Conflicting Readings and the Popularity of Treasure Island

Maura Beck

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island has become the quintessential pirate adventure tale since its initial publication in 1883. Since then, there have been countless editions and adaptions made for print, audio, and visual outlets. When Stevenson first published Treasure Island, some critics disliked the novel because it was a common belief that children, especially young boys, should not be reading adventure stories. Instead, it was seen as beneficial for children to be reading books that provided them with knowledge of a useful skill. However, this thought on what children’s literature should be began to change. The focus of children’s literature was no longer centered on the teaching of a useful skill, but on entertainment and telling of exciting and interesting stories. This shift in attitude allowed Treasure Island to be received by critics in much different light. It soon became a children’s literature classic that had a very wide readership.

What does the term classic actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the term classic is “used to say that something has come to be considered one of the best of its kind” or “to say that something is an example of excellence.” So critics believe that Treasure Island is an example of excellence, and one of the best adventure novels ever written. While this phrase is often used to describe Stevenson’s novel, it is important to look at how Treasure Island became the literary classic that it is.

Although Treasure Island is often placed in the category of children’s literature, it contains complex themes and language that was unexpected of the genre at the time of publication. This complexity allows readers to draw many different interpretations from the same text, which widened the readership of Treasure Island dramatically by making it appealing to many different groups. To young boys, Treasure Island provided many things that they could only hope to receive from the literature that they were made to read previously to this novel. Stevenson created a tale of adventure and danger, gold and glory that little boys of the time period were drawn to. His detailed use of language also allowed the reader to picture with vast detail the adventure that they were reading about. Take for example the following excerpt from the novel.

The booms were tearing at the blocks, the rudder was banging to and fro, and the whole ship creaking, groaning, and jumping like a manufactory. I had to cling tight to the backstay, and the world turned giddily before my eyes… Perhaps it was the look of the island, with its grey, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires, and the surf that we could both see and hear foaming and thundering on the steep beach… (Stevenson 62).

Stevenson lengthy and intricate descriptions provides a depth to the novel that many people did not expect to be present in a children’s book. This descriptive style allowed children to not only read what Jim was going through, but also see, hear and even smell the adventure. This made the tale even more exciting for the reader because it can be as if they were on the adventure themselves.

The descriptive style of writing did not only appeal to children, however, it also appealed to many adults. When Treasure Island began gaining popularity after it was published, the imperialist age was just beginning. This new era in history created an attitude of nationalism among Englishmen and a strong desire for adventure. Treasure Island appealed to this adventurous spirit men and the descriptive language allowed these adults to experience the adventure just as much, or even more, than children did. This idea was discussed by scholar Bradley Deane in his article “Imperial Boyhood: Piracy and the Play Ethic.”

In Deane’s article, he discusses how the imperial age, which was in full swing in Great Britain during the time Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, created a boyish attitude amongst men in the country.

As conservative strains of imperialism displaced older liberal narratives of progress, civilization and enlightenment in favor of militarism, expansionism, and a vision of permanent dominion and endless competition, imperialists found in enduring boyishness a natural and suitably anti-developmental model of identity.

Deane then goes on to discuss that this shift in attitude is what made Treasure Island such a popular novel. Not only male children, but imperialism supporters could find joy in this adventure novel because it was able to epitomize everything that was important in the imperialist society that was Victorian Britain.

While Deane’s argument that Treasure Island presents many imperialist themes throughout is valid, it is difficult to say whether or not this novel places the imperialist culture in a positive light. Deane seems to argue that the novel was so popular because it was a thrilling novel that praised the imperialist and adventurous spirit. Is this really true? It appears to me that there is some underlying conflict created in the novel between what is valued in a good imperialist society and what a good person would want to happen. At face-value, Stevenson’s novel tells the tale of brave Englishmen who sail to get buried treasure in order to bring glory to themselves and their country. This, at least, begins to seem like a typical imperialism propaganda story which would have been popular during the Victorian age. However, there is some ambiguity in Treasure Island that may leave readers wondering whether or not this novel is actually pro-imperialism.

For one, Jim mentions at both the beginning and the end of the novel that he did not like this adventure that he went on.

Oxen and wain-ropes wound not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that I ever 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!” (Stevenson 174).

If this novel were truly pro-imperialism, shouldn’t Jim be craving more adventures like the one he was on? The notion that Jim has nightmares about the “accursed island” leads the reader to think that maybe adventures for gold are not actually worth it, even if the prizes are gold and glory. This notion would have been appealing to adults who were anti-imperialists. They would be able to read the novel differently than the imperialists, and get draw very different conclusions about what Jim’s reaction to his adventures actually meant. They would see this novel as trying to tell a story about how imperialism does not work and is often immoral in itself.

Historically speaking, the pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists would be able to read this novel very differently. Pro-imperialists could read and use Treasure Island as a form of propaganda to show people how exciting adventure and exploration can be. In addition, the main characters ended up rich, which could be seen as a “happy ending” to the tale. Anti-imperialists, however, could read beyond just the story of the adventure and can analyze Jim’s negative reaction to his experience as a lesson to children that adventures are not always a good thing.

Since the imperialist age has long ended, how has Treasure Island been able to remain relevant and be deemed a classic? Well, while the novel was able to be enjoyed by many different types of readers, which is still true today, even if these people are not reading the novel for its connections to imperialism. The complexity of this novel goes beyond the implications of the adventure itself and works its way into the deep character development. This complex character development creates another layer to the novel. This idea was discussed by Fiona McCulloch in her article “Playing Double: Performing Childhood in Treasure Island.”

In McCulloch’s article, she creates an analysis as to why the book was popular among many people, not just children. She believes that the reason that the novel appealed to men of all ages was because “fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child”. According to McCulloch, Stevenson explores the genre of children’s fiction “through a meta-fictional text of performative duplicity, which reveals it to conceal an adult palimpsest of postlapsarian authorial presence.” In other words, Stevenson uses deception and characters that double cross one another as a means to blur the line between what is children’s literature and what is adult fiction. While children will tend to enjoy the adventure tale, adults are more likely to understand and relate to the deception. This fact greatly increases the audience of the novel and allows for older readers to get just as much enjoyment out of the novel as young readers.

McCulloch’s point can be reaffirmed by looking at modern, adult reader responses to Treasure Island. One female reader praised the complexity of the novel. She wrote:

“From the foreshadowing and development, to the choice of words and phrases and buildup that left me breathless in all the right places, to Silver himself, a man you can’t help but love in spite of good conscience. It all coalesced so perfectly to make a book that I am happy to add to my ‘favorites’ collection.

Another reader responded:

Traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, it is an adventure tale known for its atmosphere, character and action, and also a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children’s literature then and now.

These reviews show one of the most noteworthy aspects of Stevenson’s Treasure Island is the complexity, especially in reference to the morality of the characters. While some children may be able to pick up on this aspect of the novel, most probably will not. However, this aspect could be appealing to adults because they can relate to these ambiguous. Adults are likely to be able to make a connection between the morally ambiguous Long John Silver, a character who they should not like, but for some reason do, and a person in their own lives. On the other hand, they may be able to relate to the idea of an unfit authority figure filled by the Doctor and Squire Trelawney.

The idea of an unfit authority figure is a notion that many adults will probably be able to relate to, whether they are thinking of a supervisor at work, or perhaps a politician. Children can also relate to this as well. Children are constantly being told what they should be doing by parents, teachers, neighbors, even older friends. It is common for these authority figures to tell a child what to do without explaining why they must do it or why it is the best thing to do. This is something that is mirrored pretty heavily in Jim’s adventure. Jim is under the command of the Doctor, Squire Trelawney, and sometimes even Long John Silver. These characters always believe what they think is best, even when Jim proves them wrong over and over again.

“’So, Jim,’ said the doctor sadly, “here you are. As you have brewed, so shall you drink, my boy. Heaven knows, I cannot find it in my heart to blame you, but this much I will say, be it kind or unkind: when Captain Smollett was well, you dared not have gone off; and when he was ill and couldn’t help it, by George, it was downright cowardly!”(Stevenson 152).

In this passage, it shows that despite the fact the Jim was able to steal the Hispanola and provide an avenue to safety for the crew, the Doctor still scolded him because he did not follow the captain’s orders. This is something that a lot of readers can mirror onto their own lives. If they had an experience where they believed their actions were for the best, but they ended up getting in trouble, they will be able to understand where Jim is coming from.

Stevenson’s Treasure Island is often referred to as a coming-of-age tale and this idea of unfit authority figures and following what you feel is the best course of action is at its center. The struggle Jim faces between authority and his personal beliefs is something that many people have to face throughout their lives, regardless of age. By seeing how Jim was able to follow what he believed was best, and ultimately save the day, the reader can draw conclusions to their own lives. They may be able to learn the importance of following your own intuitions, regardless of what authority figures may be pressuring you to do.

Overall, Robert Louis Stevenson was able to create a vast complexity throughout his novel Treasure Island that was, and is, rarely seen throughout most of children’s literature. This complexity was shown in the language that produced a beautiful elegance that allowed the reader to fully experience the adventure of sailing across the ocean in search of gold. The complexity goes far beyond word choice. Stevenson uses layers of ambiguity and deception in order to produce a tale that can be interpreted in a variety of different ways by many different audiences. Although this is a relatively short novel, it has the capability to be interpreted by different readers depending on their background, beliefs, and age. This adaptability is what has allowed Treasure Island to survive the test of time. While the novel was extremely relatable during the imperialist age, it continues to be relatable to the audience through its morally ambiguous characters and notions of coming-of-age. These complex themes allow for readers to relate to different aspects of the novel and create comparisons throughout their own life. Without this complexity, it is likely that many readers today could not relate to the story any more, especially with the expansion to the “pirate adventure” genre. However, despite the numerous spin-offs Treasure Island remains the golden standard. A true classic that set the tone for numerous works to follow it, and a novel that with its beautiful complexity, will be able to continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.


Works Cited

Deane, Bradley. “Imperial Boyhood: Piracy and the Play Ethic.” Victorian Studies 53.4 (2011): 689+. Academic OneFile. Web. 27 May 2014.

Heather. Rev. of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. 17 Apr 2009. Web. June 3 2014.

James. Rec of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Web. 25 Aug 2009. Web. 3 Jun 2014.

McCulloch, Fiona. “’Playing Double’: Performing Childhood in Treasure Island.” Scottish Studies Review (2009): 66-80. Academic OneFile. Web. 27 May 2014.

Stevenson, Robert L. Treasure Island. London: Cassell and Co., Ltd., 1883. Print.


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