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If you know about Pirates of the Caribbean, Treasure Planet, or even Muppet Treasure Island, then you know, indirectly or not, about Treasure Island (1883) by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. Many of the stereotypical tropes found in stories with pirates come from this book: the buried treasure, missing limbs, parrot on the shoulder, rum-guzzling sort. It's no wonder that so many film and TV adaptations and stories based on Treasure Island exist in the world: the original book captures the essence of adventure, danger and wonder found in the best pirate tales. The renowned novel about a young boy named Jim Hawkins and his expedition in search of buried treasure is a classic not just because of its age, but because of its themes, characters, plot, and narrative style.
Looking at this story and its writing through a twenty-first century lens, it's clearly a product of its time. There are moments when some readers will feel the urge to roll their eyes—especially when it comes to race relations (period-typical racism and stereotypes abound) and the depiction of women as fainting damsels.
Despite being a product of its time, Treasure Island 's themes are universal: greed as a means of destruction, honour to one's friends and allies, bravery, and appearance versus reality. One of my favourite elements in this book is how the pirate Long John Silver's parrot, Captain Flint, reveals his tue identity. Silver is determined to be seen as a benevolent father figure to Jim, despite his true, murderous intentions. So, when he and Jim are talking aboard the Hispaniola, the parrot's shrieking and cursing reveals Silver's true nature: he is a foul-mouthed mutineer. The themes of bravery and honor are also well-executed, as Jim often has to choose between his self-interest and the good of his allies, while the theme of greed as a means of destruction permeates the entire story. Greed is what motivates the characters—both pirates and honest seamen—and they end up paying for it in one way or another.
Jim Hawkins serves as a form of wish-fulfillment for readers. As the protagonist of a middle-grade book historically aimed at kids aged 9-12, he is bold, observant and adventurous—and sometimes even fearless. Adult characters serve as mentors: the stern, reasonable Dr. Livesey; the flighty but well-meaning Squire Trelawney; and the sceptical, seasoned Captain Smollett. Even the pirate Long John Silver serves as a mentor of sorts to Jim, despite being treacherous and opportunistic. Treasure Island is a character in itself, punishing the pirates for their greed and treachery and bringing with it fevers and madness. The story pits man against nature, where nature is seen as an obstacle for those seeking the treasure and nature serves as a reminder of the insignificance of gold—gold that is not worth the lives lost and casualties suffered to acquire it.
Sometimes the plot of this book can crawl—in particular when the action slows, such as when Jim is exploring the island alone. However, when the action picks up again, this is a real page turner that keeps you wondering what will happen next. There are a few twists that, despite being somewhat predictable, are still gratifying, and the circular structure of the plot (from home to the ship to the island and back) is a classic example of an adventure story similar to other classics like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The format of the plot follows the classic hero's journey, where the protagonists go into the unknown, make discoveries, and come back forever changed.
The clear narrative voice of this book sets it apart. Jim Hawkins narrates most of the novel and Dr. Livesey narrates a portion as well. It is worth mentioning that the writing style of Treasure Island takes some getting used to for those more accustomed to modern fiction: the syntax, vocabulary, and dialogue clearly shows its age and can be roundabout, taking time to get to the point. Nonetheless, the narrative voice of Jim is so clear that it's as if we are there with him as he discovers the treasure map, finds himself in perilous situations and grows into a bolder, more confident version of himself. It is interesting to note that Jim is even aware of his own hubris—his overconfidence at times can be his downfall. I appreciate Stevenson's choice to have Dr. Livesey narrate a small section of the book in Jim's absence: he establishes Livesey as the other protagonist of the story, and this section provides added detail and nuance not present in a child's narrative.
Fantastic characters, colourful and detailed descriptions and witty humor make Treasure Island a worthwhile read. While it suffers from historically specific pitfalls when it comes to issues of race and gender and can be predictable, the story itself has captivating themes and a distinctive narrative voice. Anyone who enjoys adventure stories, classic literature, and satisfying journeys that come full circle should read this book.