Treasure Island Themes
The three main themes in Treasure Island are honor, adventure, and coming of age.
- Honor: The pirates in the novel have a code of conduct that they are expected to follow.
- Adventure: The story is filled with high adventure and thrilling challenges.
- Coming of age: As the story progresses, Jim Hawkins matures and learns about the world around him.
Last Updated on February 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
There is much made of the concept of honor in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. Whether it is the honor of gentlemen or the honor of thieves and pirates, this concept is interwoven throughout the story. Even though the pirates in this story steal other people’s fortunes, killing many sailors and villagers in the process, they have a code of conduct and are expected to obey that code or lose honor among their peers. For example, when Long John Silver protects young Jim Hawkins, Silver’s mates grow suspicious of him. They believe Silver might be in cahoots with Dr. Livesey or Captain Smollet. If this is true, then Silver is a traitor and has committed an act that is contrary to the pirates’ code. Likewise, there is a bond of honor between Hawkins and Silver. Hawkins gives his word to the old pirate that he will not run away once Silver holds Hawkins hostage. Silver later praises Hawkins for keeping his word. Dr. Livesey is also an honorable man. He is particularly honorable in reference to his vocation. He cares for the wounds of the pirates despite the fact that the pirates have tried to kill him.
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This story was written for one of Stevenson’s stepsons, so its targeted audience is young. Stevenson wanted to give the young boy something exciting to read; thus this tale filled with high adventure and thrilling challenges in each chapter was born. Throughout the story, the young narrator bears the threats of seafarers like Billy Bones and Long John Silver. At other times he is sneaking around Billy Bones’s bedroom to retrieve the treasure map or going against the orders of the ship’s captain and devising daring plans of his own. Jim Hawkins has led a simple life before this story begins. But suddenly he finds himself sailing across an ocean in search of treasure and having to defend himself. He faces mutiny, several gun battles, uncouth pirates who try to kill him, and the constant threat of being marooned on an island—all the right ingredients for keeping young readers reading to find out what happens next.
Coming of Age
As the story begins, young Jim Hawkins lives in a small village and works each day in his parents’ inn. He is devoted to his parents and at first afraid of the pirate Billy Bones. Hawkins trembles when Bones touches him. Hawkins is also somewhat naïve, trusting other people’s interpretations rather than trusting his own. For example, when Hawkins recognizes a pirate in Long John Silver’s inn, he believes Silver when he says he has no idea who the man is.
Hawkins’s gullibility slowly fades as the adventure progresses and his experiences widen. For instance, when Hawkins climbs into the apple barrel and overhears Silver planning a mutiny, he begins to understand that there is real evil in the world. As the story continues, there are more rites of passage as Hawkins passes through adolescence to adulthood. He sneaks off the ship once it is anchored and takes off on a journey all by himself. He fights in a battle against the pirates and sees many men die. He conjures up a plan to rescue the ship from the pirates. At this point he feels the full strength of his power. He tells the only conscious pirate onboard that he, Hawkins, should be referred to as the captain of the ship. It is as if Hawkins is stating he is a man. He orders the pirate to help him steer the ship through dangerous currents and anchor the boat in a safe harbor. At the end of this scene, Hawkins receives his first wound. It is a superficial cut, but with it Hawkins faces his own mortality.
The themes of man against man, man against nature, and man against himself help to structure this novel. For example, Hawkins must overcome his fear of the pirates, beginning with Billy Bones and later with Long John Silver. Hawkins must also face nature, especially when he pulls the anchor on the Hispaniola and is first thrust about in the ocean waves in the small boat of Ben Gunn’s and then later in the great ship itself as he tries to navigate the strong currents in the island’s narrow harbors. Moreover, Hawkins faces conflict when he must make very difficult choices, such as when he decides to desert his crew. Through conflict and its consequences Hawkins matures. Furthermore, conflict draws in readers, as they attempt to second-guess the outcome of conflicts and read on to discover them.