Half a century has passed since I first read Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson yet much of it is still fresh in my mind. I remember the menacing figure of Long John Silver and the quick witted child Jim who is initially mesmerised by Silver but proves his nemesis. I remember also some of the dramatic scenes like the one where Jim hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates plotting to kill their way to the treasure.
Treasure Island was a landmark in the history of children’s literature, one of the first directed specifically at boy readers. It was seen initially as a great adventure story which portrayed the qualities expected of men who formed the British Empire, governing and controlling a waste swathe of the world. So Jim, our hero, is imbued with qualities like courage, the ability to take control (at one point he grabs the ship and steers it to safety) and integrity in the sense he knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s a coming of age novel in which Jim learns how to use those skills on the side of the establishment and against those who would destabilise it (in other words the criminal undercurrent).
And yet there are some troubling elements in the novel that undercut that presentation of the novel.
The first is troubling element is Jim’s relationship with Silver.For a large part of the novel Jim seems to admire this former seaman. When he sees him for the first time in the Bristol quayside pub he runs, he is impressed with Silver’s energy and his ability to laugh and joke with the patrons. Knowing of Silver’s past association with Black Dog and his experience with the violent buccaneers who lay siege to his mother’s in, he is surprised to find Silver “a clean and pleasant landlord” who “he would have gone bail for.” Even when he discovers Silver’s true nature he admires the man’s ability to control the pirates, establish himself as leader and the energy with which he embarks on the climb to find the treasure. But Jim is un unreliable narrator – first because he is telling the story as an adult and hence what he recalls. Additionally he often tries to justify actions which at the time feel disloyal to the men on the side of the goodies – particularly the Squire and the Doctor. She he absconds from the stockade where they are trying to fend off the pirates he makes the excuse that he is “only a boy…”
A second element that undercuts the story is the way that the people who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority are shown to be just as bad as the recognisably evil pirates. The pirates are motivated by greed – they squabble and are ready to commit murder to get their hands on the buried treasure. But are the two figures who plan the adventure and fund it, any better? Squire Trelawney proves to be someone who can’t keep his mouth shut about the voyage and spills the beans before they have even equipped their vessel. The local doctor Dr. Livesey is wise and practical and he does at least show integrity by agreeing to treat the pirates with just as much care as his own wounded men. But both men have just as much a lust for treasure as much as the pirates (even and both end up killing people. The Squire proves to be quite a crack shot, able to ‘pick off’ a distant pirate almost casually.
By the time they leave the island they show no remorse in leaving behind the remaining pirates to die because its less troubling than taking them home to face the hangman. They share out the treasure, in a fair manner according to Jim yet Ben Gunn who was their saviour doesn’t seem to have been treated in a way that recognised how instrumental he was in saving their lives and finding them the treasure. Only the boy Jim seems to recognise the true cost of the voyage as one of “blood and sorrow…. shame and lies and cruelty..” Not quite the behaviour you’d expect from fine upstanding members of the Colonial controlling establishment?
This undercurrent of something not feeling quite comfortable about the book’s messaging is the reason I enjoyed reading it. The adventure story was good – plenty of dramatic moments and nasty villains. But I enjoyed reading between the lines and trying to work out whether Stephenson is endorsing conservatism or undermining it.
What his motives were we will never know but in Silver he gave us a character tat has endured through the ages with constant reinvention. Without Silver we may never have had Captain Hook in Peter Pan or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Disney Theme Park. Not bad for a novel more than 100 years old..
The Book: Treasure Island by R.L Stevenson was published in 1883. Legend has it that it was inspired by a map Stevenson drew himself and that he drew on the histories of real pirates like Blackbeard.
My edition: Published by Oxford World Classics which has a good glossary (very useful for those nautical terms and a helpful introduction by Peter Hunt one of the leading academics in the field of children’s literature).
Why I read this: its one of the set texts on my children’s literature course.