Treasure Island Book Review

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The book “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson became an iconic adventure pirate story. It is the book that almost everyone of us had in our childhood, immersing ourselves in the world of dangerous adventures, fame, fortune, storms and hidden treasures.

The novel accumulated all the images of pirates we know and use today: dreadful Captain Flint, cunning John Silver with his peg leg, talking parrot and being affably evil, rum and the song about the dead man’s chest – this is now such an essential part of pirate fictions like striped robes for prisoners in cartoons.

Lots of modern works like “The Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Treasure Planet” by Disney exploit these images ruthlessly, but why did they become so popular? What is “Treasure Island” about, does it have such a powerful storyline that impressed us so much, or it is just vivid imagery that solidified the image of pirate adventure in our minds?

The main theme of the novel is obvious: searching for the hidden treasure and fighting the pirates who are after the same treasure. But it wasn’t so obvious in the times of Robert Louis Stevenson, who decided to compose an adventure story for his son. The mutiny on the ship, the cruel and unusual punishments like leaving on a deserted island or using the corpse of a condemned fellow pirate as a road sign, even the peg leg and the parrot weren’t clichés at that time.

So, Robert Louis Stevenson can be without any hesitations named the father of the modern pirate stories. He brilliantly composed the real chronicles about pirates, even borrowing some of the names like Billy Bones, Black Dog and Pew. Israel Hands, for example, was a real crew member on the Blackbeard’s ship. Mutinies also happened often in that historical period, but usually a mutiny was described in some dry words in the official chronicles.

Here, the author creates the image of the leader – John Silver, the one, feared by Captain Flint himself – with such vivid description of his collected and calm personality, that the very idea that the pirates are the majority under his lead and are preparing to overthrow the captain sends chills down our spines. We feel exactly like Jim felt while he was hiding in the barrel and listening to the pirate talks.

Speaking about the pirate talks – sometimes it is even difficult for the modern reader to understand “Treasure Island” characters. While “good” characters are speaking proper and neat English, the pirate jargon is what distinguishes the “bad guys” in the book. While the narrative of the novel moves forward and the cover of the pirates slowly starts slipping, the jargon becomes more and more thick and vivid, making us wonder if the main characters feel the same difficulties communicating with the crew.

Such details help us imagine the pirates and their lifestyle so brightly that there is no wonder in the fact that Mr. John Silver and his company became the ideal images of pirates for ages. This became possible, because Robert Louis Stevenson seemed to thoroughly study the history of piracy and he definitely knew what he wrote about. He even left some “Easter eggs” for the reader.

For example, the Skeleton Island is fully fictional, but its anchorage point is named after Captain Kidd – the real historical person, a pirate, who was mentioned in the book by Harold. T. Wilkins “New Facts about Mysterious Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island Chests”.

But there aren’t only pirates who made the story so awesome. The rest of the “Treasure Island” characters are just as wonderful as pirates are. The main character, the teenager Jim Hawkins, is the one who the readers (usually also kids and teenagers) associate themselves with. We see the storyline through his eyes, the eyes of a person who never sailed anywhere before.

This allows us not to feel incompetent, but discover the peculiarities of the sailor’s life together with Jim. He is curious, brave, noble and reckless, just as most of the kids of his age are, maybe as we all were. So, creating the character, his son can empathize, Robert Louis Stevenson made the one that hits home instantly. He even has the mother that worries about him and doesn’t want to let him go to the possible dangers of adventures (and the lady is completely right!) – maybe with the same words that our mothers forbade us to go camping or travel to another city alone.

The rest of the “Treasure Island” characters are a bit grotesque but still they add so much flavor to the story. We should continue our list with the description of Dr. Livesey, the closest one to a father figure for Jim. He is kind and caring, feeling morally obliged to help even the worst of the pirates (though the amount of the sarcastic comments about their state of health is enormous). He is also smart enough to plan all the expedition and convincing enough to persuade Jim’s mother to let Jim go with them.

He is the one who helps Jim’s father on his deathbed and the one who shelters Jim and Mrs. Hawkins after their inn is burnt down by the pirates. Dr. Livesey isn’t as experienced in sailing and military as Captain Smollett is, but he still has enough bravery to go for Jim as a negotiator to the pirates’ lair and enough cunning to come up with all the plan with deceiving the pirates after he learns that the treasure has been relocated.

The next character worth mentioning is Captain Smollett. The first time we see him we immediately start imagining him as a grumpy man (he greets the rest of the character with the words that he doesn’t like the crew they hired and the very idea of sailing anywhere with it). But the first negative impression immediately disappears when we realize that it wasn’t just his bad mood but rather the intuition built over the years of working as a captain.

Captain Smollett is right: sailing with the crew of pirates and searching for treasure with them is an awful idea. But he is noble enough to say that he warned everyone just once and than, even when the situation seems desperate, he is still the one who is in charge. He makes the tactical plan and brilliantly executes it, he manages to prepare the abandoned fort for the siege and he feels personally responsible for everyone of the men who stay faithful to him. A true captain and a father for his men, indeed.

The third man who is directly responsible both for the beginning of the expedition and all the twists and turns of the storyline is Squire Trelawney, a rich and talkative friend of Dr. Livesey, who is as fond of the adventures as Jim is, but is slightly less responsible than the teenager. When Trelawney is asked to find a ship and a crew, he manages to tell everything about the map and the treasures to the worst person possible – John Silver, who was searching for the map from the beginning of the story and arrival of Billy Bones to the Hawkins’ inn.

Of course, Silver immediately plays the old and harmless cook who just accidentally knows lots of excellent sailors searching for a job, and nothing at all tingles Trelawney’s sense of self-preservation. He is so naively grateful to his new “friend” and is so eager to defend Silver against the Captain that we are almost sorry for him when we learn that he actually led their own nemesis to the ship.

Finally, we should say some words about that very nemesis – John Silver, the man feared by Captain Flint. This characteristic seems strange, because he is a mere cook and, as it seems, was also a quartermeister at Flint’s ship. The position isn’t very intimidating, but when we see how cunning and persuasive Silver can be, we start to understand why Flint could be afraid of him.

Silver is very tough and strong, even when his peg leg and age slow him down, he is intelligent, quick to react, ready to adapt to the changing situation and, what is most important, he is brave and risky enough to hold the whole plan on his shoulders. The point of no return for us (and Jim Hawkins) is when Silver persuades another young crew member of “Hispaniola”, Dick Johnson, to join the pirates. He uses exactly same words he flattered Jim with.

Before this moment we could, and even wanted to believe that there is something good inside Silver, that his friendship with Jim is real, but after that episode we understand that he just used a working scheme of charming the young and naive people into doing what he wants. Still, Silver is too lovable rogue to let him be shoot or marooned on the island.

So, Robert Louis Stevenson gives us a compromising variant: while John Silver doesn’t get the treasure, but he isn’t hanged, too. He slips away in the ending of the novel with a small sum of money and possibly becomes the hero of another story.

Summing up, the “Treasure Island” is the longest-living pirate adventure story that is still very interesting to read. Even if you have read it before, in your childhood, it is worth re-reading now, because rare adventure story has such a bright and vivid setting and thoroughly created characters.

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