Summary of Treasure Island

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Treasure Island book summary

Literary Classic

  • Adventure story
  • Victorian literature

What It’s About

Going on an Adventure

Treasure Island offers everything an adventurer could want: a mysterious old sailor seeking refuge in a remote inn, a one-legged pirate with a parrot in search of the sailor, a treasure map that falls into the hands of a young boy and the dangerous journey across the sea to an island in search of the treasure, only to find that the crew has been infiltrated by a group of mutinous cronies and their one-legged leader. It taps into – and to some extent borrows from – a rich tradition of American novelists, including works by James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Washington Irving. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is an adventure story par excellence and while it was originally aimed at a young (and mainly male) readership, it has captured the hearts and minds of many an older reader as well. And no wonder – its iconic characters, like the brave but often rash teenage hero Jim Hawkins and the deeply immoral but often surprisingly likable pirate (and murderer) Long John Silver, the story’s characters draw you in and make you care about their fate.

Take-Aways

  • Treasure Island is a prime example of a late 19th-century adventure novel.
  • The young hero, Jim Hawkins, comes into the possession of a treasure map and sets off with his companions to find Captain Flint’s treasure. Little do they know that a number of their crew have joined them to steal the treasure from under their noses and kill them.
  • Treasure Island was Robert Louis Stevenson’s first novel. It was an instant success and established him as a successful author.
  • Stevenson modeled John Silver on a friend – stripped of all the friend’s good characteristics.
  • Treasure Island follows in the footsteps of the American adventure novel; Stevenson found inspiration in the works of writers such as Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper.
  • Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis most of his life and finally settled in Samoa, where he believed the climate would be good for his health.
  • By the mid-19th century, with piracy pretty much under control, the pirate had become a literary romantic antihero.
  • The story appeared initially in serialized form under the title The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys in the periodical Young Folks but failed to get much attention.
  • In 2014, Treasure Island was turned into a stage play, with girls and women cast as the main characters.
  • “And I was going to sea myself; to sea in a schooner, with a piping boatswain, and pig-tailed singing seamen; to sea, bound for an unknown island, and to seek for buried treasures!”
 

Summary

The Old Seaman

An old seaman, Billy Bones, who calls himself “captain,” arrives with his sea chest at the Admiral Benbow, a remote inn along the English coast. He decides to stop there indefinitely and soon starts making a nuisance of himself. He terrorizes the other guests with drinking songs and gruesome tales of the sea, in particular when he has drunk too much rum – which happens regularly.

“Suddenly [the captain] began to pip up his eternal song: ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’”

But despite his boisterousness, he is nervous. He spends his days watching the coast and enlists young Jim Hawkins, the owner’s son, to keep a lookout for a one-legged seafarer, for which he pays Jim a silver fourpenny every month.

The Past Catches Up

One day, a man called Black Dog appears. He asks Jim whether his mate Bill is at the inn. Jim tells him that a man who calls himself captain is a guest there but that he is currently out. Black Dog settles down to wait. When the captain returns and sees Black Dog, he has “the look of a man who sees a ghost, or the evil one.” It turns out that the two know each other well. They retreat into a private room, and Jim tries to eavesdrop, but he can’t hear anything. Suddenly, the two men raise their voices and an argument ensues. Jim hears tables and chairs being turned over. Then Black Dog and Bill appear in the room, both with drawn cutlasses. Despite having suffered a serious cut, Black Dog manages to escape. As the captain turns back into the house, asking for rum, he suddenly collapses. The local doctor, Doctor Livesey, happens to come by the inn, and finds that Billy has had a stroke. He confines Bill to bed, with strict orders to stay off the rum.

The Black Spot

Billy recovers slowly and starts leaving his bed again. He tells Jim to keep an eye out for Black Dog and the one-legged seaman – or the black spot. Neither Black Dog nor the one-legged seaman appear, but one day a blind man arrives at the inn. He forces Jim to take him to the captain and promptly serves him the black spot, with the warning that he and his cohorts will return in six hours. Bill collapses dead on the floor. Jim rushes to tell his mother everything, and the two of them run to the nearby hamlet to summon help. However, no one is brave enough to go with them, so they return on their own to take from his sea chest what Bill owed them for his stay. They find the chest and take the money as well as a bundle of papers that Jim notices.

“There lay before us, the last things in the chest, a bundle tied up in oilcloth and looking like papers.”

They barely make it out of the inn before the men return and wreck the inn in their search for what they call “Flint’s fist.” The men, content with the money, are ready to leave, but the blind man, who is called Pew, wants to continue the search. A fight ensues and breaks up only when a group of revenue officers appear on horseback. The men flee, but the horses trample Pew to death.

The Treasure Map

Jim rides with one of the men to Dr. Livesey’s house to give the doctor the papers for safekeeping. They find the doctor in the company of the squire, Mr. Trelawney. The squire knows of Captain Flint, who he calls the “bloodthirstiest buccaneer that sailed.” Dr. Livesey, Jim and Mr. Trelawney start going through the papers and soon come across a treasure map. The squire is excited: He plans to go to Bristol immediately, hire a ship and crew, and set off in search of the treasure. A few weeks later, Dr. Livesey and Jim receive a letter detailing Mr. Trelawney’s efforts to secure a ship, the Hispaniola, and a crew. They find that, despite Dr. Livesey’s warning, Mr. Trelawney failed to keep the map a secret. He tells them about meeting Long John Silver, a one-legged sailor who owns a tavern in the harbor. They get along so well that Trelawney hires him instantly as the ship’s cook. Silver also helps put a crew together, and when Dr. Livesey and Jim arrive in Bristol, Trelawney has gathered around him a number of dubious characters – men, he explains, “not pretty to look at,” but of “indomitable spirit.”

An Old Acquaintance

After his arrival, Jim is sent to deliver a message to Silver at his tavern. Jim’s fears that this might be the one-legged sailor whom Bill was scared of disappear when he meets Silver, who has an intelligent and pleasant face and a friendly, cheerful manner. He even sends one of his customers to chase after Black Dog, who Jim spots leaving the tavern hurriedly.

“I thought I knew what a buccaneer was like – a very different creature, according to me, from this clean and pleasant-tempered landlord.” (Jim, on meeting Silver)

Silver admits that he has seen Black Dog before in the company of a blind beggar, but Silver swears that he doesn’t know the Black Dog personally. He is outraged when Jim tells him the story of Black Dog and Bill. Jim and Silver go together to the harbor to tell Livesey and Trelawney about what has happened.

Off to Sea

The next day the party sets sail, but not before the captain of the ship, Captain Smollett, tells them that he doesn’t feel comfortable about their journey, its mission and the crew. He fears a mutiny and tells Livesey, Trelawney and Jim as much, but when Captain Smollett can’t dissuade them from their plan, he insists on putting some precautions in place. They agree to his changes and then set off. Initially things go smoothly, but it isn’t long before Mr. Arrow, the captain’s mate, starts causing trouble. The man is constantly drunk, has no command over the crew and finally disappears one night, assumed to have fallen overboard. Meanwhile, Silver seems to have the respect of pretty much everyone on board, apart from Captain Smollett.

The Conspiracy

One evening, Jim goes to get himself a snack from the apple barrel. Rocked to sleep by the ship’s movement as he sits in the barrel eating his apple, he wakes up to the sound of voices nearby. It is Silver and a few of the crew, and they talk about their plans to steal the map and kill Jim and his friends once they have landed at the island.

“Mutiny, it was plain, hung over us like a thundercloud.”

As soon as they leave, Jim goes to find the captain, Dr. Livesey and Trelawney to tell them of the planned mutiny. They realize that they are outnumbered seven to 26 and would have no chance of defeating Silver and his crew.

The Island

The next morning, the ship arrives at the island and drops anchor. Captain Smollett suggests the crew take the afternoon off to the island. This gets the men off the ship and avoids things escalating there and then. Silver encourages his men to leave, but six of his crew stay behind with Captain Smollett and his friends. On a whim, Jim decides to go and explore the island as well and slips away in one of the boats. He doesn’t get very far, however, before things get out of hand. He finds that one of the honest men of the crew has been murdered by Silver and his cronies, and soon Jim has to watch as the second one is killed as well. Panicking, he runs off and gets completely lost on the island.

An Ally?

Suddenly, Jim spots a man following him. He is relieved to see that it isn’t one of Silver’s men. The man introduces himself as Ben Gunn, and it turns out that he was a member of Captain Flint’s original crew when they came to the island to bury the treasure. On a subsequent trip, he was left on the island and has been marooned alone for three years. Gunn agrees to help Jim and his friends, but only if they promise to take him with them on their journey home and give him £1,000 from the treasure. But before they get to execute their plan, they hear cannon fire. The fight between Silver’s crew and Jim’s friends has begun.

Abandon Ship

Worried about Jim, Dr. Livesey and one of Trelawney’s servants, Hunter, take a jolly boat to the island to investigate. They reach the shore and soon come across an old log house with a stockade – perfect for defense. On hearing a shot, they immediately return to the ship and start moving the weapons, ammunition, food and medicine from the ship to the log cabin on the island. It takes several boatloads, but on their last trip, Silver’s men on board the Hispaniola notice them and start firing. The jolly boat is hit and sinks. Jim’s friends manage to escape unharmed, but they have lost their precious cargo. They set up their defense in the log cabin, and soon Silver’s men start shooting at them. Tom Redruth, another one of Trelawney’s loyal servants, is shot and dies shortly after.

A Short-Lived Truce

Jim and Ben Gunn hear the shooting and then see the Union Jack flag being hoisted over the log cabin. They infer that Jim’s friends must have taken refuge there. Jim sets off to join them, but only after he promises to come and find Ben before they leave. Jim tells his friends what has happened. As he finishes his story, Silver appears outside with one of his crew, waving a white cloth. He has come to negotiate. He demands the treasure map and offers them safe passage back or to send a ship for them. Captain Smollett refuses the offer. He knows that none of Silver’s men can sail the ship and that they won’t be able to find the treasure without the map. Enraged, Silver leaves with the warning that he and his crew will attack within the hour. Silver is true to his threat. He and his men attack, killing one of Jim’s friends and wounding Captain Smollett. However, they fail to take the log cabin, and several of Silver’s men are killed. The odds are now at four to nine.

A Dangerous Plan

As they sit in the log cabin waiting for another attack, Jim starts hatching a dangerous plan. Rather than staying cooped up in the log cabin, he decides to find a hidden boat that Ben had told him about earlier. Jim slips away without being noticed by his friends and makes his way along the shore of the island. When he finds the boat, which isn’t much more than a roughly-built coracle, he gets another even more dangerous idea. He wants to paddle out to the Hispaniola and cut her loose. He manages to steer the temperamental coracle toward the ship and cut the ropes. But as he finishes, he realizes that his coracle is caught in a current, and he is carried off helplessly.

Capturing the Hispaniola

Exhausted and unable to do anything to change his course, Jim falls asleep in the coracle. When he wakes, he sees the Hispaniola ahead of him. He starts paddling again, trying to catch up with the ship. When he gets close, the ship makes a sudden turn and crushes the little coracle. Jim just manages to escape and climb on board the larger ship. He finds the two men Silver left behind: one of them dead on deck, the other one, Israel Hands, badly wounded and unconscious. When Hands wakes, he strikes a bargain with Jim. Hands will help Jim sail the ship to the north side of the island; in return Jim will help tend Hand’s wounds and get him food and drink. Jim knows that he is safe with Hands as long as the ship hasn’t anchored. However, as soon as they have maneuvered the Hispaniola into the North Inlet, Hands attacks Jim with a knife. Jim rolls away and escapes. He climbs up the mast of the ship and starts loading two pistols that he took earlier. Hands climbs after him and throws the knife, pinning Jim to the mast by his shoulder. From surprise and pain, Jim drops the pistol, which goes off, and Hands falls off the mast into the sea. The sailor seaman is dead.

In Silver’s Lair

Jim leaves the ship in the North Inlet and goes in search of his friends. He finds his way back to the log cabin and, in the dark, sneaks into the cabin. It is only then that he realizes his mistake: It isn’t his friends who await him there, but Silver and the remains of his crew. Silver tells Jim that his friends willingly surrendered the log cabin and their resources when they learned that the ship was gone. Silver doesn’t know where they went.

“I’ve always liked you, I have, for a lad of spirit, and the picter of my own self when I was young and handsome.” (Silver to Jim)

Jim proposes a deal to Silver: Jim will do his best to keep Silver from the gallows if Silver protects him from the crew and spares his life. The crew is ready to mutiny and dispose of Silver as their captain. Silver argues his case before them and then, with a flourish, brings out the treasure map. Jim is as surprised as the crew. He can’t understand why Dr. Livesey would have given it to Silver.

A Bargain is Made

The next morning, Dr Livesey appears to look after the wounded among Silver’s crew. Silver allows Jim to talk to the doctor – despite the misgivings of the crew – but only after Jim swears that he won’t run away. Jim tells Dr. Livesey all that has happened and where he has hidden the ship. He also tells him of his bargain with Silver. The doctor promises to try to save Silver’s life should they manage to get out alive. Silver and his crew get ready to find the treasure, and they take Jim with them as a hostage. They hope that the treasure and Jim will be bargaining tools for getting the ship back.

The Treasure Hunt

The crew tie Jim with a rope around his waist, and the group sets off with shovels, picks, and supplies of food and drink. They make good progress, but then they come across a horrible sight: a human skeleton at the bottom of a pine tree. What makes the sight even more awful is that it’s laid out like a compass, with the body’s legs stretched in one direction and its arms raised straight above the head, pointing towards the location of the treasure. Still, they continue on. However, as they get close to the spot where they hope to find the treasure, a high, trembling voice starts singing a pirate song – the same song that Flint used to sing. The men are terrified. They believe that Flint’s ghost is there to protect the treasure, and they’re ready to turn back, but Silver calms their fears. But when they arrive at the location of the treasure, they find that someone had been there before them. Someone had dug up the treasure, and all that’s left is a deep hole in the ground.

Escape

This is the last straw for Silver’s men. They turn against Silver and Jim, but out of nowhere, Jim’s friends appear with Ben Gunn in tow. Two of Silver’s men are killed, but three manage to escape. Jim and his friends return to the cave where the group had been staying and start packing the gold and loading it into the boat. The task takes several days and, finally, they are ready to leave. Despite all that happened, they leave ammunition, food and a few medicines for the three men who are still on the island. Jim and his friends make a stop in Mexico, and it is here that Silver disappears, taking with him one of the bags of gold. They don’t hear from him again.

“Of Silver we have heard no more. That formidable seafaring man with one leg has at last gone clean out of my life.”

The rest of the group returns safely to Bristol, going their separate ways, each with a substantial amount of gold from Flint’s treasure.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel consists of six parts, divided into 34 chapters. The chapters have titles that succinctly point toward their content. Jim Hawkins is the main narrator of the story. At the start of the book, he explains that Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey have asked him to write down what has happened. Only three chapters have a different narrator: Dr. Livesey, who recounts the events on the boat after Jim went on shore at the island. On rare occasions, the narrator hints at things to come, thereby giving the reader a small advantage over the characters in the story. Stevenson cleverly constructs secrets that are gradually revealed as the story unfolds, leaving the reader in suspense throughout.

The language is simple and descriptive. Dialogue forms a large part of the text, and long time periods such as the journey to and from the island are “fast-forwarded” except for a number of key events. There is little introspection or analysis. If a character reflects on the effect of his own actions, it is often presented in a slightly ironic tone of voice. The book also includes a print of the treasure map, which gives an air of authenticity and allows the reader to better follow the action on the island.

Interpretation

  • Treasure Island is first and foremost a story aimed at children and young adults, tapping into the longing for adventure and exploring foreign countries that often defines those age groups.
  • Despite the stark contrast between Jim and his friends and the undisciplined and ruthless group of buccaneers, the novel undermines the apparently clear moral divide through the character of Long John Silver, who – despite being devious, cold-blooded and brutal – shows humane and sympathetic characteristics throughout and, in the end, goes unpunished.
  • Rather than being a place of idyllic beauty, the treasure island evokes feelings of unease and fear in Jim. His description of it reflects the sinister and violent events that have taken – and are taking – place.
  • Greed and materialism in all their forms represent a central theme of the novel, whether it is greed for money, drink, food or fame. It is shown (and condemned) in the group of pirates that surrounds Long John Silver.
  • Nature takes on a menacing form in Treasure Island. Swamps on the island bring with them the threat of malaria, and people are at the mercy of the strong currents and sharp cliffs that surround the island.
  • The novel celebrates the innocence of youth as represented in its hero, Jim. His often impulsive and naive actions lead not only to the discovery of Long John Silver’s evil plan but in the end, save his and his friends’ lives and help them to escape from the island.
  • While Stevenson’s characters in Treasure Island are decidedly British, the setting is very much American, reflecting the influence of authors such as Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper on Stevenson’s writing.

Historical Background

A Century of Change

The 19th century saw a lot of rapid and often drastic change that deeply influenced society and people’s thinking. In Britain, the one constant element during that time was Queen Victoria’s reign, which lasted from 1837 to her death in 1901. During her reign, Britain turned into a modern industrial state, became one of the foremost colonial powers and ruled the sea. Industrialization pushed ahead full steam, more and more people moved to the cities, and the sharp social divide between workers and other professions grew ever wider. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, a book that undermined Christian beliefs in a creator God and seemed to set science against religion.

The rationalism and capitalist character of the Victorian period in part increased the appeal of romantic preindustrial worlds and characters. One such character was the pirate, who, in 19th-century literature, was often portrayed as a romantic antihero. Pirates – that is, sea robbers who go after other ships, pillage them and sometimes capture them – had been around since Ancient Greece. The period between 1620 and 1720 is seen as the golden age of piracy, but by the mid-19th century, piracy came to an end. On the one hand, this was due to the Declaration of Paris (1856), which outlawed privateering. (Privateers were pirates who were authorized by their government to attack and rob ships of enemy nations.) The other factor that contributed to their end was the advance of steam boats, which didn’t have to rely on wind and were much faster than the sailing boats that the pirates were still using. By 1850, there were few remaining pirates.

Development

Treasure Island appeared initially under the title The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys in serialized form in the periodical Young Folks in 1881. It was Stevenson’s first novel and was published in book form in 1883. Together with Kidnapped (1886), Treasure Island established him as a successful writer of adventure and action stories. In 1894, Stevenson wrote a comprehensive appendix to the novel, complaining that the public had no interest in his earlier travel and essay writing, which earned him some – but never enough – money. In the appendix, he refers to his many unsuccessful attempts at writing a novel, which had been a dream for him from childhood. The inspiration for Treasure Island came during a stay at his parents home in Scotland, where he spent some time with a young schoolboy who had taken up painting. Stevenson joined him from time to time and one day drew a map of an island. In turn, the map became the blueprint for his story – which was to be, in his own words, “a story for boys.” He based the character of Long John Silver on one of his friends stripped of all his finer qualities – which explains why Silver is in many ways likable. Stevenson initially wrote one chapter a day and tested them out on the schoolboy friend. After a short break, he finally finished the novel during a stay in Davos, Switzerland.

Reviews and Legacy

In its serialized form, Treasure Island didn’t receive a lot of attention. However, when Stevenson published the story as a book, it proved an instant and huge success with the public and critics alike. The novel marked commercial success for Stevenson, allowing him to live off the proceeds of his writing. Over time, it has shaped people’s conception of the genre of adventure novels as well as their ideas about pirates. Numerous writers cite Stevenson as inspiration for their own work. Oscar Wilde referred to him as “that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose.”

Treasure Island was also turned into a number of films, starting in 1908. In the 1972 adaptation, Orson Wells plays Long John Silver, but it is in particular the 1950 movie adaptation of the book, directed by Byron Haskin, that has influenced the way people think about pirates – what they look like (including eye patches, hooks for hands and parrots on shoulders) and how they talk. In Haskin’s film, pirates were first heard to use words such as “matey” and to say “arrr” instead of “yes.” These stereotypes then found their way into subsequent pirate films, including The Goonies (1985) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). In 2014, British dramatist Bryony Lavery adapted the text for the stage, in which she cast females for many of the main roles, including Jim Hawkins and Dr. Livesey, thereby reversing the stereotypical gender roles of the novel.

About the Author

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850, the only son of his middle-class parents. His mother was deeply religious, so Stevenson grew up within a strict Presbyterian environment. His father was a successful engineer, best known for the many lighthouses he built, and the son was expected to follow in his footsteps. Stevenson initially studied engineering but was finally allowed to move into law. However, he soon began exploring French literature, then Sottish history and the works of Charles Darwin. Stevenson’s dislike of strict religiosity led to clashes with his parents. In his early 20s, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a severe respiratory illness from which he would suffer for the rest of his life. During that time, he also met – and fell in love with – Fanny Vandergrift Osbourne, an American woman who was married and ten years his senior. In 1879, he traveled to California to marry her after her divorce. Stevenson began his writing career initially as a travel writer and essayist. A collection of his short stories was published as The New Arabian Nights in 1882, but it was the success of his first full novel, Treasure Island, published in 1883 and followed by Kidnapped, that established him as an author and allowed him to live off his earnings. His strict religious upbringing and the question of evil and predestination influenced some of his later novels, most notably Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and The Master of Ballantrae (1889). After his father’s death in 1887, Stevenson moved to America for a year before setting off to the South Seas in 1888. He bought a property in Apia on Samoa as he was convinced that he wouldn’t survive another cold and wet winter in Britain and lived there from 1890. He wrote several travelogues and reports about life on the island – but no further major novels. At the time of his death, he was working on The Weir of Hermiston, a romantic historical novel that was markedly different in style from his previous work and has often been praised as having all the signs of a literary masterpiece. However, before he could finish the novel, Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 44 on December 3, 1894.


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