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.
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."