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.”

Treasure Island sonneting

I’ve been reading a lot, and writing noticeably less, although I think some credit is deserved for serious runs at both The Savage Detectives and War and Peace. I’ll try to go a bit lighter this week, and start, as I sometimes like to do after a break, with a poem.

R.L. Stevenson, hack extraordinaire
(At least according to some)
Is known for novels worthy of some real fanfare
But also some things better described as “fun.”

Treasure Island, for one, is a “boy’s book” surely
Or at least the tale of a boy: young Jim Hawkins
Finder of quite a map—and a crew more surly
Than his benefactors could possibly have imagined.

The poor squire Trelawney, not ready for such a trip
Outfits their ship with a pirate of the first degree.
Doctor Livesey and Captain Smollett are given quite the pip
When little Jim finds out the danger they cannot even flee.

As ship’s cook, Long John Silver is no barbecutie
And brings down on all their heads mutiny—and calumny.

“Religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates”

Yesterday I said, somewhat flippantly, that Attwater, one of two excellent characters in R.L. Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne’s The Ebb-Tide was Mr. Kurtz, transplanted to the South Seas. That’s playing a little fast and loose. Attwater is not a government agent, but a very lucky man who has found what is still a totally private island in the South Pacific, whose lagoon is lousy with pearls. It’s just him and some natives there harvesting them, and he’s become incredibly wealthy. I mean “incredibly” literally—Herrick and his fellows don’t really have a conception of just how much wealth this man can have amassed here, but they know it must be a lot.

Attwater isn’t like Kurtz only in his relationship with natives, which is strange and a bit unsettling. He’s also an ideologue and a zealot, though of a different sort. Herrick, in fact, was expecting someone more like Kurtz, but realized instead that Attwater is also a deeply religious man, desperate to save Herrick. He is both a man of the world and a Christian, and he puts his “fingers…on the screws,” pushing Herrick “beyond bearing” in his effort to get Herrick to accept Jesus as his personal savior. When Herrick finally rejects this in no uncertain terms, Attwater leaves off, somewhat curiously.

The men are very different from each other. Herrick has spent his life incompetent and ashamed of it. He has no self-respect left, he’s dishonored himself, and took the ultimate step of changing his name and trying to escape his old life. He’s a man who has hit rock bottom and could use some saving. And when he finds himself locked in an immoral plan of questionable judgment with his shipmates Davis and Huish, he decides he will not be the cause of that plan’s failure—this is where he will finally become competent in the face of dire need, which he is able to do because he is “merely weak,” not “merely cowardly.”

Attwater, largely because of the influence religion has on his whole outlook, is almost the opposite. He is alone on his little island, at least in white men’s terms, but he is in the presence of God and the universe, never feeling alone. As Herrick says, far from incompetent, Attwater “knows all, hees through us and laughs at us like God.” And in the end, he will render God’s judgment upon the three men.

The first, Huish, is completely despicable and villainous, and he has his own plan to go after Attwater in the least honorable way possible. Attwater spares no mercy here. Davis would also like to kill Attwater, but here, Attwater has material he can work with. He scares the pants off the man instead, at which point he is finally able to save him.

But what of Herrick? Herrick actually disappears in the final scene. “Before Herrick could turn about, before Davis could complete his cry of horror, the clerk lay in the sand, sprawling and confused.” Huish is the clerk, and this is the last mention of Herrick—what happens to him?

The question is not rhetorical. Davis’s final cry, as he realizes Attwater will spare him, is “like that ofa child among the nightmares of fever: ‘O! isn’t there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?’” Attwater realizes that “here is the true penitent”—contrasting Davis, of course, with Herrick. Herrick has already answered this question for himself: there is no mercy, and there is nothing anyone can do to be saved. There are only “fairy tales” and “folklore” to tell yourself—even suicide is just another fairy tale, and not a real escape. “I must stagger on,” is Herrick’s basic statement on life, which ultimately pulls him out of this final scene because he can have no place in it; there is nothing for Attwater to do with him.

The Ebb-Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne

Like Alan Heathcock’s Volt, another book I failed to write about anywhere near reading it is The Ebb-Tide, co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his step-son, Lloyd Osbourne. When I first read Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesá, I discussed how much South Sea romances had changed between the time of Melville’s Typee and Stevenson’s career. Here, the Melville novel that comes most to mind is Omoo, where a mildly mutinous crew is relegated to a fairly comfortable open-air prison for a while in Tahiti.

The crew here, which also starts out in Tahiti, is more genuinely villainous, and Herrick, the main character, is less rebellious innocent abroad and more hard-nosed Englishman. Herrick is in on a scheme with the other officers of his ship—only one of whom actually has any experience at sea—which goes quite expectedly and powerfully awry, landing them at an isle “undiscovered, scarce-believed in” where Stevenson brings out the remaining beauty and delicateness of the now tainted South Pacific:

The beach was excellently white, the continuous barrier of trees inimitably green; the land perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more. Every here and there, as the schooner coasted northward, the wood was intermitted; and he could see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man looks over a wall) to the lagoon within—and clear over that again to where the far side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees against the morning sky. He tortured himself to find analogies. The isle was like the rim of a great vessel sunken in the waters; it was like the embankment of an annular railway grown upon with wood: so slender it seemed amidst the outrageous breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have wondered to see it sink and disappear without a sound, and the waves close smoothly over its descent.

I will easily take this as an analogy not just for the island itself, but for this whole watery frontier.

When Herrick and his friends land at the isle, they find something quite interesting there—Mr. Kurtz, a few thousand miles away from the Belgian Congo. Stevenson (and Osbourne, of course, I’m not trying to ignore him) creates a number of excellent characters in this novella, and Herrick has a tough fight with Attwater to be first among them. More on him tomorrow.

Revisiting: Art of the Novella edition, Conrad and Stevenson

Just one of the wonderful things about the Art of the Novella challenge is that I had been loving, buying, and reading these babies (yes, in that order) long before Frances threw down her gauntlet, and with the addition of titles I read in other editions (oh, Friday humor), I have plenty of material to keep up my revisiting Fridays for the month (and help me reach at least “unstoppable” level). This week, I chose two that would go well with each other as well as with my opening salvo on The Man Who Would Be King.

I first read Joseph Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles just over a year ago, and my strongest vision of it is still this wonderful woman banging away at a piano on a lush lonely island in the South Seas. Freya’s strength runs through the whole novella, along with the serenity and wisdom that come from it. While her beloved, Jasper, “soar[s]” on the “white pinions” that are the sails of his brig, “Freya, being a woman, kept a better hold of the mundane connections of this affair.” Far be this from any kind of put-down—it’s just that Freya is the perfect manager of her own life:

I can’t say I felt sorry for Freya. She was not the sort of girl to take anything tragically. One could feel for her and sympathize with her difficulty, but she seemed equal to any situation. It was rather admiration she extorted by her competent serenity. It was only when Jasper and Heemskirk [the two men competing for her affection] were together at the bungalow, as it happened now and then, that she felt the strain, and even then it was not for everybody to see. My eyes alone could detect a faint shadow on the radiance of her personality.

She’s also smart enough not to be totally sure of Jasper, in spite of her love. “It is very fine and romantic to possess for your very own a finely tempered and trusty sword-blade,” the narrator notes, “but whether it is the best weapon to counter with the common cudgel-play of Fate—that’s another question.” Oh, Freya, I feel sorry for you.

On a different island, somewhere further east, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá, which I read around the same time as Freya. I noted at the time that the setting was “paradise-on-the-surface-only,” a fact that comes out right in the opening paragraph of the novella:

I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing.

The story is not all vanilla and lime—almost not at all vanilla and lime—and much of it worse than a sneeze. But it’s wonderful, and the thing that set me loving Stevenson. Note to Melville House: Put out The Ebb-Tide as an Art of the Novella, pretty please. It would look lovely next to this.

On Hyde’s purity of evil

Kevin asked yesterday whether I thought Edward Hyde was “purity of evil/selfishness incarnate,” and whether he had “*any* redeeming qualities.” Let’s take a look at the evidence.

The first time we hear about Hyde involves a description of one of the two violent crimes he commits that are witnessed and described in the novel. This first one involves him running into a little girl on the street, upon which he “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.” And this is exactly what, for me, was off or generally disappointing in the book: the evil sounds like little to hear, though everyone keeps insisting it is hellish to experience.

Everyone who encounters Hyde, from Mr Utterson to Dr Lanyon to Dr Jekyll’s servants to strangers in the street, seems to have a physical reaction to his evil. Their blood runs cold, they can feel it in their marrow, they are repulsed, they are disgusted. They can tell there is something not right about this man. Jekyll recognizes this:

I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

But what does that mean? Yes, we witness two violent crimes, where there is no doubt of the malevolence of the criminal and little question of remorse. Self-preservation is the closest Hyde comes to regret, or so it appears. But these are, as far as I can tell, the only real examples of “evil.” Stevenson seems to harp on the purity of evil in Hyde, first in the third-person narration section, where all the characters insist on it, then again in the person of Dr Lanyon, then again in the person of Henry Jekyll. But as for what evil is, that bit seems less than fully explained.

Dr Lanyon’s letter to Utterson provides almost a perfect example of same:

What he told me in the next hour I cannot bring my mind to set on paper. I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it, and yet now, when that sight has faded from my eyes, I ask myself if I believe it, and I cannot answer. …As for the moral turpitude that man unveiled to me, even with tears of penitence, I cannot, even in memory, dwell on it without a start of horror. I will say but one thing, Utterson, and that (if you can bring your mind to credit it) will be more than enough. The creature who crept into my house that night was, on Jekyll’s own confession, known by the name of Hyde and hunted for in every corner of the land as the murderer of Carew.

I’m not trying to let the murderer of Carew off light here. I guess a gratuitous and unrepented (by the actual perpetrator, Hyde, as opposed to Jekyll, who does regret the action) murder could be “evil.” But, you know, this crazy moral turpitude, unveil it to me. Otherwise, all I can do is take everyone else’s word for it: Hyde is pure evil. (Note that I haven’t addressed the selfishness question; there are lots of other ways, I think, to look at Hyde—e.g., the absence of inhibition. Also, does he have any redeeming qualities? Well, he doesn’t go around murdering people all day, I suppose.)

And now, have at me again!

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Back in October, as part of the Scottish literature reading challenge, Amateur Reader and Kevin of Interpolations had a series of posts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book I had hoped to have read by that time, especially because of my love of The Beach at Falesá and the fact that I’d already been jonesing for more Stevenson. Now I’ve filled in this reading hole and…well let’s not say I was disappointed.

I didn’t like it as much as Falesá. That’s all. It is better, probably “the best thing he ever wrote,” as AR says. And anyway there is lots in it for me.

As Kevin notes, “one of the most important vehicles of action in the story are letters and written documents,” and we know I’m beyond on board with this sort of thing. This is the epistolary tale done, at least for me, super right. The documents that form part of the narrative itself are deeply important to the plot, and there are loads of other documents embedded in the story that create an environment where such papers are generally important. Stevenson is good; this is sophisticated, not superficial, stuff.

And I’d like to take a shot at Kevin’s question about the three sets of three windows, or at least at a very minor part of it. One thing rather noticeable (and unsurprising) in the book is the doubling. There is Jekyll/Hyde, of course. There are two violent crimes committed by Hyde and witnessed. There are two letters Utterson must read to learn of what has gone on. There are two wills made out by Henry Jekyll, in nearly identical language but with different beneficiaries. There are even two envelopes containing the letter from Dr Lanyon, and his language in turn is the twin of (or triplet of, but wait just a minute on that) Jekyll’s.

But back to that first doubling, the titular one. Jekyll, in his letter to Utterson, describes “man’s dual nature,” calls himself a “double-dealer,” discusses “both sides of me” [emphasis mine], later to declare “that man is not truly one, but truly two.” But he immediately qualifies it: “I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyon that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines, and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.”

And when Jekyll describes what happens when Hyde breaks off, it’s clear that there isn’t one of them “good” and the other “evil.” There is one of them “evil” and the other still “multifarious [and] incongruous.” Hyde is pure, but Jekyll retains the same “imperfect and divided countenance” he always had—retains, underneath his respectable exterior, the same illicit desires that seem to help Hyde reassert control without help of the potion, say, when Jekyll has been having a naughty dream.

So even if we take this one facet, and forget about all the other oppositions that go into man’s character, Jekyll is still stuck in the middle, just as he is at the middle window of three. The tale doesn’t double Henry Jekyll; it leaves him just where he is, raising the possibility of two other creatures but only giving us one. (Or, perhaps more precisely, raising the possibility of infinite other creatures, with two of them on this particular axis.)

I need the Have at me! badge for this one; I seem to have made an argument of some kind.

“I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá

Almost 50 years after Herman Melville wrote Typee, which drew from his own experiences in Polynesia a few years earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Beach of Falesá, one of its recognizable but much-altered descendants.

In many ways the two books seem nearly opposite. Typee‘s Tommo is afraid of the natives and bent on escape, but considers them basically charming. Wiltshire, the narrator of Stevenson’s novella, knows they can be dangerous but considers himself so comfortably superior, in every possible measure, that he has hardly any regard for the natives at all. Tommo wins Fayaway with romantic outings at the lake; Wiltshire picks his bride out of a crowd upon landing at the beach and weds her with a certificate to be “illegally married…for one week.” Tommo can never read the natives, always frustrated by unfamiliar expressions and exotic tattoos; Wiltshire believes:

It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think. Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka. There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.

The funny thing is, Tommo knows the same things about the natives on Nukuheva; there and in Omoo the Melville-narrator holds just about that exact opinion. He’s just not quite so blunt about it all.

By 1892, Wiltshire qua white man is a much older hand in the South Pacific. For one thing, he’s not a sailor, but a trader. He’s not there to explore or to see the world but to sell Western goods to the natives. He disdains the missionaries, blaming them even for the cheapness of his sham marriage: “If they had let the natives be, I had never needed this deception, but taken all the wives I wished, and left them when I pleased, with a clear conscience.” He’s willing to give the natives “plain sense and fair dealing,” but considers them anarchic and lawless. All the same, “[i]t would be a strange thing if we came all this way and couldn’t do what we pleased.” Funny how that works.

Wiltshire’s coarseness gives the narration a bare and somewhat bracing flavor that complements the paradise-on-the-surface-only setting. He slips in and out of some approximation of Bislama and bounces around, recounting dialogue, between “said” and “says” seemingly at his whim. He’s not a very nice person, but he’s sort of ethical and not half as bad as the other white men around. He does right by his wife Uma, but his end with her is the perfect picture of the split psychology of the colonial. He stays because he’s in love with her, they have children together, and he loves them and worries about their future—because “[t]hey’re only half-castes, of course; I know that as well as you do, and there’s nobody thinks less of half-castes than I do; but they’re mine, and about all I’ve got.”

No, not a very nice man—and not a very nice novella, but a good one. And good reason to read more Stevenson.