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.
This note of ambiguity is evident from the beginning of the story. Mrs. Hawkins risks both her own life and Jim’s when she ransacks Billy Bones’s sea-chest to collect the old pirate’s rent money but wastes valuable time by counting out every coin to ensure that she takes no more than is due her. Squire Trelawney is another example of flawed goodness. Even though he is strictly instructed by Doctor Livesey not to divulge the purpose of the voyage, Trelawney foolishly confides the secret of the treasure map to Long John Silver, risking a mutiny that will endanger all the crew. Trelawney is blind to the blunt honesty of Captain Smollett, while allowing himself to be taken in by Silver’s flattery and deception.
Perhaps the greatest moral enigma is the one-legged Long John Silver. The ship’s cook on the outward voyage, Silver is a model of good cheer, showing unfailing kindness to Jim and instructing him in the particulars of seamanship. He is a striking figure as he moves about the ship with his crutch and his green parrot, “Captain Flint,” perched on his shoulder. Yet beneath the veneer of sociability, Silver is actually the ringleader of the pirates, ruthlessly plotting to seize the ship and dispose of all but his own hands-as Jim learns in the famous scene when he hides in an apple barrel and overhears Silver’s plans.
A shrewd opportunist, Silver is quick to assess a situation and ally himself with the stronger party. He is glib and manipulative, capable of being vicious or ingratiating as the situation demands. Yet he shows genuine affection in his relationship with Jim, and is willing to risk his life to save him from the mutinous pirates. As the pirates’ plans are thwarted by Jim’s intervention, the mutineers turn on one another, and Silver appears less sinister in comparison to some of the others. Despite his wickedness, Silver is such an appealing character that he dominates the story through the force of his personality, overshadowing the other Characters and offering an unforgettable example of the moral ambiguity of the adult world.
The members of the loyal party offer neither the colorfulness nor the appeal of Long John Silver, but they are skillfully drawn as stock 18th-century English character types. Squire Trelawney is a robust, quick-tempered, hard-riding country squire. A poor judge of character, he abuses the honest Captain Smollett and foolishly confides the purpose of the voyage to Silver.
Doctor Livesey, a physician and county magistrate, represents both the strengths and limitations of rationality. He shows bravery, integrity, and devotion to duty, even offering to treat the wounded pirates-yet he is no match for the cunning and duplicity of Silver. His are ordinary domestic virtues that prove of little value in extraordinary situations. Captain Smollett is an experienced seaman, blunt and honest almost to a fault, who undertakes a risky voyage against his better judgment. He misreads the spirit of the crew and fails to anticipate the incipient mutiny.
In many respects a typical British boy of his age, Jim has led a sheltered life at the Admiral Benbow Inn. The arrival of Billy Bones triggers his desire to explore the larger world beyond his home. Although he has grown up on the seacoast, Jim knows little of the seafaring life. His adventures constitute an initiation into adulthood, by means of which he learns survival skills and moral lessons that far eclipse the typical education of a British “gentleman.” Whereas many of his adult companions flounder in times of crisis, Jim-despite his youth and his rashness-proves himself capable of holding up under stress. It is he who first discovers and later thwarts the pirates’ mutiny.
Jim’s most dangerous physical test comes when he slays the pirate Israel Hands, who has pinned him to the ship’s mast with a knife. Jim passes his greatest moral test when, offered the chance to escape with Doctor Livesey, he refuses to leave and thereby break his word to Long John Silver. Jim’s courage-both physical and moral-surpasses that of the adults around him, and wins him a secure place in the adult world.