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 February 7, 2023.
Gentlemen vs. Pirates
In Stevenson’s time, to be a gentleman meant to possess certain social and political privileges. However, those privileges—and the means by which they were obtained—varied. For example, whereas Squire Trelawney is a member of the landed gentry, and therefore inherited his station, Dr. Livesey is a gentleman by virtue of his formal education. Meanwhile, Captain Smollett’s gentlemanliness is affirmed by his rank in England’s maritime hierarchy. While the category of gentleman implied wealth, education, and authority, it also meant a civilized code of conduct; most notably, a gentleman was always expected to heep his word.
In the novel, gentlemen of England are pitted against pirates—men who, instead of assimilating into civilized society, defy its laws and live a life of great risk and danger. These pirates do not hesitate to use violence. In fact, it is the language of their dealings. Meanwhile, Jim’s allies would prefer to maroon or send their adversaries to trial, given the chance. Their violent ambush of the mutineers at the climax of the novel is undertaken as a last resort.
It is Long John Silver who blurs the boundaries between gentlemanliness and piracy. He euphemistically refers to himself and other pirates as “gentlemen of fortune,” as if qualifying and formalizing their illicit means of accruing wealth. Indeed, piracy is not without certain formalities, as seen in the forecastle council held before Silver was handed the black spot. At one point, Ben Gunn also shares that Captain Flint was “afraid of none, not he; on’y Silver—Silver was that genteel,” acknowledging that it is Silver’s gentility, his ability to don conventions of civility like a mask, that makes him a formidable adversary. His self-imposed description as a “gentlemen of fortune” is a fitting address for those loyal only to their own self-interest and the fickle tides of fate.
Treasure Island is replete with father figures who all contribute, on varying levels, to Jim’s development from boyhood to manhood. Since Jim’s actual father, the owner of the Admiral Benbow, dies of sickness early on in the novel, Jim looks to different characters to help him navigate the adult world, which is marked with unfamiliar dangers. The first of these, Billy Bones, ruptures his quiet life of domesticity in the English countryside. When Bones dies, Jim mourns him as he did his father.
On the Hispaniola, Jim finds another paternal figure in Captain Smollett, whose authority he initially resents but grows to respect. On their first meeting, Smollett puts Jim to work and makes it clear that he has no favorites on his ship. In one of their final interactions, however, Smollett remarks that he and Jim can never sail together again, as the latter has become too much of a “born favorite” for him.
Another father figure of Jim’s is Dr. Livesey, who, while also a lawful and upstanding gentleman, does not quite possess Smollett’s priggishness. Although he holds Jim accountable for his selfish desertion, he is also empathetic to Jim’s independent efforts toward their cause. Out of their allies, Dr. Livesey is the most appreciative of Jim, and he even tells him at one point, “every step, it’s you that saves our lives.” While the doctor exhibits fatherly concern toward Jim, he also acknowledges the latter’s freedom and initiative.
Perhaps the most significant and complex of Jim’s father figures, however, is Long John Silver. In contrast with Jim’s allies, Silver represents another path to manhood—one that is more independent yet marked with lawlessness and callous self-interest. Silver sees himself in Jim and at one point asks him to join his crew of...
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pirates. By declining, Jim successfully confronts the moral ambiguities that Silver embodies: the sea cook is a paternal figure not to emulate but to overcome. For his part, Silver does not react with disappointment to Jim’s decision; rather, by denying him, Jim earns Silver’s respect.
The Voyage to Manhood
Despite being categorized as an adventure story, Treasure Island is, at its heart, a coming-of-age tale. The protagonist of the novel is neither a pirate nor a gentleman but a boy who must learn to navigate a dangerous and unfamiliar world of duplicity, cannon fire, and swordfights. Jim’s defining qualities are his quickness and adaptability; he is not content to sit idly by, and he often gives in to his own precarious impulses. But rather than have Jim denounce his childish ways, the novel implicitly celebrates his youthful bravado.
As Dr. Livesey duly acknowledges, it is Jim Hawkins who saves them, at every step, not by meekly deferring to the authority of his elders, but—ironically—by subscribing to the carefree individualism espoused by the pirates. Through this, he grows to possess the best of both worlds: the self-assuredness and civility of the gentlemen and the grit of the pirates. After their sea voyage, Jim Hawkins does not only emerge with treasure but with the riches of experience and wisdom.