I just finished reading one of the world’s great classic novels, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. This isn’t the first time I’ve read it, nor the second or the third. I can’t say exactly how many times I’ve read it because the first time was a long time ago, probably when I was in high school or thereabouts. I do remember reading it a couple of years ago too, but that’s all I can say about that.
Like I’ve done with Stevenson’s other well-known novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I’ve also read several times, I pulled out Treasure Island because I wanted a break from the dry, almost scientific books I’d been reading over the previous couple of weeks. In fact, I’d just finished a book about detecting planets around other stars and had begun one about Mars when Treasure Island, sitting unobtrusively–yet at the same time quite noticeably–in its place in the bookshelves in my living room, caught my eye. I pulled it out and began to read, telling myself that I would only peruse the first couple of chapters because I liked the way Stevenson illuminated the characters and the settings: Jim Hawkins, the Admiral Benbow Inn, the Old Sea-dog, Black Dog, Dr. Livesey, old blind Pew, and others. But I got caught up in the swirl of fascinating descriptions and memorable action as Jim discovers the map to treasure island and he and his friends set out to claim the gold. I decided to forsake the science books and get lost in the romance of a great adventure novel.
I’m not sure I can completely describe why Treasure Island, or Jekyll/Hyde for that matter, is such a great book. Treasure Island has been around since it was first published in serial form in 1881 and 1882, and then in book form in 1883. Most likely, it’s not one thing that defines its lasting potential; several factors enter here: the great descriptions, the fast-paced action, the romance of a sea voyage and the chance to discover buried treasure, the fascinating language of the pirates that contrasts so intently and so effectively with that of the English gentlemen who undertake the voyage, the strong undercurrent of tension and conflict from the first page. It’s what we today would call a coming-of-age novel, of Jim Hawkins who confronts not only the outward threats to his life by associating with the likes of Long John Silver and his mates, but the inward pressures to learn the ways of a man and negotiate a narrow path between associating with the mutinous crew on the one hand and his friends from England who conspired to establish the expedition in the first place on the other. He’s the only one in the story who can make that interchange, the only one who doesn’t have the preconceived notions of what it is to be either a gentleman or a pirate. It’s the type of story that’s been around since stories have been told and will continue to entertain us for many years yet to come.
In fact, I think the characters are what make the book. I know very little about sea-faring men of the late 18th century, but the characters are portrayed as realistic and genuine. Long John Silver is the most complicated of the lot. On the one hand he’s a bloodthirsty pirate who doesn’t hesitate to lead his men in a mutiny against Jim and his friends, yet he’s honest enough, even affable and likeable, to make friends with Jim and protect him from the others of his own gang. Jim even persuades the authorities not to prosecute Silver for mutiny, and Silver eventually steals a small boat and escapes. That’s perhaps the only downer in the book; we expect Silver to pay for his actions. But wouldn’t that ruin the story? No. Silver has to get away.
In any event, that’s certainly not the last time I’ll read Treasure Island. And you may lay to that, matey!