Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of a prosperous, middle-class family. His father and grandfather were lighthouse engineers. Because his mother was of delicate health, Stevenson was raised primarily by his devoted nurse, Alison Cunningham, or “Cummy,” to whom he later dedicated A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). His schooling was frequently interrupted by illness, but Stevenson traveled widely in Europe and was taught privately by tutors. At seventeen he enrolled as an engineering student at Edinburgh University, but changed to law after a year. Although he completed his degree, Stevenson never practiced law, and devoted himself to writing instead.
Treasure Island is a classic adventure story, featuring an ordinary boy, Jim Hawkins, who is transported to a treacherous world of pirates and buried treasure. Jim’s adventures begin when he and his mother discover a pirate map in the chest of Billy Bones, a guest at their lodging-house. Jim’s experiences on the ship Hispaniola and on Treasure Island test his resourcefulness and teach him important lessons about loyalty and physical courage. Perhaps his most important lesson grows out of his relationship with the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver-a lesson about the moral ambiguity of good and evil.
Treasure Island includes a wide range of vivid and memorable Characters, drawn with great subtlety and psychological perception. There is a certain moral ambiguity in all of Stevenson’s Characters, a kind of “Jekyll and Hyde” dual nature: the good Characters are often flawed and the villains tempered with positive qualities.
Stevenson is a master storyteller who knows how to construct an engrossing tale. In Treasure Island, he makes skillful use of plot, Setting, atmosphere, and character development to craft an enduring story of high suspense. Every episode in the novel is carefully developed to sustain the drama of the narrative.
In his emphasis on adventure as a formative influence on Jim, Stevenson shows a marked ambiguity toward the Victorian domestic virtues of his age. Domestic life is dull not only for Jim, but also for Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey, both of whom are quick to abandon their domestic and professional responsibilities to search for buried treasure on a remote island. Stevenson hints that adventure is the crucible of adulthood, and it seems that the adventure, not the gold, is the real purpose of the quest.
1. Long John Silver plots a mutiny aboard the Hispaniola, murders a man in cold blood, and betrays his comrades. He is also cheerful, personable, and friendly to Jim. Why does Stevenson create such a likeable villain?
1. The idea for Treasure Island apparently grew from a treasure map that Stevenson drew for his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, during a damp, cool summer in Scotland. Check a biography of Stevenson to find out more about how the story was composed and where it was first published.
Treasure Island has fared better at the hands of Hollywood than have most novels. In 1934 Victor Fleming directed a suspenseful version of the story starring Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim. Another excellent adaptation reached the silver screen in 1950, when Byron Haskin directed Robert Newton in the role of the crafty pirate chief and Bobby Driscoll as Jim. Orson Welles co-scripted and starred in a weak 1972 production of Treasure Island.