Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Lest my yesterday’s sonnet give anyone the idea that I did not like Treasure Island, please allow me to disabuse you: of course I did! It’s just, you know, a little bit lighter than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Ebb-Tide, or what have you.

And lest anyone think that a “boy’s book” is not for girls, let me disabuse you of that too—I, for one, am just such a girl, and I don’t think there would be many takers for the notion that adventure stories hold no appeal for females. But what makes this really and truly a boy’s book in my mind is that it is told by a boy, and a rather young one. Jim Hawkins, the narrator of nearly all of the tale, has been asked by his elder companions after the fact to write down all that happened. I don’t believe it’s clear exactly how much time passes between the events of the novel and his writing of them, but he at least still seems to be young when he writes it, and certainly does his best to be faithful to his boyish feelings and reactions of the time.

This is, I think, what stops it being among Stevenson’s very best work, but there are still bits and pieces of lovely writing that reasonably do come from young Jim and his natural childish impressions. Here he is early on, when Doctor Livesey comes to Jim’s parents’ inn to attend to Jim’s father, and sits at table with a pirate staying there at the time.

I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum, with his arms on the table.

A perfect observation from Jim—verisimilar, I mean—but also one that is all Stevenson—this contrast between the clean and powdered (in more senses than the physical) doctor and pirates in general will hardly be the last such.

It’s the various pictures of Long John Silver that are the best—he really steals the show, or perhaps Jim just gives it to him outright. Not morally, not by a long shot, but in terms of the images that will stay with you. Here is Silver (an amputee), after the mutiny, come to parlay with the good’uns who have holed up in a fort on Treasure Island:

Silver had terrible hard work getting up the knoll. What with the steepness of the incline, the thick tree stumps, and the soft sand, he and his crutch were as helpless as a ship in stays. But he stuck to it like a man in silence, and at least arrived before the captain, whom he saluted in the handsomest style. He was tricked out in his best; an immense blue coat, thick with brass buttons, hung as low as to his knees, and a fine laced hat was set on the back of his head.

Silver is given the sendoff of something of an immortal—though rather an earth-bound one, as Jim knows “his chances of comfort in another world are very small.” But it seems hard to believe that as the pirate he was—smarter, and more cunning, and more treacherous, and also more calm and less given to drink—he wouldn’t have popped up again somewhere, sometime, and perhaps to go back for the silver for which even “[o]xen and wain-ropes would not bring [Jim] back again to that accursed island.”

6 comments to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

  • I meant to follow up my Kidnapped read last year with Treasure Island, but well, right, I didn’t get to it. I have fond memories of the old film, watched again and again when I was a pirate fanatic as a young kiddo… so I will read it, but I may wait for my daughter to be old enough to read it with me. Make her the pirate fanatic for awhile.

  • Well, the funny thing about me is that I don’t believe I have ever seen a movie version, or read/had read to me a children’s version, or anything like that. I didn’t know much about Long John Silver other than that he was a pirate, in other words. I kind of thought he was a “good” pirate. He was a stranger and more interesting character than I expected.

    It’s totally anachronistic, but I kept having thoughts of Robinson Crusoe while I read this—how young Robinson reads romantic tales of seafaring adventures and thus decides to run away from home. This would be just the sort of book to do it!

  • Ah, that opening section, there is so much good writing there. I found the writing to bland out to some degree after the strong, strong opening, but then the characters make up for it, one in particular, as you note. “Perhaps Jim gives it to him outright” – interesting idea there, very interesting.

    I think you are right, that there is more than a hint of Crusoe. It is not just the island, but Jim’s trip around it, and the fight for the palisade, and I do not remember what else. Stevenson was below plagiarism, but not at all above a very strong homage.

  • Well, and the palisade itself—not to mention Ben Gunn, who is Crusoe himself, reanimated from some version of the past where he never found Friday, goatskins and all.

    You’re right about the strength of the opening vs. the rest of the book. Strong writing at first, and then not just good characters but good action later on.

  • Oh, gee, Ben Gunn, of course. Am I allowed to say “duh”? Do people still say that?

    The action: the fight in the ropes – an all-time great. Jim writes as if he cannot believe it happened. The tone is just right.

  • I still say it!

    And yes, totally!

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