Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The origins of Treasure Island can be traced to the summer of 1881, when Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, in order to please his eleven-year-old stepson Lloyd, sketched a map of a fictional island. The drawing took life in his mind, and in the next two weeks, he had written the first fifteen chapters of what would become Treasure Island. Every night, he would relay a new chapter to an intimate audience which included his father, Thomas. As a lighthouse engineer, Thomas lent much of his maritime expertise to the work, as well as the infamous apple barrel scene, which was based on an experience of his at sea.
Under the title Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola, the work was first published as a serial in the children’s magazine Young Folks, running from October 1881 to January 1882. Stevenson had used the pen name “Captain George North” on the serial, as he had felt insecure about the venture at the time, which was his first full-length work of fiction. Finally, Treasure Island was published in book form by Cassell & Co. in 1883.
In his preface to the book version of Treasure Island, Stevenson juxtaposes his creation to that of classic adventure fiction authors such as W. H. G. Kingston, R. M. Ballantyne, and James Fenimore Cooper—mainstays of Victorian boys’ literature, which middle-class youth such as Stevenson typically grew up on. During his time, boys’ adventure fiction served to reassert the values of the British Empire. In order to redress the perceived emasculating tendencies of modern urban life, these moral tales invoked the heroics of British conquerors and military men in then-exotic locales such as the Atlantic, Far East, and Canadian Rockies.
In Treasure Island, however, Stevenson subverts this nationalistic bent in the complex relationship of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. Far from the conventional figure of the evil, conniving villain, the character of Silver is endowed with remarkable charm and pathos—so much so that even Jim is compelled to wish for his safety.
Long John Silver was modeled after the one-legged English writer William Ernest Henley, who, in his review of Treasure Island for the Saturday Review, called Silver “Mr. Stevenson's real hero.” In fact, Stevenson had confessed to Henley, who was his long-time friend and mentor, that it was his “maimed strength and masterfulness” which inspired the creation of Silver. Unlike his crew of pirates, Silver is not a slave to vice nor to greed; he knows when to negotiate and when to cut his losses. The root of his charm, however, lies in his absolute freedom: Silver is free from any superficial trappings of duty and principle, and his self-sustained autonomy is weighty enough to anchor him in the fiercest of storms. Indeed, the character embodies of the final lines of Henley’s best-known poem, “Invictus”:
I am the master of my fate,I am the captain of my soul.
While the British Empire saw the figure of the child as someone to be controlled, whose primitive energies were to be molded into moral, productive action, Stevenson honors childishness and play in Treasure Island. The novel does indeed center on the conventional conflict of heroes versus lawless savages, but Stevenson deepens this through his recognition that children’s raw instincts contain certain moral truths. Silver sees himself in Jim, and vice versa; each is strong-willed and self-governed, possessing remarkable intelligence despite lacking a privileged upbringing. In fact, Jim has more in common with Silver than the upright gentlemen Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett.
What Jim does not...
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yet possess, however, is Silver’s radical and vicious self-interest —something the former rejects at a crucial point in the novel, when Silver proposes that he joins his crew of pirates. Rather than place the hero as totally distinct from the savage, Stevenson configures the two as mirror images. While his contemporaries assume a steadfast corrective posture, he has the child hero, Jim Hawkins, confront moral ambiguities and exercise his own newfound independence.
Stevenson’s essay “A Gossip on Romance,” published shortly after Treasure Island, is an exploration of the romance fiction genre, which he defines as “the poetry of circumstance,” serving to satiate our natural appetites for wonder and adventure. Rather than impart moral lessons or dramatize principled discussions, the true work of romance adheres to the laws of the daydream, placing motion and sensation over consciousness. As Stevenson wrote, in such works of fiction,
the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.
As he had struggled with persistent health problems his whole life, it is no wonder that Stevenson found solace in crafting thrilling tales of travel and adventure. Through Treasure Island, he offered an escape from the tedium of everyday life, much like a child would escape into play. Alongside his heroes Miguel de Cervantes and Daniel Defoe, Stevenson has joined the ranks of writers who have contributed enduring symbols and archetypes to the canon of adventure fiction, most notably that of the notorious one-legged pirate with the talking parrot, buried treasure, and the now-infamous sea shanty “Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum.”