Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

24 May 2012
Parts 1 and 2
If you’re a Brit born in the second half of the 20th Century, you know this book. You know about Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, Captain Flint the parrot squawking ‘Pieces of eight’…. But you probably haven’t read it. I know I never had, although some episodes from this first third of the book are incredibly familiar. I remember one scene, when Jim first discovers Silver’s treachery as he overhears him from the inside of the apple-barrel, because it was used in a school exam. And wasn’t a version of the story read to us at primary school? So far, of all the characters we’ve been introduced to there’s only one whose name I didn’t recognise – Arrow, the mate, and he’s already dead, possibly murdered.

Part 1 is the set-up. Admiral Benbow Inn, run by Jim’s parents, and a new long-term resident, ‘the Captain’. He’s villainous – Stevenson loves doing villainous – but he isn’t a captain. We find out, although not yet, that he is Billy Bones, was the first mate of Captain Flint, a notorious pirate, and that there are people looking for him. He’s set Jim to keeping a look-out for a one-legged man… so Stevenson has the opportunity give us lurid images from the boy’s nightmares. The first to find Bones is Black Dog, sent packing after a fight, during which his life is only saved when the the other man’s sword takes a piece out of the inn-sign instead of him. ‘You can still see the notch.’ All the locals are in awe of him, except one. Not Jim’s father, a shadowy figure whose mistreatment by the drunken thug hastens his death, but Dr Livesey. Remember him.

Next up is a harmless-enough looking blind man who turns out to be the evil Pew. Jim makes the mistake of letting him hold his arm, and Pew almost breaks it as he forces him to take him to the inn. Bones, who has already had one stroke, dies of apoplexy with the ultimatum he has been dreading pressed into his hand: the black spot, which tells him he has until 10 o’clock to give up what he has. Jim and his mother find the message, realise they have a few hours to get help. But nobody in the nearby hamlet offers to return with them – boo, hiss – so they’re on their own. Jim has to search the body for the key to his sea-chest – a lurid tattoo tells them his name – so that his mother can find the money he owes them from his sea-chest. They’re half-way through doing this when they hear a whistle and voices outside. Uh-oh.

Upshot: they run off and hide, with not enough of the Captain’s gold and a mysterious sewn-up package. A gang of men are searching for them, and would have found them but for the arrival of local law officers on horseback. The pirates – because that’s what they are – scatter, and Blind Pew is left to wander into the path of the horses in the dark. That’s three deaths in no time at all, because Stevenson knows what a yarn like this needs.

Finally in Part 1: the chief officer takes Jim to see Livesey, who is also a magistrate, spending the evening with the local squire. This is Trelawney, who misses the adventurous life of his youth, and the contents of the package set up the rest of the novel. You know what it is, and Trelawney is so excited he persuades Livesey that they need to commission a ship and go in search of treasure. This being the book that it is, Livesey thinks this is a great idea – but he reminds Trelawney not to blab to everybody the purpose of the voyage. We know what that means, obviously: we’re not a bit surprised in Part 2 that everyone in Bristol knows about it.

Part 2 is ‘The Voyage’, but Stevenson can’t be bothered with details of what a sailing ship is like, of everyday life on board. What we get is driven by character and, inevitably, plot. We know about the uber-sensible Livesey and the boyishly enthusiastic, dangerously talkative Trelawney. Then there’s the cold-seeming, efficient Captain Smollett – who gives us the first indication of possible perils ahead when he complains, before they’ve even set sail, that the crew know more about the purpose of the voyage than he does. He has heard so much about from the men that readers might suspect that even Trelawney couldn’t have blabbed so much, that others have been talking – and perhaps we’re right.

But Silver is the main driving force. His amputated leg is the biggest clue of all that the crew are bringing more than just their skills to the voyage, and although Stevenson only keeps up the fiction for a few short chapters that this isn’t the man Billy Bones had dreaded meeting, for a while he has absolutely everybody fooled. Would Stevenson’s original readers have been as surprised as Jim and the others by his dreadful plot to kill the captain and the voyage sponsors? I suspect they might, because he is presented unstintingly positive terms. There are no dark hints about what Jim is only to find out later – although I suspect that very soon after its publication his villainy would have become one of the novel’s selling-points. (Stevenson likes to wrong-foot his readers. Anyone reading his novel about Jekyll and Hyde a few years after this one wouldn’t have discovered the truth of Hyde’s identity until the final chapter.)

It’s clear that Silver has the men on a tight rein throughout the voyage. Most of the crew have been chosen by him, and despite almost all of them being seasoned pirates they behave like obedient seamen until the island is in sight. What Jim overhears in that barrel is Silver persuading a crew member to come over to the dark side, and about the infallibility of his plan. He’s going to allow Trelawney and the others do the hard work, and keep them alive as long as the other pirates will allow it: the crew as it stands will get them home more safely than the pirates alone. But he knows it will be difficult once they are on the island – and he makes it clear, in one of the violent imaginings that Stevenson goes in for, that when the time comes he will enjoy killing Trelawney with his own hands. Stevenson never wants us to forget that these men aren’t merely immoral, they are full of a malevolent evil. My goodness.

Jim tells Livesey as soon as he can, and soon they are all on their guard. But, as they calculate, it will be seven – including Jim himself – against nineteen.

25 May
Parts 3, 4 and most of 5
Did Stevenson invent the action movie? If not, what were the precursors to this cinematic, event-strewn, morally clear-cut yarn? Plausible details and hyper-real landscapes persuade us, sort of, that the things that happen are feasible. Stevenson never lets up on the descriptions of local topography and flora to make the setting as realistic as possible. It’s hokum, but it’s high-class hokum. There’s even a quotation from Shakespeare embedded in Chapter 26: Jim primes two pistols ‘to make assurance doubly sure’. But, somehow, it isn’t only the words that impress, it’s the Technicolor visuals. When Stevenson describes, say, a wreckage of supplies sunk to a depth of two fathoms in crystal waters, it conjures for me the South Seas film adventures of the 1960s. I wonder what it conjured for a 19th Century reader. Stevenson had seen these landscapes, but his readers hadn’t, not in the way that we have.

The discipline of the pirates begins to break down when they reach the island. Stevenson can concentrate on the interesting stuff: the struggle of the good guys against this gang of desperadoes. And Jim, little more than an observer up to now – plucky enough, sure, but not really a mover and shaker – begins to come into his own. Already in Part 2 he’s the one who saves them by being in the right place – the apple-barrel – at the right time. By the time we reach Part 5 he is single-handedly outsmarting the only man left keeping watch on the Hispaniola and, after the ship is beached successfully, killing him in a kind of half-accidental act of self-defence. Accidental, because we wouldn’t want him having to carry around the baggage of a cold-blooded murder for the rest of his life. And, three times, the man – it’s the gloriously named Israel Hands, the coxswain, luckily, so he can guide the ship to a safe berth – shows what a snake he is. Maybe four times.

But I’m not telling you the plot. At the beginning of Part 3 we’re still on board ship, but in sight of the island. The men start to be unsettled and slow to follow orders so someone, maybe Livesey, suggests they allow shore leave to anyone who wants it. Most do, and all but the good guys and six of the crew row off in gigs. Stevenson needs Jim to be on the island with the main body of pirates, so he goes – and, not for the last time, lets us know that an impulsive act of his ultimately saves them all. Things start to happen pretty fast. Jim meets the unequivocally wonderful Ben Gunn – Stevenson really has got a Dickensian knack for creating characters and their distinctive mind-sets – and, in another scene in which he is the accidental observer, witnesses how cold-blooded a killer Silver can be. The death of a crew-member who does not want to join the pirates is horrifying, beginning with a pointed branch hurled at his back as he tries to make his escape. Don’t expect honour from these men.

Stevenson needs other ingredients to be used later: Jim already knows that Ben Gunn has some kind of home-made rowing boat. Remember that. And the title of Part 4 tells us about a key feature of the island and of the next part of the story: ‘The Stockade’. But now, for the first time, Stevenson has to leave Jim’s first-person narrative. He needs to describe convincingly how on earth the honest characters on board ship can get themselves into the fortification. So, because Jim is busy on the island, he gets Dr Livesey to take over the narration for a couple of chapters, and his narrative has all the adventure-yarn elements a boy could want.

The titles of Dr Livesey’s chapters more or less tell it all: ‘The jolly-boat’s last trip’ and ‘The end of the first day’s fighting’. The jolly-boat is what the decent ones use – I’m fed up of calling them the good guys – to take stores on to the island while the pirates begin to fight among themselves. There is one good thief, a man called Gray who joins them after being given a final ultimatum. But on their last trip they are spotted by the ones left on board, who point the cannon they have forgotten about at them. Hence the lost stores, but no lives lost on our side. As for the first day’s fighting…. It consists, once they reach the stockade, of cannonballs, with no force left in them, falling inside the stockade.

Next morning, Jim re-joins them and takes up the story again. Guess who arrives, with a companion waving a white flag of truce? It’s Silver, of course, and he makes all sorts of promises in exchange for the map. Hah. Smollett is merciless in his derision and caps it by refusing to help Silver up from his sitting position on the sand. Humiliated, he spits in their water-container and goes off promising that ‘Them that die will be the lucky ones.’ And the next chapter is ‘The Attack’. It’s like any mid-20th Century western, with pirates standing in for Redskins. Smollett is wounded, an honest crew member is killed – it’s just like Star Trek – and the pirates, four men down (I think) seem to give up for now. Which gives Jim – and Stevenson – the opportunity to take the action back to the ship for most of Part 5.

It’s the most Boy’s Own of all Jim’s adventures so far. (Was it only boys who would have read the novel originally? It was published in serial form in a magazine called Young Folks, which might be a clue.) He is on his own for three chapters, during which he shows an unfeasible amount of initiative in taking and manoeuvring Ben Gunn’s coracle-like boat, setting the Hispaniola adrift, reaching it through a combination of good sense and good luck and climbing aboard. Stevenson seems aware of stretching credibility too far, because he goes into such confusingly precise detail about tides and currents that he lost me entirely. Luckily there’s only one man left, the treacherous Israel Hands. Luckily he’s injured, luckily he’s… etc. It’s Hands who ends up dead in the sea, floating next to the man he killed before Jim’s arrival. But before that, Jim gives him time to repent – a chance Hands spits back in his face. I assume that the reason for the highly-profile moral core of the novel is there to deflect criticism from the violence. The pirates are, to a man, beyond redemption, and it’s been a simple tale of good versus evil more or less from the start.

Jim congratulates himself at the end with one chapter remaining of Part 5, looks forward to boasting about his success. I’m assuming his pride is premature as he thinks about making his way back to the stockade. The sort of pride he’s showing isn’t acceptable in this moral universe.

28 May
Last chapter of Part 5 plus Part 6 – to the end
Last time, in parenthesis, I wondered whether this novel really was written for boys. I’m wondering again now, because some of the apparent moral simplicities are replaced in these final chapters by ambiguities that are as subtle as anything in, say, Dickens. And, again, it’s Silver who is at the centre of it all.

Apart from him, and the other characters’ responses to him, everything about the end of the adventure is simple enough. Jim gets the expected come-uppance after he fails to read the signs that Stevenson strews in his way (and the reader’s) that the stockade is no longer in the hands of his friends. There’s a big fire going, no watch being kept, heavy snores…. Only Jim is surprised when the parrot, as reliable as any watchdog, squawks out a shrill volley of ‘Pieces of eight!’ that wakes the six pirates left alive. Jim is in their midst by now – and he spends most of the rest of the novel as Silver’s hostage. Except it isn’t as simple as that. Silver’s refusal to let Jim be killed there and then leads to an attempted mutiny – black spot and all – which Silver demonstrates all his powers of persuasion and political manoeuvring to outflank. His contempt for the others as he demolishes their complaints one by one and his ability to make Jim think that he deserves to be in his terrible predicament had me laughing out loud. The man we know for a cold-hearted murderer has become the most beguiling character in the book.

What we get now are negotiations. Silver has the map, but Jim doesn’t know why his friends have let him have it. He does know they are alive, because Silver has told him – and that they are not at all impressed with his having deserted his post. And it becomes clear that information is precious. Silver knows things that Jim doesn’t, but Jim knows things that Silver doesn’t. Two of these, at least, are his most precious secrets: the existence of Ben Gunn, and the safety of the Hispaniola. But neither of them knows the most important thing of all, and Stevenson keeps it up his sleeve until the last possible moment: X doesn’t mark the spot any more. Where the treasure used to be is now no more than a pit full of broken timbers. Ben Gunn had told Jim that he had never found the treasure but, well, he had.

The gap between truth and appearance, one of the great themes of literature, is central to these final chapters. It’s one of the reasons I keep denying to myself that this is really a children’s story at all. And, as ever, its presiding genius is Long John Silver. He saves Jim’s life, but only to use him as a hostage. But then, it seems, he is genuinely impressed with the boy’s spirit and his sense of honour: he sees when Jim refuses to be persuaded by Livesey to run after he’s given his word that he wouldn’t. We’re almost on Silver’s side – which is exactly where Stevenson wants us to be…. But then, as the pirates approach the site of the buried gold, Jim can see him calculating, decides that he would sacrifice him if he needed to: ‘I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the Hispaniola under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.’

But hang on. Isn’t this only the boy’s perception at the time? Is it any more than a momentary vision of a possibility? Answer: I don’t know, and Stevenson likes to keep it ambiguous. And as he brings the novel to a quick close – bad guys nil, good guys untold riches – he lets Silver escape. It should be no surprise that the author who later wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde should not shy away from making even a novel ostensibly written for children into an entirely orthodox morality tale. Certainly, Stevenson has Jim musing on the suffering and death that went into the amassing of Flint’s hoard of gold, and for the whole novel the pirates have behaved despicably while Jim and his friends have behaved with scrupulous honour in every situation. But…

…but nobody is brought to conventional justice. Ben Gunn is given enough to set him up for life, although he squanders it within three weeks. (These final chapters are full of references to the sheer fecklessness of all the pirates except Silver.) The three surviving pirates in Silver’s crew are left on the island to fend for themselves. And Silver, seen by none of the characters ever again, is given a highly barbed happy ending: ‘I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.’ I love that. He’s fine, probably – but only while he’s alive. A sop, I suppose, to whichever Christian factions were powerful in the 1880s.


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