Loyalty, Morality, and Courage:Treasure Island explores the ideas of loyalty, morality, and courage through the actions of several characters. For example: Long John Silver is consistently disloyal, first to the squire and then to the other pirates; Dr. Livesey shows courage and morality through his generous application of medical treatments; and Jim shows great courage and loyalty when he reveals the mutiny, helps Ben Gunn, and captures the Hispaniola. Throughout Treasure Island, the virtues of loyalty, morality, and courage are contrasted with the dissolute behavior of the pirates. This comparison of values and actions highlights the theme that loyalty and righteousness will triumph over greed and immorality.
- For discussion: When does Jim show loyalty, morality, and courage? When does he appear to lack those traits? Which trait—loyalty, morality, or courage—do you think Jim displays most, and why?
- For discussion: When the pirates are injured in the stockade, Dr. Livesey gives them medical treatment, even though they are his enemies. What does this say about Dr. Livesey’s morals? What other characters show similar traits, and how are these traits important to the themes and plot of the novel?
- For discussion: Long John Silver is a complex character. At first, he appears to be trustworthy and loyal, and Jim Hawkins looks up to him. As the novel progresses, Silver becomes more contradictory and nefarious. In what ways is Silver loyal, and in what ways is he disloyal? When is Silver courageous, and when is he cowardly? To what extent is Silver a moral figure? How do Silver’s apparently contradictory actions develop themes in the story?
Theme of the Pirate Versus the Gentleman:Important themes in Treasure Island involve traits such as loyalty, courage, and morality. Those who exhibit these traits are considered good characters, aligned with the values of the protagonist (and, presumably, readers). The pirates, who embody qualities of disloyalty and immorality, are the villains. These two archetypes—the gentleman and the pirate—are ascribed to different characters throughout Treasure Island in part to explain and justify their behavior. However, some characters exhibit behavior that is at odds with their obvious archetype. Notably, Jim eavesdrops and deserts his friends—actions that don’t align with what would be considered gentlemanly behavior. The ambiguous behavior of some characters in Stevenson’s novel questions the necessity of strict social expectations—and gentlemanly composure—in the face of danger and adventure.
- For discussion: What constitutes proper, or gentlemanly, behavior in Treasure Island? (How) Does being on a remote island change characters’ behavior? Which characters exhibit gentlemanly or proper behavior throughout the novel?
- For discussion: Throughout the novel, Squire Trelawney makes several expressions of English patriotism. At one point, he criticizes Captain Smollett’s behavior as “un-English.” When he learns of the impending mutiny, he exclaims, “And to think that they’re all Englishmen!” What seems to be the “English” behavior that the squire expects of his fellows? How is it different from the behavior of the pirates? What might the pirates’ Englishness imply about the squire’s expectations and judgments?
- For discussion: In what ways does Jim Hawkins exhibit improper behavior, and how do his gentlemen friends like Dr. Livesey react to it? When does Jim act more like a pirate, and when does he act more like his friends? What might these behavioral changes say about survival and necessity in the context of adventures like the one Jim experiences?
- For discussion: Are there other characters in Treasure Island who embody traits from both the gentleman and the pirate archetypes? If so, who and how?
Characterization Through Jim’s Narrative Voice:Treasure Island is largely told from Jim Hawkins’s perspective. Jim shares many...
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of his thoughts and feelings about other characters, different events, and Treasure Island itself. Through Jim’s descriptive narration, readers learn a great deal about the crew of theHispaniola. Although Jim does not describe himself to the reader the way he describes other characters, readers become acquainted with Jim through his actions and the personality that emerges through his narration.
- For discussion: How would you describe Jim’s character? Give examples from the text to support your answer. Do you think you would get along with Jim if he were a real person? Why or why not?
- For discussion: Consider the personality, or voice, of Jim’s narration. How does Jim’s word choice contribute to his overall characterization?
- For discussion: Much of the characterization in Treasure Island is conveyed through the diction of characters’ dialogue. What are the biggest differences between Jim’s speech and that of characters like Long John Silver, the pirates, or Dr. Livesey? What do these differences indicate about the speakers’ characters?
- For discussion: Three chapters of Treasure Island are narrated by Dr. Livesey. Why does Dr. Livesey narrate these sections as opposed to Jim Hawkins or another character? What role does Dr. Livesey play in the telling of the story, and how is his character developed through his narration? What differences can you find between Dr. Livesey’s narration and Jim’s narration?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Jim Hawkins experiences a harrowing journey that greatly expands his worldview. In what ways is Treasure Island a coming-of-age story? Does Jim change or mature throughout the story? How?
- Which major events in Treasure Island most test Jim’s bravery, intelligence, and strength? In what ways would you react to the events in the story, and how do you think you might change after experiencing them?
- Jim is brave and spirited, and his impulses frequently have significant consequences. If you were on Treasure Island, do you think you would be able to trust your instincts the way Jim does? How do you decide when to trust your instincts? How do you know when you need to get help?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Nautical Jargon: Although Treasure Island was written for young readers, some students may struggle with the language that the narrators use, especially when it comes to specific vocabulary related to ships and sailing.
- What to do: Your students may benefit from a vocabulary sheet explaining some of the words they will encounter. For homework, students can highlight words they don’t understand and then define those words. Have students bring their definitions to discuss together in class.
There Are Popular Film Adaptations of Treasure Island: Some students may arrive at Stevenson’s Treasure Island having already seen one of the numerous film or television adaptations of the novel. Such exposure may give students preconceptions about the novel or even cause them to forego reading the novel in its entirety.
- What to do: Remind students that adaptations do not replace the original work. Film and fiction are two entirely separate forms, and so a film cannot convey or substitute the experience of reading a novel.
Content Notice: This text contains racial slurs, death, and scenes of graphic violence.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Treasure Island
While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching Treasure Island, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on the lack of female characters. The only female character in Treasure Island is Jim Hawkins’s mother, who plays a very minor role. Although they were few, there were some historical female pirates. Ask your students to reimagine some of Treasure Island’s main characters as women. Discuss with students how the course of the plot might differ in such a variation.
Focus on the depiction of the New World and the Caribbean. Jim describes being horrified by the sight of sea lions, thinking that they look like “slimy monsters” on the beach. This is a humorous mistake arising from the fact that the Western Hemisphere is home to flora and fauna that would have been unfamiliar to Europeans like Jim. Encourage your students to imagine traveling to another part of the world. Have them research the plants, animals, and climate of that region, and write as if they were an explorer discovering those things for the first time.
Focus on Stevenson’s portrayal of pirates. Stevenson’s depiction of pirates, whether broadly accurate or not, has become iconic: wooden legs, pet parrots, X-marked treasure maps—even small details like pirates wearing red caps—can all be seen in modern depictions of pirates. Ask students about their knowledge of pirates, including what they think pirates actually looked like. Ask students what clichés they see in the pirates of Treasure Island. Ask students to discuss other stories, TV shows, or movies that depict pirates, and how those pirates resemble or differ from the pirates of Treasure Island.