Treasure Island is synonymous with the thrill of piracy, and for good reason. Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, written in the nineteenth century, explores many of the tropes which are still so associated with terrifying pirates and the hunt for gold. His novel has built on the likes of the popular ‘Desert Island’ novels (think Robinson Cruseo), whilst also paving the way for many of the ideas we see in circulation for popular culture today. His is a lasting legacy, a true adventure novel which has stood the test of time. But, what it is really about?
Treasure Island tells the story of young Jim Hawkins, a boy whose family run a small Inn. When an old, yet frightening sailor comes to lodge with them, Jim is paid to look out for any signs of a one-legged man. Clearly disturbed by such a person making an appearance, Jim is curious, yet wary enough of the often drunk sailor not to push the point. However, his drunken stupors cannot hide the man from such people, and soon enough this lodger dies, terrified into a stroke. Finding what the sailor had been so desperate to conceal, and what the others had been so eager to find, Jim discovers a map; one which details the way to treasure hidden by the pirate Captain Flint. Sailing away with a crew on the quest for the treasure, Jim meets Long John Silver, unaware of this peg legged man’s true intentions. What follows is a fight not only to the treasure, but for the very right to survival.
The novel is often describes as a coming of age novel. Certainly, Jim is forced into an early maturity, but I don’t think that is where the true excitement lies. This really is an adventure story at its heart. Right from the first few pages we gather a sense of mounting excitement, of strange things which we long to know more about. We are presented almost immediately with the rough figure of an old buccaneer, a man singing his loud sea shanty songs with a penchant for strong rum, and little fear for instilling terror into the heart of others. He is a ‘tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man’ with his ‘hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white’ (p. 3). He cuts a striking and vibrant figure. His personal belongings are purposefully kept a mystery, which only adds to the idea that something strange is underfoot. All in all, we are left just as bewildered as our young narrator.
I think it would be fair to say that this novel is plot heavy, but in the best of ways. It moves forwards at a comfortable pace which reflects the adventurous aspect of the novel. More so, it is an enjoyable read, something that pushes readers on without needing encouragement. I had already read Treasure Island a long time ago, back when I was about ten and probably too naive to truly appreciate it. Despite this, I was able to read this now with all of the original excitement still intact. The few moments which are less driven by action, if any can be described as such, are few and far between, and did not discourage me in anyway. Stevenson wrote this novel over a century after Defoe’s Robinso Cruseo, yet in many ways I think the two can be seen in a similar vein. What I will say is that whilst Cruseo is assuredly an excellent piece of work, and often seen as the first English Novel, Stevenson has been able to adapt such ideas to fit a much more modern audience, increasing the thrills.
It is almost strange to think of this novel as having being written by the same hand which penned the Gothic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In plot, as well as location, the two seem worlds apart. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde brought the gothic firmly into the realms of a modern Victorian society, adapting the terror to suit is audience. It is a novel which takes the supernatural and mixes it with the world of science to create an altogether new threat. In contrast, the ideas of the terrors of the sea seem much more dated. I don’t actually think this is necessarily the case here however. Treasure Island is similar to Jekyll because of the way that it too explores the idea of both explicit and hidden threats, taking characters and turning them into horrors through their own deeds and actions. For a world in which colonisation and travel were ever increasing (Imperial Britain, Industrial revolution), the idea that such people could move along the sea would have been a horror entirely different to content with, as opposed to those within London’s own streets. The Golden Age of piracy was something which spanned between the 1650’s and the 1730’s, so by bringing this threat back into the reality of a modern day audience, it is essentially revisiting this fear. Likewise, Long John Silver is first discovered living in Bristol, not confined to the limits of the sea but actually living amongst society. In this way, there is a big similarity between Jekyll, as he too has infiltrated the city.
It is really interesting reading this book at an older age, to take note of the many tropes and motifs which are now so synonymous with piracy. The love of rum, buried treasure, ‘X marks the spot’, mutineers, being marooned, walking the plank; they are all still so prevalent in our associations with pirates today. You only have to look at the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to see the similarities. Long John Silver himself has become a fictional figure which has grown in almost myth like proportions, with many people believing him to be a figure of history along the same lines of Blackbeard. His is a creation which has lived on and on, along with his famous talking parrot and wooden leg, which goes to show the strength of the character Stevenson had created.
I strongly believe that the Long John Silver which Stevenson first created has much more substance to him than many would believe. His is a complex character, and having re read the book, I can almost see him as a precursor of sorts to the split personalities which we now associate with the idea of a Jekyll and Hyde figure. One the one hand, Silver is ruthless, a man capable of killing and going against the law to get his way. Yet, he is also portrayed as extremely astute, courageous and clever man, able even to manage money, unlike the other pirates. Of course, there is also the more obvious fact that the Silver we are first presented with comes across as almost a fatherly mentor, when in reality we discover he is the man behind the mutiny. Like within Jekyll, Stevenson explores the duality of man, showing a thematic interest which he will return to.
The only things which I did not wholly enjoy within this book were the use of nautical and sailing terms when the characters are at sea. I have only a rudimentary understanding of such things, and so the nautical phrasing was sometimes a bit wearying. The book is not oversaturated by this, and these occasions are thankfully less when compared with the main bulk of the book, so they did not distract too much from my enjoyment. They are also a testament to the skill which Stevenson probably put into getting his work to be as authentic as he could.
For a novel which is only just over 200 pages, it really does excel at what is within it, most notably the iconic characters and plot. I would recommend this book as a quick read for anyone looking to get into Classic literature, as well as anyone who quite simply enjoys the themes surrounding piracy.
Has anyone else read both this and Jekyll? What did you think?
Publisher: Penguin English Library