Beyond Constricted Preconceptions of Children’s Literature: Rereading Treasure Island

Dan White

Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island has been the subject of debate since it was published in 1881-1882 as a series of articles in the children’s magazine, Young Folks under the title, “The Mutiny of the Hispaniola”.  Young Folks was a weekly children’s literary magazine which circulated from 1871 and 1897 in the United Kingdom.  It served as the springboard for many of Stevenson’s novels and made Treasure Island available to a far greater audience than had it only been published as a book. The early reviews, however, were decidedly mixed. On one hand, it was praised by many other children’s adventure literature magazines (such as Century Magazine) which highlighted Treasure Island’s adventure component and R. L. Stevenson’s masterful story telling.  On the other hand, there were those who were concerned that the novel focused too exclusively on entertainment and adventure and not on education or development of useful skills. As time continued, the common notion of childhood literature began to shift more towards adventure and exciting storytelling – and Treasure Island became a classic in children’s literature.

As with anything labeled a ‘classic’, Treasure Island has generated over 100 years’ worth of reviews and scholarly articles. The readers are divided into two camps.  The first see the book as a childhood classic, filled with of adventure and thrilling narrative. The other camp views the adventure and thrilling narrative as metaphors for political allegories and complex moral ambiguity. Apart from the nature of this particular book, these divergent views highlight a greater curiosity with respect to Children’s Literature.  In general, the label “Children’s Literature” almost universally limits the depth of intellectual discussion and thought the average reader will engage with the story. Only the scholarly touch upon the depths of children’s literature while the general public is satisfied by passing it off as a quick and adventurous read. “Classic Literature” on the other hand, is dissected at great length – with readers interpreting the many different meanings, concepts, nuances and philosophical innuendo the text raises. To understand the reasons why people do not look to Treasure Island and immediately see it as a story with a rich collection of political insights and philosophical interpretation, the role and use of children’s books must be first examined in both historical and cultural contexts.

Children’s literature as a separate genre apart from general literature came about in mid-18th century England. (Silvey) This is thought to be enabled by a growing polite middle-class influenced by the ideals of John Locke. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, written and self-published in 1744 by John Newbery (the namesake of the Newbery Award) is thought to be the first modern children’s book. Before Newbery’s work, children were not given any special regard or treatment in many things in daily life – and especially in the world of literature. Children were taught the alphabet and then began reading the bible or the classics of past generations. The goal for the Pocket-Book was to entertain children with picture stories and games that reinforced positive behavior. In the original Little Pretty Pocket-Books there were areas for the children to record their behavior daily in order to track improvement. The success of this model changed the thinking on what a child should read; leading to a gradual development of an entertaining and educational form to the children’s books. The introduction of a new literary genre for children created a dichotomy for all literature and literature specifically for children. This new paradigm held education and strong moral standing in high regard, shaping what the ‘ideal’ children’s book should look like; a book that is entertaining to read but one which also instilled a valuable moral lesson on the child reader.

Given the noble origins of the Children’s Literature genre, it is striking that its formative ideals of elevated thought and moral discovery have largely been absent in a modern readers’ analysis of children’s texts. In large part, this is due to the condescending tone adults have set towards this literature. Adults, having already formed their moral selves, devalue children’s books and (outside of the scholarly world) find little literary fulfillment within them.  The online book loving social network invites members to create reviews for books they have read. A scan of the reviews for Treasure Island reveal a similar factor in the majority of members’ responses. Werner A Lind comments, “Robert Louis Stevenson was an author I became acquainted with very early in life … this was my first book by him, and one of the staple favorites of my childhood…” Lind continues to say that rereading it brings happy memories of the first time he read the thrilling narrative. This is one of the many nostalgic reviews that fill the over 5000 comments on the comment board.  This ‘nostalgia factor’ can be linked to the lack of intellectual depth while reading because it puts the reader back into a child’s state of mind. The reader (by default) thinks more simply and even hyper-juvenile, not recognizing the literary complexities of the story.  Getting lost in nostalgia rather than elevating their reading and intellectual rigor, readers fail to see the deeper political allegories and use of skilled literary techniques.

Literary misconceptions also play a role in hindering elevated exploration of Treasure Island. The work showcases itself as a wild adventure – full of suspense and exciting action. While this component makes the novel fun and enjoyable to read, the reader can unknowingly focus on the compelling story and miss the opportunity to view and analyze the educational and politically complexity of the tale.  The theme of crime [e.g., pirates] is a good example. Within the novel, pirates are portrayed as completely self-indulgent and extraordinarily juvenile.  Swashbuckling, carefree, and vicious, on the surface a romanticized and simplistic view.  However, Stevenson also hints at the complex nature of the pirates by suggesting that if they were more methodical, they might have been successful and achieved all they hoped for. Their plans, however, come to a bleak end because of their lack of self-control. Stevenson is suggesting that pirates and other criminals are trapped in a vicious cycle: they fall into the criminal life because they’re reckless and careless – and this very self-indulgence and lack of discipline and in return creates a group of nomadic sea thieves or pirates. To complicate matters further, Long John Silver does not completely fit into this mold. These insights and lessons – teased out of the text through analysis and thought, can be easily over looked if the reader begins the novel with the simplistic notion of sticking to the classic child adventure narrative; creating a definite line between good and evil.  Within Treasure Island, this line is constantly being blurred.

Similar to his treatment of crime, Stevenson develops the basic understanding of duty beyond the typical black and white normally explored in children’s novels. The concept of duty is frequently visited within the text Treasure Island, especially against the example of the honorable archetype of English order and discipline, Captain Smollett. Obviously, the pirates have a flexible notion of duty, with the fundamental pirate value being “get rich quick no matter what the cost.” More interesting and is often undiscovered by the common reader is the notion that slightly less high-minded “good guys” such as Doctor Livesey and Jim think about and preform duty. Both of them have a situational idea of duty – they stay devoted to their friends but do not essentially feel obligated to follow specific orders given by higher authority. Jim saves everyone and Doctor Livesey saves the life of Long John Silver, a murderer. The dutiful Captain Smollett would not approve, but this practical approach to duty held by Jim and the Doctor helps the crew survive the different trials within the novel.

Silver speaks of his pirately duty, “Right you are,” said Silver; “rough and ready. But mark you here, I’m an easy man–I’m quite the gentleman, says you; but this time it’s serious. Dooty is dooty, mates. I give my vote–death. When I’m in Parlyment and riding in my coach, I don’t want none of these sea-lawyers in the cabin a-coming home, unlooked for, like the devil at prayers. Wait is what I say; but when the time comes, why, let her rip!” (11.31) Long John Silver is radically redefining duty. His duty is to his pirate crewmates, which in return means he votes to kill Captain Smollett, Squire Trelawney and the other non-pirates. For Silver, killing and double crossing his pirate crew is a part of his duty because getting rich and saving his own self is a part of a pirates’ duty. This creates a complex problem – telling others to uphold their duty as a moral code or lesson requires an understanding that each person (or group) have different notions of duty.

The complex notion of duty and how it is obeyed is easily attributed only to the “good guys”, with little acknowledgement that the “bad guys” possess a sense of duty and moral obligation. This narrow-thinking can be linked to the back to the fundamental purpose of children’s literature which was to entertain and to instill a moral or life lesson. Adults reading Treasure Island read the novel with the notion of it being a children’s book and do not allow themselves to evaluate the complexities of duty and morals – the shades of gray that may exist.  In their minds, they are already and do not need to learn a lesson on duty again. This blinded form of readying reading hinders exploration of the questions Stevenson raises on duty and the moral ambiguity of the situations within the novel.

The creation of children’s literature created an unusual duality within the literary world. The fact that children’s literature is meant to be read by children made the genre appear childish and simplistic with little room for the deep literary complexities of other forms of literature. The role of teaching and entertaining seemingly took over and lent no room for critical interpretation by the general reader. The stereotyping associated with children’s literature will cause many readers to miss the richness and depth of Treasure Island and novels like it. To the common reader, the adventure trope translates into simplicity and fun with little capability for presenting an allegorical or political meaning. The stereotypical notions of children’s literature also hinder the arguments that Stevenson raised with duty. Because the original purpose of children’s books was to ‘morally educate’, the idea of moral ambiguity and political satire was foreign in these works because a children’s book was to present a moral truth rather than raise questions about it. The general public’s simplistic reading of R.L. Stevenson is ultimately due to simplistic and limited conceptions of what children’s literature can be.


Works Cited

Fletcher, Loraine. “Long John Silver, Karl Marx and the ship of state.” Critical Survey 19.2 (2007): 34+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 June 2014.

Heins, Paul. “A Centenary Look: Treasure Island.” Horn Book Magazine 59.2 (Apr. 1983): 200. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 106. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 June 2014.

Silvey, Anita (editor) (2002). The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and their Creators. New York: Houghton Mifflin.






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