“It was Silver’s voice… from these dozen words I understood that the lives of all the honest men aboard depended upon me alone.” –Jim Hawkins
Still in my pajamas, I was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce in my NaNa’s room on the edge of the bed, wrapped up in a blanket with Treasure Island held too close to my eyes, as if I might lose contact with Jim Hawkins if I let anything into my peripheral vision. I was absolutely captivated by this world of ocean voyages and mutinous pirates and marooned mad men and treasure hunting. I had reached a most intense moment in the story: when Jim becomes involved against Mr. Hands, one of Silver’s mutineers, in a struggle of life and death. NaNa’s calls to breakfast fell on deaf ears. Pancakes could wait for Jim to vanquish the pirates and win the day:
I was drinking in his words and smiling away, as conceited as a cock upon a wall, when, all in a breath, back went his right hand over his shoulder. Something sang like an arrow through the air; I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast. In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment—I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim—both my pistols went off, and both escaped out of my hands. They did not fall alone; with a choked cry, the coxswain loosed his grasp upon the shrouds and plunged head first into the water.
I read Treasure Island for the first time when I was a child. It was a present from my NaNa. She brought it home from a shopping trip one day, along with Robinson Crusoe. (Sure, I had more Barbies than I knew what to do with, but indeed, I was that kid who preferred books to toys…) And at age eight, I became a Stevenson fan for life. I went on to read more of his works as I got older and finally to write papers about him in college, particularly on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Doing research for those papers, I learned so much more about the author himself. What a writer was this Stevenson. He was a vanguard of multiple styles, a precursor to the genesis of such genres as science fiction with Jekyll and Hyde, historical fiction with Kidnapped, and of course, the pirate story with Treasure Island. So as an adult, I decided to give Treasure Island another go. And I found an entirely new adventure between the pages.
The first thought that struck me when I finished this book for the second time some eighteen years later was that, even with my degree in English education and even after having read and researched Stevenson, I couldn’t quite figure out these characters. And at first, that disturbed me a little. “Am I so dense that I just don’t understand, or is it the movie versions coloring my perceptions of the characters?” I’d wonder. The protagonist, Jim Hawkins, and the antagonist, Long John Silver, were my main concerns. To spare you a long literary analysis to explain the conclusions I ultimately reached, I’ll simply say that I now believe Stevenson represented the characters most realistically and believably.
So very often in books and movies and television, we find heroes who are either fully noble one hundred percent of the time, or whose flaws are forgivable or at the very least, understandable: Aslan, Captain Kirk, Superman, Hercules, Professor Dumbledore, and so on. And at the same time, we find corresponding villains and enemies who are painted as one hundred percent monstrous or wrong with little or nothing to redeem them: the White Witch, the Klingons, Lex Luthor, the Hydra, Voldemort, and the like. This is the mindset when we begin an adventure book, no? The heroes are good, the villains are bad. Easy. And this mindset is what threw me off so badly at first with Treasure Island. I found myself wondering why Jim Hawkins could behave with cowardice one minute and bravery the next. How could he seek to save only himself, but then change his mind and try to rescue the honest men among the crew? It seems almost a matter of chance that he was ultimately able to save those men after making cowardly choices. And how could Silver be so disloyal and change sides when it suited his interests, and then try to help Jim? How could he be so self-serving and equivocating, and still have any notion of caring for Jim at all? Sometimes Jim was brave, but at times, he was among the most cowardly; Silver was mostly selfish and corrupt, but I do believe he had at least a tiny bit of genuine care and concern for Jim. (Admittedly, this is an arguable point.)
Why do these characters seem to behave almost erratically? Why do they not stay true to form – the daring hero and the devilish enemy? I considered that Silver was prone to intermittent changes of mind whenever it suited him, but this explanation didn’t fully satisfy me. I also considered the fact that this book is a bildungsroman, the coming of age story, of Jim Hawkins; his changing attitudes are the result of his changing from a boy to a man. That is true. But beyond these explanations, the main reason for the “out of character” behavior is simple: Stevenson recognized a fundamental truth about the human race. He saw that people are not entirely one thing or another. We have varying characteristics that make us all who we are: predominant ones and underlying ones. Of course there are the Mother Teresas, and there are the Ted Bundys… But most of us are somewhere between the humanitarian saint and the violent sociopath. We are all capable of courage and cowardice; we are all capable of selfishness and sacrifice. Jolting, intense situations sometimes cause frenzied or frightening behavior; we’re not always calm and collected. And I find this realistic treatment of his characters one of the most remarkable aspects of Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
It was a happy trip down Memory Lane, revisiting that morning in my pajamas when I voraciously finished Treasure Island and cemented a lifelong love for Stevenson’s writing. But even more than that, rereading Treasure Island gave me a deeper understanding of Stevenson’s personal touch – his innovative and unique nature. Stevenson admitted in an essay he wrote later that he used a myriad of sources for parts of the story, but Treasure Island is still hailed as THE pirate story of pirate stories, the source of inspiration and even specific details like pirate dialect and practices for later works. Would we have Captain Jack Sparrow if we hadn’t first had Long John Silver?… I have come to appreciate even more the impact that Stevenson made with this book – its ability to not only remain in print but to thrive in our consciousness and to influence modern movies and literature. I loved the adventure story as a child. But as an adult, I can do even more: I can admire and appreciate Stevenson’s keen insight into humanity. Heroes and villains are not always what we expect them to be.
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest –
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Number of pages: 238
Total Friends of Atticus pages:27,252