Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson book cover
Treasure Island (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson's first published novel, is a piratical adventure book set in the eighteenth century. Opening on the English coast, the book finds young Jim Hawkins living with his parents at the Admiral Benbow Inn, which they run. A mysterious seaman and known pirate, Billy Bones, becomes their long-term lodger, and when old shipmates of Billy come looking for him and a treasure map that he carries, the Inn becomes a dangerous place to stay. Jim and his mother flee for safety but not before taking what they are owed in rent from Billy Bones's chest. After the pirate gang have moved on Jim realises that as well as the gold they are owed, he has also taken the treasure map so valued by the ransackers. Under the guidance of local landowner, Squire Trelawney, and magistrate, Dr. Livesey, Jim is carried off on an adventure to find the lost treasure. Sailing with a crew put together by his two elders, Jim is cabin boy to the seamen, who sail under Captain Smollett, but seem to hold strongest allegiance to the ship's cook, Long John Silver. They are deep into their voyage when Jim overhears a muttered conversation between Silver and one of the ship's crew, discovering that there is a mutiny to take place with Long John Silver as its leader. Jim informs his original companions and the trusted captain of the situation and from there the few good men struggle to out-think and out-fight the violent pirates who would make off with the treasure. Rough and tumble episodes ensue and Jim is thrust into an adventure more terrifying and exhilarating than he could possibly have foreseen.

Treasure Island is a quest story, not only for treasure, but for Jim's independence and passage into adulthood – in this sense it is a coming-of-age story. Jim's father dies early on in the book, and throughout he looks to other characters to act as a male role model, but ultimately he rejects them all to embrace, on maturity, his own identity. Beyond Jim’s personal story, the novel demonstrates the emergence of Britain’s modern industrial state from its lawless past, and provides a critique of the capitalist mechanisms that were increasingly taking hold. Stevenson also makes a point about state provision using the pirates who, as ex-servicemen, turned to piracy only because the state failed to provide for them on retirement, leaving them to the mercy of private charity.

The book imbues values of the rising middle-classes who, at the time of publication, were increasingly confined to offices but still had the lust for adventure and outdoors work. Many books for boys at the time focused exclusively on physical prowess, but here administrative qualities are equally valued. The admin role models like Dr Livesey are shown to have admirable qualities and get the better of the villains, who are wild and ill-disciplined; a lesson in the morality of stoicism. The novel also speaks to an underlying fear of the more affluent classes: that the lower ranks may rise up and seize power. However, perhaps the most unsettling element for 19th Century readers was not the wildness of the buccaneers, but the loquacious Silver. Unlike his peers, Silver is able to infiltrate and impersonate the middle classes, and this was not only one of his most terrifying qualities, but points to the idea that class boundaries were becoming blurred, and those rough but cunning members of the lower classes were taking their place in polite society. Meritocracy of this sort is apt to cause discomfort in those wielding power and Stevenson brilliantly creates the sense that it is every man for himself, with evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest becoming important.

Silver is a thoroughly modern man – quick to adapt to the changing situation around him he shows little regard for others and pursues his own self-interest at all times. He is an odd version of capitalist man and, in a novel where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, that Silver carves for himself a profitable ending perhaps suggests a new ambiguity and disorder to the idea of success. Indeed, as much as being a capitalist model, through his ability to adapt Silver embodies evolutionary success. Silver strips away the veneer of old world values and exposes their fragility and illusion, pointing instead to the new world, a place where a man can conjure up success through his situation and intelligence, not through his fine morality or high birth. However, this is juxtaposed to the treasure which, made up of both gold and silver, may be of more significance than one first anticipates. In the nineteenth century the merits of gold versus silver were hotly debated, gold associated with conservativism and 'old-money', and silver associated with commoner roots and liberal values. That only gold is recovered from the bounty perhaps suggests the dominion it held over silver at the time: a reinforcement of old-world values and pride. Of course, the significantly-named Silver’s minor success, suggests a turning of the tide – a move from the old standard to the new.

There is little flamboyance to the language; most is functional and spare. The action, though, is full-blooded and rambunctious, and as such some of the characters are less than fully-fleshed, but this causes little problem in a novel where the characters' inner states matter far less than their actions. However, having Jim narrate the story in the past tense means that there are times when he foreshadows or full-on alerts the reader to situations of peril, and this undoubtedly diminishes some of the fear the reader might otherwise have felt. As inevitably is the case with stories of good versus bad, the wicked characters are often the most interesting. Certainly, Long John Silver is by far the most engaging character and embodies everything a modern audience expects a pirate to be, but through the course of the book the reader is presented with pirates who are not only bloodthirsty and treasure-hunting, but who are drunk, cowardly, and easily-led.

That the templates laid here by Stevenson have gone on to become the accepted stereotypes of the piratical genre, is testament to the novel’s longevity and ability to capture the imagination. Beyond the exoticism of the adventure and the pirates, this enduring quality owes much to Jim who, with his impetuosity and winning-energy, is a character that children of any generation can relate to. However, for contemporary young readers there is a harshness in attitude that will be foreign to most and the frequent deaths are less palatable to an audience less acquainted with death than their forebears. More than anything though, young readers might find the language prohibitively dull or inaccessible: while the story remains fresh, its package may be problematic. However, Treasure Island continues to offer romanticised escapism to a world of unsanitised adventure and danger, and this appeal will endure, and perhaps only greaten as children’s upbringings become increasingly sterilised.

At times its age does show, but I still enjoyed Treasure Island. I'm dubious as to its wide-spread appeal to younger readers today, but an interesting read.


Useful Links
Reviews of Treasure Island on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Treasure Island on Amazon (US)

9 comments:

janet Lewison said...

But what about the infamous 'black spots' gifted by the sinister harbinger of death,Blind Pugh who comes calling on the Old pirates...tapping through the mist with his stick???

Much copied and never bettered?

Haunted me as a child and still works creepily now...film with Robert Newton as Long John fabulous and I loved him getting away from conventions of justice!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Ah, the black spots - they seem to be one of the less borrowed tropes of Stevenson's work. I have a feeling Stevenson invented them, but a quick google tells me that perhaps they were based on an old pirate custom of giving an ace of spades playing card to those who were to be charged, or discharged, as the case may have been.

And oh yes, Blind Pugh - the novel opening is a whole lot better than I had expected somehow. Not a section anyone thinks of particularly, but wonderfully gothic in its way.

I haven't seen any adaptations of the novel, nor have I read much other pirate literature, so I'll leave it to others to argue whether Stevenson's original has been improved upon. One thing I can say, it's one hell of a romp!

Froze8 said...

This was absolutely one of my favorite books in school.

I have to say Matthew I found your blog while working and really think I'd like to stick around. You have great design work and your reviews are excellent.

My only question is have you considered adding other ways to follow your blog such as networked blogs or linkys?

-K8
http://froze8.blogspot.com/

Your Hire Me page was excellent, I'm a personal assistant and freelancer, I should be working on creating such a page myself.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks very much K8 - it's lovely to get positive feed back.

I've considered offering other subscription methods, but haven't fully investigated. My (possibly antiquated) theory is, if people enjoy my reviews they'll always stop back for more.

Treasure Island is a great read - glad to hear you enjoyed it as a youngster. I'm not sure I'd have got on so well with it as a child.

Kate Tilton said...

My pleasure Matthew!

Treasure Island is a great read! I'd love to give it another go one day.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Have you tried 'Silver' but Andrew Motion? It was released a couple of years ago and is supposed to be a sequel. I keep meaning to try it.

Kate Tilton said...

No but I will add it to my list!

Di said...

Uhm, how about Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Matthew Selwyn said...

Oh, that'd definitely be worth a review. Lots to talk about there.