Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: Treasure Island

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Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson
1883, Scotland
Treasure Island Title Page

More than any previous year, this January’s children’s classics reading have been for me about reading books I’ve long been meaning to get to. When I was browsing my shelves looking for the next thing, I came across “my” copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It has been in the family a long time–perhaps as many as one hundred years–having passed from my great-uncle to his younger sister–my grandma, to my mom and now me (somehow–I’m actually not sure why it’s on my shelves and not my brother’s but I suspect linear feet available had something to do with it).

I don’t really know how well Treasure Island is generally known. It seems fairly. There was a Muppet version after all. But the actual book–I don’t know? I perhaps wonder this because even though I should know the story–I distinctly remember my mom reading it to my younger brother and I on our first beach vacation when we were quite little (third grade and kindergarten)–how little did I recall!

I was surprised at how much time Stevenson spends in England, setting up the story with the adventure of the obtaining of the treasure map. And it is proof right from the start that this is a true adventure novel–although so much time (the whole of Part I) is spent in England, the pages turn just as fast as during the later adventures on Treasure Island itself. I was also slightly surprised to find how little I remembered of the island-side adventures. They spent so much time on land! I didn’t remember that. Nor did I remember how much time Jim Hawkins, the primary narrator and the boy (I’m guessing early teens) who first obtains the treasure map from the chest of a dead seaman (pirate!) who stayed at his father’s inn, is away from his friends, the financier Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey.

But what really struck me most coming away from this is a sense of moral ambiguity to the novel. True enough, the pirates’ self-defeat thanks in no small part to copious quantities of rum could seemingly provide an example for the temperance society, and the failure of their dastardly plot could be a moral in and of itself. (Good guys win, bad guys lose.) But there’s the sly Long John Silver–surely the most memorable character of the lot–who not only moves amongst sides as the wind blows, but also manages his own survival at the end. His motivations are plain enough, but his outcome is not the stuff of children’s lessons. This is an adventure story, not a morality tale.

More interestingly to me though, is the storyline centered on Jim Hawkins. He is always on the side of the loyal crew, so there is no ambiguity there, but he is a reckless, impulsive boy. He abandons duty and his friends, not once but twice, and though he risks his life both times–and nearly dies twice on the second adventure–because his actions ultimately prove helpful to the safety of his friends he is not reprimanded but rather rises in their esteem. It is as if to say obedience is not as important as the ultimate outcome. In contrast, I am more accustomed to the story where disobedience (of a good or moral instruction, not of a bad instruction) leads to its own punishment, usually some tragic occurrence that might otherwise have been prevented had the child/youth done as they were told. Although I suppose it could be argued that some tragedy does result from Hawkins’s second departure, because it ultimately works for the benefit of the loyal crew, its effect is mitigated.

As an adventure it is quite fun–well paced, with twists and turns aplenty. It seems it would be a fun film. I should search out one of the adaptations–any recommendations?

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10 thoughts on “Completed: Treasure Island

  1. I must say I enjoyed this book when I re-read it recently, largely *because* it’s pure adventure rather than a morality tale, and I suspect that’s why it’s enduringly popular in all its many forms. I do get tired of the ‘stuff a moral lesson in’ type of children’s literature. The poor little things get lectured all day at school and half the evening by parents – let them spend an hour or two each day swishing cutlasses and singing ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest!’ And the same goes for adult fiction sometimes too… Yo ho ho! 😉

    1. It does seem that adventure stories have held up better–or at least fit better with our current expecations for stories–than stories that seem more “preachy” in their morals. I certainly enjoy a good adventure! And it’s not, I suppose, that Treasure Island is without any morals at all, but rather that that isn’t the focus. Unless of course the moral is to take up a life of adventure and swashbuckling! 🙂

  2. This is one of my son’s favorite books, and based on that I did read it to my class one year. The eight year olds loved going through the hall, chanting “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, ho ho ho and a bottle of rum,” although I’m not sure how well their parents received it. 😉

  3. I’m not sure it is not a morality tale, just with a different moral. Maybe Stevenson is encouraging disobedience, independence, glory, honor, parmesan cheese – all of that good stuff that is forbidden to youngsters now outside of carefully approved channels.

    1. All the morals parents approve of course! (Well, maybe the parmesan isn’t too bad.) Actually, encouraging independence, glory, and honor in moderation might not be so objectionable. As long as there’s no pirates. Those are clearly off-limits.

  4. I had first read this book when I was in 3rd grade, so when I re-read it last year as a part of a course on Disney films and their origins, I discovered I remembered very little of it, too. But I loved it all over again. There are a few film adaptations (none of which I have watched, though, so I’m sorry I can’t recommend any of those to you), as well as the Disney movie Treasure Planet, which is very loosely based on the book, so I’m not sure whether you would be interested in actually watching it.

    I really enjoyed your post! 🙂

    1. Thanks! I find it interesting what I do and don’t remember from books I read when I was little. Sometimes the tiniest details stick around, while other times an entire plot escapes me! I’m happy to hear that your rediscovery of Treasure Island was such a good experience. I guess I didn’t realize that Disney had a Treasure Island inspired movie, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

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