Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review of Treasure Island

  Treasure Island (Dover Thrift Editions)

   Pirates are the endurable symbol of man’s desire for freedom from restriction and the cost of such freedom. They are one of the few mythic archetypes in literature that can be both the villain of the story as well as the protagonist thanks in large part to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Few adventure stories have had such a wide-ranging impact on storytelling and popular culture. While Stevenson did not invent the swashbuckling genre, the argument can be made that he made a swashbuckling story that is close to perfect.
     Treasure Island is a joy to read, precisely because Stevenson understood the happy medium of detail and action. For those readers who do not have a background in sailing or a maritime lexicon, many of the character titles (like coxswain) or the terms for parts of a sailing vessel will be completely foreign. Unlike some sea-faring novels of that time perieod which became bogged down in the minutiae of sailing and daily life aboard the vessel, Stevenson keeps his story moving at a relatively fast pace (it’s entirely possible to finish the book in a day if one had the time). While there are details in terms of how the Hispaniola (the schooner used by the characters to reach the book’s namesake island) operates and what each man’s position on the ship is, Stevenson doesn’t dwell on superfluous details that don’t move along the story.
     The beginning of the story is perhaps the slowest bit (but not by much) because Stevenson uses it to establish Jim Hawkins, the child protagonist. The ambiguity of Jim’s age (one would imagine him being no more than 12 or 13) allows anyone who reads the story to place themselves directly in the character’s shoes. Coupled with the fact that the majority of the story is written from the first-person perspective (aside from a few chapters in the middle), this really is the story of a young boy’s ascent into manhood. Like most trials of adulthood, there is sacrifice and reward in equal measure for young Jim. He is a cipher for the audience to throw themselves into the wild chase for buried treasure. As mentioned before, the beginning chapters are slower than the rest of the book and one can feel a bridled energy in Jim just waiting to burst open. It’s only after the discovery of the titular island that Jim’s narration begins to develop a headstrong rush to fortune and glory, heedless of the necessary cost for such achievements.
     But for every good protagonist, there must be a larger than life opposite. Long John Silver is a character that has grown outside the confines of the story, becoming a part of popular culture. Before the recent series of pirate films, Silver was the character most people would come up with if asked to name a famous pirate. But rather than make him a standard villain, Stevenson does a masterful job of giving Silver enormous ambiguity. A crippled man, Silver nonetheless has the ability to inspire confidence in anyone he meets. He is charismatic, able to spin tales of daring and adventure that captures the mind of young Jim Hawkins (and through him, the audience). Even later on in the story when Long John has taken on the role of pirate and mutineer, he still retains enough good qualities to be a likeable character. Towards the end of the story I couldn’t help but feel concerned that he might meet his end in the gallows and part of me felt glad to know that he got away with some part of the treasure, despite his earlier actions.
     Above being a simple adventure story, Stevenson crafted Treasure Island as a morality tale. Jim realizes at the end that this enormous treasure is covered in the blood of all the people who died during the events of the story but also those who died before these tumultuous events. It is this realization that sees Jim stop being a child and become an adult. A child thinks of the fun and adventure and the possibility of endless wealth (although they have little understanding of what that means). An adult looks at that treasure and hopefully sees the sacrifices needed to get there but also the often-times pain and suffering that was required to accumulate that wealth. The themes of honesty, loyalty to one’s fellows, and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity are traits that every child must develop in order to become a functioning adult. Like Jim, that transition is often violent on some level, but the person that exists on the other side of that hardship is much better for the experience.
     Treasure Island is one of the last great adventure stories of the late 19th century. It is the precursor for so many aspects of storytelling, such as the swashbuckling style of story pacing to morally ambiguous villains that the audience simultaneously despises and admires. It is truly one of the best pieces of classic literature and I encourage any parent to let their children read it at some point, if for no other reasons than to enjoy a sense of adventure and the sow the seeds of moral reasoning into their minds. 

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