Yesterday I finished reading my third book of the summer, the classic pirate’s tale, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th century author also famous for writing Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Treasure Island was first published in novel form in 1883, so it’s an oldie but a goodie.
I’d never read Treasure Island the whole way through before (I tried to get into it a few times but never had the time to give it my full attention), but I’ve always had a thing for a good pirate story (I grew up with the Disney movie version of Peter Pan, and I remember being captivated by an elementary school teacher reading my class The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle). I was familiar with the futuristic Disney version, Treasure Planet (starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Emma Thompson, and more). I’d call Treasure Planet one of the most underrated animated Disney movies. I mean, come on. It’s PIRATES! IN SPACE! AND MARTIN SHORT IS A CRAZY ROBOT! COME ON!!!
Treasure Island is actually remarkably similar to Treasure Planet (not that much, but similarities were definitely recognizable), but the book is a distinct Victorian Era adventure story. I have to admit that I had to push through it at points; the antiquated language and myriad of sailing terms weren’t familiar to me, so I often used contextual clues to discern the meaning of and imagine certain situations presented in the book. Still, though it was a book that required a lot of focus for me, it was still very enjoyable.
What I found most incredible about Stevenson’s story was that in a lot of ways, it was the first of its kind. When I flipped through the section at the end of the book entitled, “Inspired by Treasure Island,” I learned that Stevenson was the first to create the classic image of the pirate that we have today: peg-legged with a screechy parrot, often saying “Shiver me timbers” and singing “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” Though there were a few pirate stories before his, no other image of a pirate has stuck around as firmly as Stevenson’s, which is modeled by the character Long John Silver. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan , was supposedly inspired almost exclusively by Long John Silver when creating the notorious Captain Hook.
(If you haven’t read Treasure Island yet and plan to, there are a few spoilers to follow!)
I think that Stevenson’s greatest triumph in the story isn’t the final suspense (though I did gasp aloud) or the vibrant cast of characters, but the complexity of the villain himself. While Barrie presents Captain Hook as a wholly evil character from the start and later reveals his personal insecurities that lead to his horrific deeds and hatred for the little boy who won’t grow up, Stevenson presents Long John Silver at first as a rough and friendly sea cook but quickly reveals his mutinous intentions aboard the ship, the Hispaniola.
Throughout the book, Long John Silver never comes across as wholly evil. From the start, he takes a liking to Jim Hawkins–the teenage protagonist who joins the voyage to find Treasure Island by a mysterious happenstance at his parents’ inn–and vice versa. No matter what kind of greedy, evil deeds Long John commits (killing people, for a start), Jim never quite loses his trust in him. And likewise, when Jim confesses to Long John that he was the one who discovered the mutiny and told the “good guys” (i.e., the captain, the doctor, the squire, and the squire’s assistants) about the pirates’ plan, Long John sees Jim less as a traitor and more as an equal. Even though Jim is fully aware that Long John can go from laughing heartily at his noisy parrot to shooting a fellow pirate, Jim still would trust him with his life. Stevenson frequently repeats that Long John is “the best man” among all the pirates.
Because of his more complex nature, Long John Silver doesn’t get the bitter villain’s end, either; when he finds out that the treasure has been dug up already by a marooner named Ben Gunn (the equivalent of Martin Short’s kooky robot), he and Jim solidify their deal that, because Long John saved Jim from being killed by the pirates when he confessed, Jim would testify in his favor when brought to court to be hanged for piracy. Not only does the hero not kill the villain, but Long John escapes from the good guys with just a portion of the treasure, presumably to avoid punishment for his crimes. Still, there seems to be no revenge involved, and the villain simply fades away from the tale.
I found this to be an agreeable ending and made what would otherwise be the foundation of many a clichéd story into something much deeper than that. Though the blurb on the back of the book focuses on Jim’s transformation into adulthood, I found that to be secondary to the exploration of Long John Silver’s character. Jim grows up mostly due to his learned ability to harness his cleverness and fear in order to get what he wants. The book is told from the supposed point of view of an older, wiser Jim Hawkins, who laments his rash decisions often driven by pride and zeal for adventure, but who also glows in the memory that despite everything, it turned out okay. I admire Stevenson’s ability to weave a coming-of-age story with that of a complex, evil, yet also likable character. He reminds me that villains are just people who choose a different route to getting what they want.
My only complaint is that I wish there were more female (or anything other than European dude) characters besides Jim’s perseverant yet frequently fainting mother who leaves the story after the first couple of chapters and certainly does not join in on the epic sea voyage. Though the Disney film has a female captain of the ship (Yeah, Emma Thompson!!), the book is much less revolutionary. Victorian Era adventure stories were very much a boy’s genre featuring almost exclusively male characters, so it isn’t surprising that Mrs. Hawkins is the only woman you meet in 227 pages. (The only other one you hear about is Long John Silver’s poor, poor wife.) Definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.
Overall, the book was a delightful and whimsical tale of adventure. It’s a classic for a reason, and it should be on everybody’s “I’ve been saying I’d read these forever, and now I finally will” lists. There’s nothing like a good pirate story to start off your summer!
Have you read Treasure Island? What did you think of it? What are your favorite literary classics? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!