there is the vexed question of Dr. Livesey. The retrained and gentlemanly Livesey of the book turns out to have begun life as a coarse, breezy, rather brutal military veteran. For the later version Stevenson was forced, practically, to re-create the character entirely. Livesey, in fact, was to become the mainstay of the "sympathetic" adults, the nearest thing to a voice of sanity, restraint and humanity among them, outshining the splenetic and indiscreet Squire and the ramrod-stiff Smollett. In fact all three were rather different in their original personae, but David Livesey suffers an absolute sea-change in the revisions. Part of the trouble with him was that when Stevenson took up his pen again after a break in the writing (he had completed fifteen chapters at Braemar, but then, the first flash of inspiration having faded, was forced to resume elsewhere), he had to make Livesey his narrator for three chapters, Jim having defected from the main party to pursue his adventures on the island.
To appreciate the changes which Stevenson wrought on Livesey for the book version of Treasure Island, we must look at Chapters XVI-XVIII. I have made mention of the original Livesey's intemperate old-soldier's language when discussing or describing the pirates. Here are some instances: "'human carrion . . . the evil ones . . . the precious pair . . . mostly fools . . . cowardly dogs . . . confounded hounds25 . . . the callous dogs.'"26 This is not at all the gentlemanly and moderate voice of the book's Livesey. Instead, the military diehard with his bluff, plain, downright, damn-your-eyes manner of speech is to the fore. Livesey in his present situation is handicapped by being a landlubber ("'three bells in their sea-lingo'" is one exasperated interpolation of his,)27 but he does not hesitate to cross verbal cutlasses with Captain Smollett when they are in a boat off-shore, in this passage:
'If it's the only course we can lie, sir, we must even lie it', returned the captain. 'We must keep to windward.'
'Current-ward,' said I with a laugh.
'You see, sir,' he went on, not minding me . . . 'the way we go the current must slacken, and then we can dodge back along the shore.'
'Ay, ay, sir,' returned I. 'Anything to avoid a naval engagement.' 28
A few lines later Livesey is still critical, and still on the defensive: "So spoke the captain through his teeth, curling himself round his oar in true sailor fashion, ugly enough to my landsman eyes, for I was a good oar in my young days." 29
When, in Young Folks, Livesey hears a shot which suggests Jim Hawkins has been killed, he reacts with grim military practicality: "'Jim Hawkins is gone' was my first thought. But there was no time to cry over spilt milk; if they had begun the killing, it was plain enough they would go on—Hawkins now, the rest of us as soon as possible."30 Military brusqueness applies also to Livesey's doctoring, at least upon the battlefield, according to Young Folks: "You clap your eyes on the case—one, two three; and either you've tied the artery or the man is dead."31 After the pirates' unsuccessful attack on the stockade, he reacts as soldier rather than doctor:
In the meantime, ferreting about, I found two tracks of blood disappearing in different directions into the thicket.
'Two more winged,' said I. Four killed and wounded and not a man on our side hurt. The war opens well.' 32
The "lingo" of the earlier Livesey is not only intem-perate; it is jaunty, idiomatic, slangy:
I came plump on the stockade . . . a man with a head on his shoulders . . . confounded blunder . . . I am an old hand . . . got a snip (slight wound) . . . in two two's . . . in a twinkling33 . . . loaded like a cow . . . I was breaking my medical wind . . . rowing like a fellow in a race . . . bright and ready34 . . . confoundedly overloaded . . . it was just about all that she could do35 . . . I gave Joyce a black mark . . . we threw away (wasted) our bullets36 . . . months would be liker the mark . . . all pretty white about the gills. 37
These expressions are drawn from Young Folks ver-sions of Chapters XVI-XVIII, but as early as Chapter V Stevenson was going off the rails with Livesey. Mr. Dance, the Customs and Excise officer in Devon, describes the doctor in the original as "'a man and a magistrate.'"38 For the book Stevenson thoughtfully altered "man" to "gentleman."39 In Chapter IX Livesey's idiomatic "We are risking it; but we are not such fools as you take us for, Captain,"40 is modified to "We take the risk; but we are not so ignorant as you believe us 41
Dr. Livesey's crudities are less obvious once he ceases to be narrator, but they are still visible, though in a muted key. For example, in the Young Folks version of Chapter XXII, when he dresses Jim's slight wound, he not only pulls his ears, as in the book, but remarks, "If you were at home and had done it in play . . . you would never so much as have observed it, but you got it in battle, forsooth, and it's a wound in consequence." 42Over dinner, after the stockade attack, the doctor re-flects rather heavily:
Of all the actions that ever I was in, or heard of. . . this brush of ours has been the bloodiest. Seven dead out of a score of men engaged on either side makes thirty-five per hundred, and, let me tell you, there are no drilled troops in Europe that would stand a loss so heavy. But the oddest of all is this, that out of eight wounded (nine of you are to count Jim Hawkins and his scissor-snip) there should be seven dead, or good as dead, for with Hunter, poor good man, it's a question of time and nothing more. Hot work! Hot work! And, alas, they're all to bury yet. 43
It is as if, as the writing of the first version went on,Stevenson began to feel his way tentatively towards the final characterization—for there are touches of humane feeling here too, and the boastfulness is modified. Nevertheless, Stevenson sternly scissor-snips all of this from the book of Treasure Island.
As I have suggested, Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollett are also changed—but rather more subtly and less radically—in their transference from Young Folks. It comes as something of a shock, it must be admitted, to find in the original of Chapter VI that the Squire's looks there suggest the intellectual ascetic. He is described as possessing "a fine, inquiring face, with a long nose, and deep-set, clear blue eyes, but roughened and reddened and lined in his long travels."44 In the book he simply has "a bluff, rough-and-ready face, all roughened."45 A little way on in Young Folks, he retains a fair enough complexion and enough sensitivity to be able to say "'I still blush to have shared in the disgrace.'"46 Stevenson gets rid of this too. On the ruddy Trelawney of the book a blush would scarcely have shown.
Apart from this preliminary faltering, this flying of false colors, it must be said that Stevenson finds the true Trelawney almost at once—choleric, chauvinistic, loose-tongued, naive, at bottom good-hearted—and sticks to it pretty consistently throughout. Only in Dr. Livesey's highly suspect narrative do we find a false note, dictated by the medico's own military swagger.
'My bird,' said the squire grimly (of a shot pirate).
It was not his tenth speech, nor, I believe, his fortieth word, since we had cast anchor in the fatal bay. 47
This sound a good deal more like Smollett than Trelawney. Stevenson, having taken up the pen again to finish the serial, has not quite felt himself back into the story at this point.
Smollett himself, in Young Folks, is at once less and more of a "hard man" than in the book. In the original of Chapter IX he is capable of saying, about the crew of the Hispaniola, newly gathered by Silver: "I am nervous, and I'm not a nervous man by nature."48 With Silver himself he is tetchy and suspicious from the first: "You should have been aboard before. . . . Too smooth for me, sir." 49
In the early version, Smollett is more lavish in his praise for Gray (the crew member who escapes the pirates and joins the others) than in the book: "And the best of us, to my mind, Abraham Gray here. Gray, I'll be proud to give you a character aloft."50 Also, in the original of Chapter XXI the captain uncharacteristically addresses Hawkins by his first name: "Load the gun, Jim." 51
On the other hand, Smollett can be very tough with men on his own side in Young Folks. We still get a glimpse of this in the book at the start of Chapter XXI, only mildly modified from Young Folks, when he berates Trelawney and Jim for leaving their posts in the stockade to overhear a parley. But it is all the clearer in the first version of Chapter XVIII, when it is suggested to Smollett that the Union Jack above the stockade is something of a target for the pirate gunners to aim at. In Young Folks he does not mince his words about this: "'Strike my colours!' roared the captain. 'No, sir. And let me tell you, if a man lays a hand on them, although it were yourself, sir [Trelawney], I'll shoot him like a dog.'" "So that" (adds Livesey's narrative) ". . . was the end of that." 52
In the book Stevenson smooths all this over as best he may: "'Strike my colours!' cried the captain. 'No, sir, not I,' and as soon as he had said the words I think we all agreed with him. For it was not only a piece of stout, seamanly good feeling; it was good policy besides, and showed the enemy that we despised their cannonade.'" 53
In the face of death or wounds the Young Folks Smollett is impassive to the point of caricature. "Dooty" is all. When wounded himself he remarks "'I don't give a marling-spike for that,'"54 and when things look hopeless for them all he bursts out: "'And one word, lads. If you do go to Davy Jones, why, what's the odds? All in our duty, every man Jack.'" 55
After the unsuccessful attack on the stockade in which one of the captain's party, the sailor Redruth, is mortally wounded, Smollett hurries out to raise the colors (hitherto missing). Then, in the Young Folks version, he re-enters the log-house:
. . . whistling till he observed Tom Redruth, when he immediately doffed his hat and resumed his customary grave expression.
'Going aloft, my man,' said he. 'My compliments and you've done your duty.' 56
In the book Stevenson sensibly omits both the whis-tling and the remark.
With four 'sympathetic' characters of such inconsistency and volatility, and with each of them displaying (for English characters) such surprising evidence of "the Caledonian antisyzygy," it is only to be expected that in Young Folks we shall find much mutual resentment and recrimination amongst them. By comparison the pirates rub along reasonably well together (apart from Israel Hands and his victim), at least until near the end. We have already observed the needling match involving Livesey and Smollett (seaman v. landlubber) on the jolly-boat's last trip ("third" in Young Folks, "fifth" in the book), as well as the captain's wrathful readiness to shoot Trelawney on the matter of the colors. In the following chapter even Jim Hawkins harbors some dark thoughts about his superiors: "I do not mean to blame anyone, but it might have been better if they had taken us [the loyal crew-members] more freely into their confidence. The result of that council, and the various questions discussed, were of great importance to all; yet we never knew their decisions till long after." 57
The dislike between Trelawney and Smollett does sur-vive, of course, in the book edition, but in the Young Folks version we find more reason for it, when Smollett discusses with Livesey what arms the mutinous pirates may have:
'Oh, and muskets too, I make no doubt,' he added. 'We'll see the muskets as soon as they've had time to grapple for them. All stowed away among the cargo. Now John Trelawney is a good owner to me, and a cool head, and a good shot, which is better; but you'll perhaps excuse me for saying that he's a most egregious ass.' 58
In the book's Chapter XVIII Stevenson merely notes casually that "every man of them [the pirates] was now provided from some secret magazine of their own."59 He abandons the idea of muskets loaded with general cargo under Trelawney's blind eye.
Dr. Livesey, as we have seen, is a good deal hotter in his expressions in Young Folks, and this makes him outspokenly critical of others. When Jim Hawkins defects to the island, they are all, in Livesey's narrative, "confoundedly put out,60 though no one doubts him. During the attack on the stockade, as I noted, he gave Joyce "a black mark in my own mind"61 for firing late, and noted that "Hunter, Joyce and the squire were all pretty white about the gills."62 By implication he is critical of Captain Smollett when he describes the jolly-boat's failure to carry fresh water ashore as "one confounded blunder"63; also when, in the next chapter, he says the boat is "confoundedly overloaded." 64
This mood of mutual abrasiveness, muddle and gen-eral discontent (Livesey v. Smollett, Smollett v. Trelawney, Jim Hawkins v. the rest) fairly pervades the "good" party in the Young Folks version. Stevenson had to cut and revise quite rigorously to modify these divisions and this divisiveness in the book.
By comparison the pirates not only agree well; they are fairly consistently drawn. Only secondary details require to be altered for the final version. Some of Long John Silver's speeches are trimmed and one is amplified, but otherwise he is the ambiguously observed, formidable rogue with whom we are familiar. Only his missing leg gives Stevenson occasional trouble. In fact, our tyro author tends to forget about it. When Silver, newly on the island, attacks the honest seaman Tom in Young Folks, we are told: "John whipped the crutch out of his armpit [to use as a missile] and, bereft of his support, rolled face forward on the ground." 65
Stevenson, on revising, saw that this was not really the effect intended. (He might forget the missing leg, but John Silver could not.) In Chapter XIV of the book we note at this point "John seized the branch of a tree" before hurling the crutch at Tom.66 But that leg keeps coming back. In the original of Chapter XX, Silver is, we note, remarkably versatile in his movements for a one-legged man: "But Silver laughed at him aloud, took him by the shoulder and shook him, slapped him on the back and poked him in the ribs."67 This seems excessive even for a two-legged man. In the book Long John only manages the laugh and the slap.68 In the Young Folks version of Chapter XXX our suspicions about that leg are confirmed: "Silver stamped upon the floor."69 In the book, more discreetly, he is said to have "struck the barrel with his open hand."70 Stevenson learned to be wary of that leg!
In the case of Ben Gunn (whom I count as a pirate here), again it is appearance details—in this case details of dress—that had to be amended by Stevenson, apart from that increase in piety, of course. For Ben, in his original form, our author borrowed a good deal too amply from Defoe, especially in the matter of apparel. Here is Jim Hawkins' description of his own first glimpse of Gunn, in the Young Folks version: "Yet a man it was . . . a man covered with the hair of goats, his head crowned with a caps of the same material, and his long legs and arms bare and blackened with the sun."71 And here is the full and detailed description of his dress, once Jim catches up with him:
His dress, if it could be called a dress, was a kilt of goatskins, bound about his waist with an old brass-buckled leather belt, a case or waistcoat of the same about his body, and a round pointed cap upon his head, with the long hair hanging over his eyes. He had no weapon, and except the belt, no mark of civilization. 72
No weapon? So how could Ben kill goats to get their skins? In a moment he tells us himself: "'I can run the goats down upon my naked feet.'" 73
In the book version Stevenson banished the goatskins,at least from Ben Gunn's person, thus:
Of all the beggar-men that I had seen or fancied, he was the chief for raggedness. He was clothed with tatters of old ship's canvas and old sea cloth; and this extraordinary patchwork was all held together by a system of the most various and incongruous fastening—brass buttons, bits of stick, and loops of tarry gaskin. About his waist he wore an old brass-buckled leather belt which was the one thing solid in his whole accoutrement. 74
So—only the belt survives; and there is in the book no running down of goats upon naked feet.
Nevertheless, the goats do survive, in the book's Chapter XV: "'Marooned three years agone,' he continued, 'and lived on goats since then, and berries, and oysters.'"75 Before the end of this same chapter, lo and behold, RLS has forgotten his own alterations: "Close at my side the marooned man in his goatskins trotted easily and lightly."76 In Chapter XXXIII of the book, Stevenson, busily revising, does remember to cut "and used to run down goats"77 after "Ben Gunn being fleet of foot,"78 but on the same page the goats stubbornly pop up again as "goats' meat salted by himself (Ben)."79 The ghost of Daniel Defoe was not so easily exor-cized!
The other pirates came out pretty much unchanged in the book. It was the heroes, not the villains, that caused R.L.S. furiously to labor over his revisions. A Jekyll much troubled by his own Hyde, Stevenson was always happier, in life as in literature, with those whose darker selves showed unmistakably through. To smooth down, for the purposes of publication in book form, those asperities and abrasivenesses and curious 'double' natures we have noted here must have come hard to him.
In this article I have concentrated chiefly on alterations or modifications of character and general tone, when serial became book. If I were to attempt to summarize the effect of these, it would be in the following terms. In the Young Folks version we seem to look through the eyes of Jim Hawkins the boy, despite the fact that the language of his narrative is sometimes a good deal too sophisticated for that. The story, of course, is for the most part meant to be told by the mature Mr. Hawkins in retrospect. In revising for the book version Stevenson seems to have remembered this latter point, and made it his lodestar. His chief narrator's tone and attitude are now in every way more adult, restrained, moralistic and religiose. He is kinder, not only to the pirates (those humane touches), but to his readers (he assiduously irons out faults of language, tone, plot management and general treatment), to their mothers(!), and to his characters overall. The latter mature along with the narrator. David Livesey, from a rather hard and thick-skinned veteran of the wars, grows into the "verray parfit gentil knight" of the novel. Captain Smollett is less the timber-sided tarpaulin, and Squire Trelawney, for all his faults, less the "egregious ass." Even the boy Jim is less a bundle of juvenile nerves, and more deserving of the liking and admiration of Silver and Livesey.
It may well be that this abrupt maturing had much to do with the fact that the story in Young Folks was intended primarily for a youthful audience or readership (as it was at Braemar), and the book form made it accessible to adults. The conscious artist in Stevenson (an enormous part of him) was simply forced to take over, mayhap, and to provide an 'older' approach, a more responsible attitude altogether. In short, I rather think that the R.L.S. who wrote the story for young Lloyd Osborne to amuse him that wet Autumn on Deeside was a much 'younger' author than the one who made up the book edition. He could unbutton himself and afford to be at one with his juvenile audience. Thus he rejoiced in the things that boys do rejoice in—not only in adventures in faraway places and exotic settings and circumstances, but in arguments and disagreements among grown-ups, in seeing adults as caricatures of themselves, in boyish boastfulness and deeds of independent derring-do (proving something to those foolish grown-ups) and in equally boyish moods of discontent and rebelliousness. Even the less heroic side of Jim Hawkins was perhaps a form of confessional self-indulgence. The boy in R.L.S.—no physical hero—simply would out. But the challenge presented by an adult readership (those buying the book for their children or young relatives, and reading it to check its suitability perhaps) changed all that.
As I have hinted above, many other forms of emendation are to be discovered in a close comparison of the two texts of Treasure Island. Vocabulary is polished, the best word replacing the second or the third best, or the quite wrong. Certain vague narrative points receive clarification. The plot is strengthened where certain omissions or inconsistencies have made it shaky. Needless verbiage, detail, reflection or speculation is hacked away. If the book version of Treasure Island was heavily slanted towards the adult literary tastes of the 1880s, I have a notion that the Young Folks version could hold a greater appeal for the 1990s. The taste for anarchic iconoclasm, chaotic humors and moral confusion is an up-to-date one. The world of the Treasure Island of Young Folks is instantly recognizable today, warts and all—much more so than the "Victorian values" in the book with all its artistic polish.
It is typical, it seems to me, of Stevenson that when he came to write the article "My First Book: Treasure Island"80 in the year of his death, he made no mention whatever of those extensive revisions, though he does describe in some detail how the tale first came to appear in Young Folks. The piece is almost desperately frank about some of the literary borrowings that went into the making of the novel, and yet in true Stevensonian fashion it is not frank at all, and hides all the essentials. About Defoe, for example, R.L.S. only admits that the parrot once no doubt belong to Robinson Crusoe, and to using "a few reminiscences." Stevenson, indeed, would have us believe that his first book "sprang full-armèd from the brow of Jove." It did not. But what adult reader would have troubled, in 1894, to go back to the old copies, if he still had them, of Young Folks?
When Kidnapped made its serial bow, five years later in the May-June-July numbers of Young Folks's successor, Young Folks Paper, it required only six minor corrections before going between hard covers. 81
By this time R.L. Stevenson was a famous name (he was billed as "author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"),and Kidnapped shone forth on the front cover pages throughout its appearance, with ample woodcut illustrations. These five years had made all the difference. No chance now of the professional Stevenson betraying even to children his half-formed ideas and uncertain characterizations.
Today the piled-up manuscripts in the Beinecke Library at Yale may contain evidence of these, but the published Stevenson was as complete, assured and finished as ever he could make it. Youth might still be on the prow—it usually was with Stevenson—but his older, graver self stood firmly at his helm. The Hispaniola days of drifting, with a boy alone on deck and (if the truth be told) more than a little at sea, were all gone by. Stevenson would never betray himself thus again.
1 Roger G. Swearingen: The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide (Hamden, CT, 1980), p. 63.
2Young Folks, XX, No. 579 (week ending Jan. 7, 1882), p. 8, col. 1. The Young Folks version of the story appears in the bound 1881 and 1882 volumes. I have consulted those held by the National Library of Scotland.
3Treasure Island, p. 11. All references to the book edition are to Vol. II of the Tusitala Edition of The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: William Heinemann, 1924).
4Ibid., p. 14.
5Ibid., p. 63.
6 YF [by this I shall always mean Young Folks] XIX, 569 (Oct. 29, 1881), 151, col. 1.
7Ibid., col. 3.
8Treasure Island, p. 70.
9Ibid., p. 94.
10Ibid., p. 205.
11Ibid., p. 206.
12Ibid., p. 46.
13Ibid., p. 217.
14 YF, XIX, 574 (Dec. 3, 1881), 191, col. 2.
19 YF, XIX, 576 (Dec. 17, 1881), 206, col. 4.
21Treasure Island, p. 178.
22 YF, XIX, 577 (Dec. 24, 1881), 215, col. 2.
24Treasure Island, p. 178.
25 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, cols. 2 and 3.
26 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
27 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 2.
28 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 2.
29Ibid., col. 3.
30 YF, XIX, 511 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 2.
32 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
33 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 2.
34Ibid., col. 3.
35 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 2.
36Ibid., col. 3.
37Ibid., col. 4.
38 YF, XIX, 567 (Oct. 15, 1881), 135, col. 1.
39Treasure Island, p. 32.
40 YF, XIX, 568 (Oct. 22, 1881), 143, col. 3.
41Treasure Island, p. 55.
42 YF, XIX, 574 (Dec. 3, 1881), 191, cols. 2 and 3.
43Ibid., col. 3.
44 YF, XIX, 567 (Oct. 15, 1881), 135, col. 1.
45Treasure Island, p. 34.
46 YF, XIX, 567 (Oct. 15, 1881), 135, col. 2.
47 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
48 YF, XIX, 568 (Oct. 22, 1881), 143, col. 3.
50 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
51 YF, XIX, 574 (Dec. 3, 1881), 191, col. 1.
52 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 4.
53Treasure Island, p. 114.
54 YF, XIX, 574 (Dec. 3, 1881), 191, col. 2.
55 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
56Ibid, col. 4.
57 YF, XIX, 573 (Nov. 26, 1881), 183, col. 2
58 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 4.
59Treasure Island, p. 114.
60 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 2.
61 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 3.
62Ibid, col. 4.
63 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 2.
64 YF, XIX, 572 (Nov. 19, 1881), 175, col. 2.
65 YF, XIX, 570 (Nov. 5, 1881), 159, col. 3.
66Treasure Island, p. 89.
67 YF, XIX, 573 (Nov. 26, 1881), 234, col. 4.
68Treasure Island, p. 123.
69 YF, XIX, 578 (Dec. 31, 1881), 167, col. 4.
70Treasure Island, p. 191.
71 YF, XIX, 571 (Nov. 12, 1881), 167, col. 4.
73Ibid., and p. 167, col. 1.
74Treasure Island, p. 93.>
76Ibid., p. 97.
77 YF, XX, 581 (Jan. 21, 1882), 24, col. 2.
78Treasure Island, p. 212.
80Treasure Island, pp. xxiii-xxxi.
81 See Swearingen, Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide, p. 105.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4403
SOURCE: "Jim Hawkins and the Faintly Inscribed Reader in Treasure Island," in Cahiers Victoriens and Edouardiens, No. 40, October, 1994, pp. 37-47.
[In the following essay, Sutton examines the tone and style of the narrative voice of Treasure Island. He argues that Stevenson employed confessional techniques through which he "invites the reader to become a friend, a partner in [a] relationship between equals."]
"It takes," says Thoreau, in the noblest and most useful passage I remember to have read by any modern author, "two to speak truth—one to speak and one to hear."
Stevenson, "Truth of Intercourse" (1879)1
Many readers have felt the power of Treasure Island, but no one can quite explain it. Who could account for the effect upon an eight-year-old boy who begged to read one more chapter at bedtime and then, before the lights went out, asked his parents to take the book downstairs? Much as he loved this masterpiece, he did not want to sleep in the same room with it. When Stevenson himself tried explaining the power of good adventure stories, he spoke of "brute incident" and "epoch-making scenes," as when the hero strings his bow in "the best of romances," The Odyssey.2 Yet he acknowledged a force outside the text in boys like himself who "dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles."3Treasure Island undoubtedly whets this appetite—and gratifies it when Jim Hawkins eavesdrops on the pirates or confronts Israel Hands on the deck of the Hispaniola. But more than brute incident draws the reader into Jim's experiences. If action were everything, the book would lose nothing when dramatized on film, and no film version yet has recreated the basic condition for communicating experience: an open, trusting relationship between narrator and audience. "We can trust Jim Hawkins,"4 wrote a Victorian reader, and upon this trust much of the power of the story depends. Were we to doubt Jim's essential truthfulness, even the greatest scenes would fail to draw us "clean out of ourselves" and into the world of the tale. 5
To create a bond with the reader, Stevenson not only made Jim likeable; he also wrote a perceptive, sympathetic reader into the text. The role is there for us to fill, even as we identify with the young hero. Represented by an unspecified "you," the faintly inscribed reader keeps us close to Jim the narrator. "You" becomes a sign of shared confidence, a welcome signal that he is keeping us in mind. In his effort to tell "the whole particulars of the expedition"6 (except the location of the island), he needs a sympathetic audience if he wants to communicate more about his experience than a mere catalogue of events. For telling anything close to the full truth is, as Stevenson and Thoreau believed, a cooperative undertaking, with "one to speak and one to hear." In daily conversation, this difficult task requires both an honest, expressive speaker and a receptive listener. Stevenson found the best conditions for truth-telling in friendship and love, since any hostility or doubt can distort the message: "A grain of anger or a grain of suspicion produces strange acoustical effects" as would our postmodern "hermeneutics of suspicion."
What he believed about truth-telling in daily life has important implications for the relationship between narrator and inscribed reader in his fiction. In "Truth of Intercourse," he implies an analogy by discussing the task of an author: "The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish" (p.93). In the realm of fictional truth, a narrator needs some of the resources of a speaker in ordinary life. Both depend upon "this difficult art of literature," and according to their "proficiency in this art shall be the freedom and fulness of their intercourse" with others. Speaking or writing, a narrator cannot succeed by forfeiting his "birthright of expression" and cultivating "artful intonations" that mask himself and pervert "his means of communication with his fellow men". To become an expressive personal presence, a fictional author needs the assets of a truthful speaker: a "responsive voice," the "gift of frank, explanatory speech," something comparable to a "lively and not a stolid countenance," as well as "such radical qualities as honour and humour and pathos". If Jim Hawkins, Huckleberry Finn, and David Balfour win our friendship and trust, they do so partly because as storytellers they reveal many of the gifts that Stevenson found essential for truth-telling in daily life. Avoiding "artful intonations," they write with a style and tone that seems natural to them and expressive of their personalities.
But does Jim Hawkins really have a personality to express? Jenni Calder has described him as a "neutral unformed hero" who comes back from his adventures "none the worse and none the better." Because he "has so little personality," she believes that children may have trouble identifying with him. Long John Silver remains with us as the hero, while Jim "slides out of memory."7 Whether or not this claim holds true for many other memories besides Calder's own, Stevenson faced a challenge in making Jim a credible, self-expressive narrator. If, as he believed, children "do not see themselves at all"8 and "the essence and charm" of youth "is ignorance of self as well as ignorance of life,"9 how could a boy in narrating his story reveal the self that he has not yet come to know? If he reveals himself unconsciously, with complete naiveté, can he be trustworthy at the same time? A naive narrator is not normally considered a reliable one, although Huck Finn invites trust in almost everything but his attempt to judge his own moral conduct. Other novelists before Twain and Stevenson—Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, Dickens in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Blackmore in Lorna Doone, Meredith in Harry Richmond—solved the problem by letting adult narrators report the ordeals of their childhood and youth. Stevenson would follow these examples with David Balfour in Kidnapped and Catriona, in which the seventeen-year-old boy at the start of his adventures turns out to be a father when he writes his story. He has had plenty of time to develop a personality.
Jim's age is harder to pin down, and for many readers the fictional author of Treasure Island still seems to be a child—a "boy narrator," according to David Daiches.10 A reviewer in 1883 called it "the narrative of the boy Jim Hawkins"; "a story told by the child hero," writes Jacqueline Rose a century later.11 J. R. Hammond asserts that the "bulk of the story is narrated by a boy" who gives "a child's vision of the world."12 Because Jim is a cabin boy in the story (fourteen-years old in the serial version),13 Robert Kiely assumes that he is still a boy when he writes, leaving "the imperfect memory of a boy" as our only source of narrative authority.14 According to this view, Jim no sooner returned to England than he sat down to write, suddenly transformed with no further schooling into a master stylist, able to produce the elegant flowing sentence that fills his opening paragraph.
Against the prevailing assumption of the narrator's immaturity, Barbara Wall has recently claimed that Jim writes as an adult looking back on his boyhood.15 The evidence that she could cite (but does not) provides strong support for her position. Aside from the obvious fact of his stylistic maturity, Jim repeatedly indicates that some time has elapsed since the voyage was over. Without supplying the dates that would show how many years have passed, he begins by saying that he must "go back" in time to the start of the action; later he explains his apparently rash decision to slip away from the stockade by writing, "I was only a boy," as if he were a boy no longer. At the end he reports that the loyal sailor Gray "not only had saved his money, but . . . also studied his profession, and he is now mate and part owner of a . . . ship; married besides, and the father of a family." All this would have taken time, so Jim must be over twenty when he writes if he was fourteen when the action begins. In a recent "memory play" by Ara Watson he is a young man looking backward in search of the meaning of his grand adventure, "when innocence was lost to him forever."16 Definitely he is not the "boy" or "child" that some readers have imagined narrating of the story. Admittedly, as a young man he still might suffer from the ignorance of self and of life that Stevenson considered characteristic of youth. But a dramatic early initiation could make him an exception to Stevenson's rule and enable him to look back upon his boyhood with the self-knowledge gained from harsh experience.
If the narrator is an adult, does he write for readers who are adults as well? Insofar as he tries to set down an account that will satisfy Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey, he has grown-ups in mind even as he addresses a "you" who never set foot on the island. Although different from the squire and the doctor, the reader that Jim writes into the text has to share their adult roles in responding to the narrative. The actual reader may be a child, like Stevenson's twelve-year-old stepson, who first heard the chapters read aloud by the author, or the not particularly impressed subscribers who first read the story in Young Folks in 1881. But the ages of actual readers do not affect the nature of the "you" in the text or disprove Wall's claim that Stevenson's "narratee was never a child". Any actual child who reads is being addressed as an adult and given the same role as those other "gentlemen" who joined Livesey and Trelawney in asking Jim to write a full account of the adventure.
Henry James pictured a different narrative situation. For him the primary audience is the "young reader" whose presence and "state of mind" become part of the adult's experience in reading the story, looking, as it were, over the boy's shoulder, with an avuncular arm "around his neck."17 Aptly as this image reflects the dual appeal of Treasure Island to many men as well as boys, it tells more about actual readers than it does about the fictional one in the text. To account for her sense that the narratee is an adult, Wall invokes the concept of the "implied reader" to name the presence that James saw peering over the young reader's shoulder. But there is no need for this abstract construct when an unspecified "you" recurs in the text. Jim gives his reader credit for having the sympathies and the intelligence of any perceptive person, child or adult. Wanting the reader to pay attention, he writes "you will remember" that Trelawney is the squire's name, although thirty pages have gone by since he first mentioned it. Jim also expects deeper acts of attention, particularly concerning the vanity and the gullibility that he now sees in his younger self. Wall's claim that he "does not look at himself with irony" will not stand against the evidence, nor will Robert Kiely's statement that the narration lacks any "trace of wit or irony."18 After reporting the boy's susceptibility to flattery from Long John Silver, does Jim not see—and expect his reader to see—the irony of his indignation inside the apple barrel when Silver recruits a young mutineer?
You may imagine how I felt when I heard the abominable old rogue addressing another in the very same words of flattery as he used to myself. I think, if I had been able, that I would have killed him through the barrel.
If Jim as narrator misses the irony, why did he prepare us for it by reporting his previous opinion that Silver "was one of the best of possible shipmates"?
In revealing the sensitive ego of his boyhood self, he invites not only a smile at his sudden reversal of opinion but also our sympathy (we have sensitive egos too) and our trust in him as one who will deal honestly with "the whole particulars" of his experience, even when he looks a bit ridiculous. In effect, he invites the reader to become a friend, a partner in the relationship between equals that Stevenson believed was essential for truthful communication. Because "truth to fact is not always truth to sentiment" ("Truth of Intercourse,"), Jim must represent not only the events but also his feelings. His first reference to the reader comes with his first report of fear, aroused in this instance by looking out for a one-legged man: "How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you". Soon afterward when he writes, "I was very uneasy and alarmed, as you may fancy", he clearly expects the reader to share his response—to be sympathetic and imaginative enough to stand in the boy's shoes or cower inside the barrel when Silver asks Dick to fetch an apple: "You may fancy the terror I was in!"
Jim further expects the reader to share his values and to make judgments upon certain characters. "You would have thought men would have been ashamed of themselves," he comments when telling how the men of the hamlet refused to protect the widow and her son at the "Admiral Benbow". In reporting his own misper-ceptions and impulsive actions, he invites critical (and sometimes amused) judgments upon himself. After showing how fooled he was by Silver's flattering tongue, he reveals another misperception in his early response to Captain Smollett, who offends the boy by saying, "'I'll have no favourites on my ship.'" Emphasizing the boy's childishness, Jim ends the chapter with his petty reaction: "I assure you I was quite of the squire's way of thinking, and hated the captain deeply". He expects more criticism of his younger self when telling of his most questionable decision—to slip out of the stockade on a mission of his own devising: "I was a fool, if you like, and certainly I was going to do a foolish, over-bold act; but I determined to do it with all the precautions in my power". His word for this desertion is "folly," even though in retrospect he can write that it was "a help toward saving all of us", a statement eventually confirmed by Dr. Livesey's praise: "'Every step, it's you that saves our lives.'"
By inviting criticism and reporting his feelings along with the events, Jim sounds trustworthy. Certainly we feel the truth of his emotional responses. If his story has given boys bad dreams for over a century, at least the narrator himself is a fellow sufferer. As James Wilson notes, it is his own "recurring nightmare" that Jim "has communicated, with hypnotizing eloquence, to the reader."19 This legacy from the quest is spelled out in his last sentence: "Oxen and wain-ropes would not drag 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 still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! pieces of eight!" In the story, he hears that voice most nightmarishly upon stumbling in the dark back to the blockhouse, expecting to find his friends inside, only to be greeted by the call of Silver's green parrot. This time he has no need to name his response, and the "horror" that he mentions soon afterward comes mainly from seeing no sign of any prisoners. That feeling does not stop him from sizing up the situation, counting his enemies, and noting their symptoms of drunkenness. By now, having killed Israel Hands and recaptured the ship, he is well on his way toward surviving a hero's initiation, complete with an initiatory wound from the pirate's dirk and a moment of initiatory death when he imagined his body "falling from the cross-trees into that still green water, beside the body of the coxswain" (p. 143). His recovery from the "horror" of picturing his own death marks a symbolic resurrection (as his first being pinned to the mast above the cross-trees might suggest)—a sign that his legacy from the voyage is more than a recurring nightmare.
The legacy includes the heroic virtues of courage and honor, shown the day after his confrontation with death on the ship when he turns down the chance to flee with Dr. Livesey and keeps his promise to stay with Silver. These virtues and what he learns about himself on the voyage inform the adult personality of the narrator, whose integrity and discipline appear in his straightforward, rigorously focused yet sensitive way of telling his story. Granted, he has undergone nothing as profound as a conversion and had no vision to give his life ultimate direction and purpose. In Watson's memory play, all he comes to realize is the exact moment with Silver when he lost his childhood innocence. Anyone who wishes that Jim had learned more may be disappointed to read in the last chapter that sorting all those gold coins was unsurpassed among the boy's pleasures. Frank McLynn here sees a clear sign that money is the "ruling principle" in a story that lacks a "moral centre";20 by implication, Jim has been corrupted along with Dr. Livesey and the Squire. But to accept that view is to overlook Jim's closing words about the "accursed island" and his act of putting promise-keeping above personal safety when he refuses to flee with Livesey. To agree with Jenni Calder that he comes home "none the worse and none the better" is to ignore the courage, honor, and more confident sense of identity that he develops and reveals during his initiation. If nothing else, it is to ignore the growth in awareness and sensibility that enables him to tell such an engaging story.
Because he has passed demanding tests and ordeals, Jim as protagonist bolsters the authority of Jim as narrator. The rites of passage qualify him as a person to respect and trust, even as his openness and his consciousness of the reader make him approachable, a narrator whose company we enjoy even if he does pass on a few nightmares. By sharing his fears, he never becomes so exalted a hero that he seems alien to those of us who have led quieter lives. If some readers agree with Barbara Wall that Jim "builds up no comfortable confiding relationship with his narratee", the reason may lie simply in the harrowing nature of his experiences and not in his supposedly "abiding sense of disillusion". Stevenson himself took pains in revising the serial version to make Jim all the more likeable—more sympathetic and less boastful.21 Certainly by comparison with the other narrator, Dr. Livesey (whose image was also improved in the revision), Jim is more open about his feelings and in closer touch with his readers. Livesey says very little about his emotions and never addresses the reader. We feel more comfortable with Jim.
Yet Wall's sense of distance from him does have a discernible basis in the text. Compared to the narratees in Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, Barchester Towers, or Middlemarch, the reader in Treasure Island is only faintly inscribed, a figure never identified by age, gender, or occupation. Jim never pauses for more than a sentence to address the unspecified "you" of his imagining, and in the last chapter this figure virtually disappears. The framework of communication between fictional author and reader is fragile throughout and left open at the end. Given Stevenson's ideas about what happens in reading romantic fiction, the frame must be left fragile enough to give way at crucial moments so the actual reader can "plunge into the tale" in his own person, abandoning the reader's role to play at "being the hero" ("A Gossip on Romance").
"Frames are meant to be forgotten," one critic of Wuthering Heights has said,22 and Stevenson's practice illustrates this principle, even at a time when other yarnspinners were starting to focus on the frame by dramatizing the act of storytelling. In 1881 when Treasure Island appeared in Young Folks, the Manx poet T. E. Brown (an admired older friend of Stevenson's friend W. E. Henley) brought out his first collection of "Fo'c's'le Yarns," giving the shipboard listeners a vocal part in a sailor's narrations. Before the decade ended, Kipling was also imitating oral storytelling in stories of soldiers in India, and Conrad would go on with this technique in "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness." Unlike these writers, Stevenson generally avoided imitating the give-and-take of oral narration, and in his best-known representation of spoken storytelling, "Thrawn Janet" (1881), the audience stays shadowy and indistinct, a vague "ye" on the last page. Even here he keeps the frame as thin as possible, making sure that no inscribed listener will come between the actual reader and the "ghastly story" that, as he said, frightened him to death. 23
Where specified readers do appear in his first-person narratives, in at least two cases their identities are kept discreetly in the background. Four chapters into "The Pavilion on the Links" (1880), a reference to "your mother" reveals that the narrator is writing for his own children; in Catriona (1892-93), the long-delayed sequel to Kidnapped (1886), David Balfour waits until the end to address his children after writing "you" in the most general way everywhere else. Compared to the readers inscribed in Kidnapped and Treasure Island, the ones in The Master of Ballantrae (1889) have more definite functions because old Mackellar undertakes to present his testimony "like a witness in court." The readers will be judges.24 But since they will not see his documents until a century later, their identities can hardly be specified.
To account for Stevenson's reluctance to write the reader more distinctly into his texts, we might reconsider Robert Kiely's view of his protagonists. They are underdeveloped, Kiely thinks, because the author "wants no hero . . . to be so carefully and elaborately described that his personality or his sex comes between the reader and narrative incident . . . The disposition of every protagonist must be . . . vaguely enough realized so that at the appropriate moment of crisis, the reader can ignore him and 'enter' the plot himself. By neglecting their roles as adult narrators. Kiely may underestimate the degree of characterization found in David Balfour and Jim Hawkins, who express their personalities on two levels, not simply as protagonists. As the teller of his own story, Jim reveals enough of himself—his integrity and his respect for his imagined reader—to participate in something like the difficult process that Stevenson described in "Truth of Intercourse." But if Kiely's view somewhat oversimplifies the fictional authors, it might well be applied to the generalized "you" in these stories. The vague pronoun in Treasure Island draws us into the narrator's confidence, keeping us almost at his elbow as he writes the story. Yet our inscription in the text is faint enough that at any moment we may take another role—the frightening but still satisfying one of the vulnerable, resourceful boy in the thick of perilous adventures.
1 "Truth of Intercourse" in The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays, introduction by Jeremy Treglown (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), p. 98. Further page references will be given in the text. Henry David Thoreau's sentence comes from "Wednesday" in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893), p. 352.
2 "A Humble Remonstrance," in The Lantern-Bearers, p. 193.
3 "A Gossip on Romance," in The Lantern-Bearers, p. 172.
4 S. R. Crockett, quoted in Diana Loxley, Problematic Shores: The Literature of Islands (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), p. 133.
5 "A Gossip," pp. 172, 179.
6Treasure Island, ed. Emma Letley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 1. Further page references will be given in the text.
7Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 173.
8 Robert Kiely, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 61.
9 "A Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art," in The Lantern-Bearers, p. 224.
10Robert Louis Stevenson and His World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), p. 56.
11 Arthur John Butler in the Athenaeum (1 Dec. 1883), in Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage, ed. Paul Maixner (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 130; Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Literature(London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 79-80, quoted with no disagreement on this point by Loxley, p. 147. For another reader who believes that "the boy-protagonist" tells the story, see Harold Francis Watson, Coasts of Treasure Island (San Antonio, Tex.: Naylor Company, 1969), p. 132. Hayden W. Ward makes the same assumption in "'The Pleasure of Your Heart': Treasure Island and the Appeal of Boy's Adventure Fiction," Studies in Fiction, 6 (1974): 308.
12A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays, and Short Stories (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 103.
13 See Letley's "Eplanatory Notes," Treasure Island, p. 209.
14 Kiely, Stevenson and Fiction, p. 69.
15The Narrator's Voice: The Dilemma of Children's Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991). p. 70. Further page references will be given in the text. See also Reinbert Tabbert. "Lockende Kinderbucheingänge," Wirkendes Wort, 36 (1986): 433. Tabbert reads Jim's first sentence as making a clear distinction between the time of writing and the time of the events in the story: as narrator he probably would be more mature (reifer), having become the trusted friend of those gentlemen who ask him to write this account.
16Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, adapted by Ara Watson (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1991), p. 7.
17 "Robert Louis Stevenson," quoted in Ward, "'The Pleasure of Your Heart'." pp. 304-05.
18 Kiely does add "—not as Mark Twain understood those words" (p.68). But he does not explain how Twain understood wit and irony.
19 "Landscape with Figures," in Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Andrew Noble (London and Totowa, N. J.: Vision Press and Barnes and Noble Books, 1983), p. 93.
20 Frank McLynn, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (London: Hutchinson, 1993), p. 199.
21 See Letley, Introduction to Treasure Island, p. xvii, and David Angus, "Youth on the Prow: The First Publication of Treasure Island," Studies in Scottish Literature, 25 (1990): 86-87.
22 John T. Matthews, "Framing in Wuthering Heights," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 27 (1985): 25.
23Robert Louis Stevenson: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Peter Stoneley (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1991), p. 315.
24The Master of Ballantrae, ed. Emma Letley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 20.