Treasure Island in Relation to Castaway Tales
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) gives the reader pleasure because it is exciting – there is suspense, strained nerves, sudden revelations and reversals. In this it is like many later adventure stories and thrillers. Perhaps it also gives pleasure because Jim, though only a boy, is intrepid and resourceful; but his involvement has its darker side. – And the main outcome is the winning of that bloodstained treasure – something that will go to whoever is clever enough to win it, but should perhaps belong to no one, or to the sailors and merchants who lost it to Flint and his men, and are now (we suppose) long gone. The least we can say is that the past of the treasure hangs grimly over the story, and by the end his time on the island hangs grimly over Jim, for all that he was intrepid and resourceful. The island with its treasure is, then, very unlike the untouched, unhaunted island that we meet in Robinson Crusoe and successors such as The Swiss Family Robinson and Masterman Ready – a place that can be explored in peace and a collection of resources to be worked on. We begin to approach the bloodstained or haunted islands of many twentieth-century castaway stories, the island of The Wasp Factory with its bunkers, of Lord of the Flies with its idol, of The Beach with its history of suicide (and its inaugurating map), even of ‘The Invention of Morel’ with its mysterious constructions. But there is a castaway on Treasure Island; this is of course Ben Gunn, who had been marooned by his pirate comrades. We meet him in chapter XV; in classical castaway fashion Ben talks of making do (“’Wherever a man is, says I, a man can do for himself’”, 107); then Stevenson gently parodies Robinson Crusoe’s remorse about his parents and his discovery of religion:
“ ‘…and so my mother told me, and predicked the whole, she did,
the pious woman! But it were Providence that put me here. I’ve
thought it all out in this lonely island, and I’m back on piety.’” (108)1
This is good humoured enough, and Stevenson in his introduction (‘My First Book’, first published in 1894) cheerfully notes how he borrowed not only from Defoe but from Washington Irving, Poe, Masterman Ready and others (xvi). Treasure Island has its grimmer side, however. It is directly after he talks of his new found piety that Ben Gunn announces that he is rich and can make Jim Hawkins rich too. So he does, but the triumph of the Doctor, the Squire, Jim and the others is a complex and ambiguous business. Have these people any more right to ‘seven hundred thousand pounds’ (XXXII, 241) than their rivals, the treacherous, inconstant and murderous mutineers led by Silver? The answer ought to be obvious, even if it was Silver’s faction who actually worked for the treasure when they were pirates, but what needs to be said here is that neither party of treasure hunters has moral right (whatever might be the law of treasure-finding or salvage in the case) to what was violently taken from a variety of innocent seafarers and merchants. No one mentions this aspect of the matter; ‘treasure’ in this as in many other adventure stories is a kind of magical accumulation without rightful owners, so that it belongs to any who manage to find it or win it. But we do hear of these rightful owners, as Flint’s victims, and it’s very clear that the treasure is stained with blood. It would be too much to see this (the way the treasure has been disconnected from ownership and earning) as a kind of fantasy of colonialism – wealth that is just there, to be found and extracted, thesaurus nullius – but the marks of blood on it are clear enough. The island has two very different leading qualities. As in many castaway stories, it is mapped and known; indeed, as Stevenson emphasises in ‘My First Book’ the map preceded and guided the writing of the story. Jim’s movements about the island and its coast (when he paddles out to the Hispaniola and takes command of it) are carefully explained in relation to the map. This gives rise to a lot of readerly pleasure, though we can also notice that the map is several times used to trick the mutineers (Smollett shows Silver a copy with the indications of the treasure removed (XII, 85); Livesey gives Silver the authentic map after he has learnt that the treasure is no longer where the map says it is (XXIX, 214)). But for all that the island is a place of violence and death; the story would not have happened if Flint hadn’t gained his treasure by murder and secured its secret location on the island by more murder. The island is never idyllic, not even tropical:
Grey-coloured woods covered a large part of the surface. This
even tint was indeed broken up by streaks of yellow sandbreak in
the lower lands, and by many tall trees of the pine family, out-
topping the others – some singly, some in clumps; but the
general colouring was uniform and sad. (XIII, 91)
So much for one of Jim’s first sightings; his memories are bleak and haunted:
The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where
Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me.
Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that
accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when
I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed,
with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears:
‘Pieces of eight! pieces of eight!’ (XXXIV, 256)
Jim’s ‘ample share’ comes from those pieces of eight from Treasure Island, but so do his worst dreams. It infects the ending of the story, too. The climax is postponed, and never quite arrives: Ben Gunn has already dug the treasure up and moved it, there’s just an empty hole and some mundane debris, and the business of counting it and transporting it from Ben’s cave to the ship is not particularly exciting. Jim shifts quickly to their departure from the island – which has seemed to him grim and ‘accursed’ almost from his first sight of it – and thence to the distribution of the treasure among those who won it. But here he stops short: we learn what the minor characters did afterwards – Ben Gunn, Gray and Captain Smollett. We learn exactly what Ben Gunn got, a thousand pounds (out of seven hundred thousand), but of the others we are only told:
‘All of us had an ample share of the treasure, and used it wisely or
foolishly, according to our natures.’ (XXXIV, 255)
Gray was no doubt wise (he set himself up as part owner of a ship), Ben Gunn is clearly to be seen as foolish (he spent his thousand pounds in nineteen days), we are left guessing about Captain Smollett (‘Captain Smollett is now retired from the sea’), and we are told nothing about the principals, Trelawney, Livesey and Hawkins. Perhaps we are to imagine that the Squire was foolish, according to his nature, since his inability to hold his tongue landed them with a crew of mutineers. It’s a paradox; the story loses interest in the Squire (after those opening blunders he is given very little to do and the effective leaders are first Smollett and then Livesey), and becomes fascinated by Silver who really can control his tongue. Treasure Island is certainly not progressive as are Robinson Crusoe and its immediate successors, stories in which the castaways make do and build and settle and move confidently through their days of work and exploration. Jim is young and lively, full of curiosity, a risk-taker, impulsive, but overall the story is haunted by the past, the shadow of Flint and his nihilism (killing all the men who helped him bury the loot, but as far as we can tell dying without any kind of plan to spend it), the elimination of Billy Bones and Blind Pew, the death of Jim’s (shadowy and trapped) father. We might see Jim as losing a series of fathers, and no doubt a young hero of adventure will have this experience; he is to be a self-made man, and orphan or something like it, as Marthe Robert says of the hero of the Novel.2 This would also help us to understand his independence and waywardness. The structure of the novel depends a lot on the contrast between the two groups of treasure hunters, good guys and bad guys, but Jim only occasionally co-operates with either of them. He is continually the reluctant or forced companion of one of the bad guys (this happens with Billy Bones and – for a frightening moment – with Blind Pew (III, 22), before it happens more richly with Long John Silver); he is continually leaving the good guys without explanation and on impulse. Perhaps in this he is in his boy’s way like the heroes of epic, Achilles or Roland, who cannot exercise their prowess without conflict with their leader, Agamemnon or Charlemagne.3
1 References are to the Oxford World’s Classics (Hamlyn) edition of 1987.
2 Marthe, Robert, Origins of the Novel, Brighton: Harvester, 1980.
3 See W. T. H. Jackson, The Hero and the King: An Epic Theme, NY:
Columbia UP, 1982.