Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson - Essay

Robert Louis Stevenson


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Treasure Island 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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Richard Middleton (essay date 1911)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 tersa 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...

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David Daiches (essay date 1947)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 mouldsthe 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...

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William H. Hardesty, III and David D. Mann (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stevenson's Method in Treasure Island: The Old Romance, Retold," in Essays in Literature, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 180-93.

(The entire section is 7724 words.)

Sister Mary Louise McKenzie (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Blackburn (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Susan Gannon (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David H. Jackson (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Angus (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Max Sutton (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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"...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 359 words.)