Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Back in April I read a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the innumerable famous and important authors I have little familiarity with.  It was a good story, and, in the comments to that blog post, Jesse praised Stevenson's writing style.  So on the weekend I picked up a copy of Treasure Island, complete with the famous 1911 N. C. Wyeth illustrations, at a university library, and this week read it.

Treasure Island first appeared as a serial in a children's magazine in 1881-2.  It includes a poem as a sort of epigraph, admitting that it is an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned way.  Many of our traditional views of pirates seem to come from Stevenson's novel: the parrot on the pirate's shoulder, the song "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum," phrases like, "Shiver me timbers!" etc., and I wonder how many of these ideas were new with Stevenson, and how many he was appropriating from earlier works.  One of the characters in the novel is a Captain Smollett, and I wonder if this name is used to honor Stevenson's fellow Scotsman, novelist Tobias Smollett.  Last year I read Smollett's first novel, Roderick Random (1748), and the metaphorical way some of the characters in Treasure Island use nautical terminology reminded me of the similar practice of a character in Roderick Random.

Treasure Island has been made into many films, but somehow I have never seen any of them, so I had only a vague knowledge of the plot.

Stevenson sets his story in the middle of the 18th century, over a century before he sat down to write it. Our main narrator is Jim Hawkins, a teenage English boy who works at his parents' tiny inn. He comes into possession of a map to buried treasure, which is sought by a party of ruthless pirates.  After evading these pirates (though the inn does not escape being ransacked), Jim teams up with solid establishment figures Dr. Livesey and local squire Mr. Trelawney, and they purchase a ship, hire a crew (including Captain Smollett) and set out to get the treasure. Unfortunately, Mr. Trelawney bungled the hiring, and most of the sailors he has signed on are pirates who are also out to get the treasure; these creeps are led by the charismatic but unscrupulous Long John Silver. Once on the island it's mutiny time, and the middle class types and the minority of decent sailors who remain loyal to them are in a fight to the death with the more numerous pirates. They fight with swords, knives, muskets and pistols; the pirates even bombard our heroes with a small cannon. Jim is right there in the thick of things, enlisting the help of a man who was marooned on the island years ago, firing off pistols and swinging a cutlass in close combat, sneaking aboard the ship and liberating it from the pirates, later getting captured and held as a hostage.

In recent years we've been subjected to a lot of pirate revisionism, with academics trying to convince us to admire pirates because they (allegedly) were democratic and resisted gender norms and practiced racial tolerance. Stevenson isn't trying to sell us any of that; in Treasure Island the pirates are pure evil (Jim at one point calls them "demons") and the most admirable character is a middle-class professional, Dr. Livesey, a physician, magistrate, and British Army combat veteran.   It is true that the pirates in the novel elect their leadership and have various rules and procedures for airing grievances and replacing bad leaders, but the scene in which this is showcased reads like a satire of democracy.  In the course of their "democratic" practice the pirates lie, double deal, deface a Bible, and are easily swayed by the more ruthless and intelligent of their number.

Throughout the book pirates are shown to live anarchic lives, all of them selfish back-stabbers with no respect for authority, no discipline and no thought for the future, while their leaders manipulate them, betray them, even murder them without a second thought.  Their behavior reads like an illustration of the adage, "no honor among thieves."  In contrast, the middle class heroes of the novel, pillars of the establishment with kind words for King George, may make mistakes, but they are honest, disciplined, and always eager to lend a hand to each other and even give individual pirates a second chance.

The pirates commit all manner of mayhem, and all pay for their crimes against humanity, getting shot, trampled by horses, stricken with malaria, or abandoned on the island.  The exception is Long John Silver, who escapes.  Should we doubt that justice will be served, Jim assures us that Silver will almost certainly spend eternity in Hell.

This is a solid and entertaining adventure story, well-written and well-paced.  Stevenson's other novels are definitely on my to-be-read list.

1 comment:

  1. Stevenson also wrote some very nice non-fiction. HIsTravels with a Donkey describing a trip he took in France is very nice, as is his writing about the Pacific islands. His novels, as you can tell, reflect his love of travel and adventure. I'm curious which of his books you will read next?

    Eventually you have to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. :) I'm wondering what you'll think of it...