Stevenson Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robert Louis Stevenson’s coming-of-age novel about a young man searching for treasure while surrounded by pirates in the South Seas enjoyed enormous success amid a largely staid Victorian literary world and inspired a popular craze for adventure novels over the next two decades.

Summary of Event

In 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson, recovering from a bout with tuberculosis Tuberculosis in Braemar, Scotland, was entertaining himself by drawing a map with his twelve-year-old stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, when he had an idea for an adventure story set on the high seas. Stevenson had studied engineering and law but had never practiced either profession, instead building a modest career as a writer. By July of 1881, he had expanded his idea into a tale of pirates, mutiny, and hidden treasure and was publishing it as a serialized novel in the British children’s magazine Young Folks. Literature;English Treasure Island (Stevenson) Treasure Island (Stevenson) Stevenson, Robert Louis Piracy;in fiction[Fiction] [kw]Stevenson Publishes Treasure Island (July, 1881-1883) [kw]Publishes Treasure Island, Stevenson (July, 1881-1883) [kw]Treasure Island, Stevenson Publishes (July, 1881-1883) [kw]Island, Stevenson Publishes Treasure (July, 1881-1883) Literature;English Treasure Island (Stevenson) Treasure Island (Stevenson) Stevenson, Robert Louis Piracy;in fiction[Fiction] [g]Great Britain;July, 1881-1883: Stevenson Publishes Treasure Island[5130] [c]Literature;July, 1881-1883: Stevenson Publishes Treasure Island[5130] Haggard, H. Rider

The story, at that point entitled The Sea Cook: Or, Treasure Island, unfolded in weekly installments through June of 1882, but like many serialized novels of the day, it failed to attract any particularly loyal readership and was soon forgotten. Stevenson, who by that time had moved to Switzerland for additional treatment for his tuberculosis, rewrote the novel with an eye toward a more adult audience. The next year, 1883, Cassell & Company, Limited, a London publisher, released the novel in book form as Treasure Island.

The novel tells the story of a young boy named Jim Hawkins, son of an innkeeper on the west coast of England. The inn attracts a disreputable clientele, including a frightening group of pirates and an old buccaneer with a treasure map. The buccaneer, Billy Bones, dies at the inn after being presented with the “black spot,” a mysterious message from pirates. Jim finds the treasure map inside the dead man’s sea chest and shows it to two local authorities, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney. The men identify it as belonging to an infamous pirate, Captain Flint.

Trelawney organizes an expedition to search for the treasure and hires a crew of sailors collected by a shady rogue named Long John Silver. Silver and his crew turn out to be pirates themselves and, well into the journey, begin plotting a mutiny. Jim overhears the plan and tells the captain of the ship, Captain Smollett. The captain tricks the pirates into leaving the ship, but Jim sneaks ashore with them. He sees Long John Silver murder one of the pirates and, frightened, flees into the island’s interior, where he meets Ben Gunn, a former pirate marooned on the island years earlier.

Cover of an edition of Treasure Island illustrated by N. C. Wyeth that was first published in 1911.

Captain Smollett and the loyal sailors come ashore and take shelter in the pirates’ empty stockade, where Jim and Ben soon join them. When the pirates attack the stockade, Jim takes Ben’s boat back to the ship and cuts the ship’s anchor. After some time, he struggles aboard and is confronted by Israel Hands, one of the watchmen. Israel tries to kill Jim, but Jim, despite being wounded, kills Israel instead. Jim returns to the stockade and is captured by Long John Silver. Silver has acquired the treasure map from Trelawney but is being threatened with mutiny himself by the other pirates, so he enlists Jim in a plan to escape by pretending Jim is his hostage. Unconvinced, the pirates give Silver the black spot and relieve him of his command.

Desperate, Silver leads the pirates to the treasure, but the site has already been excavated and the treasure removed. Suddenly, Ben, Dr. Livesey, and the loyal sailors ambush the pirates, allowing Jim and Long John Silver to escape. After the group defeats the pirates, Ben leads them to the treasure, which he had discovered earlier and hidden in a cave. They set sail for home, leaving the pirates, with the exception of Long John Silver, marooned on the island. Silver sneaks off the ship, taking part of the treasure with him, and the group eventually arrives home, where Jim suffers from nightmares about the sea and swears off treasure hunting forever.

The novel enjoyed a stunning reception and soon became one of the most widely read books of the western world. It set off a wave of interest in adventure stories set in exotic locales and quickly inspired a host of imitators, including the immensely popular King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by H. Rider Haggard Haggard, H. Rider . Much of the success of Treasure Island was rooted in two factors: the romanticized nature of the adventure and the strict conventions of Victorian children’s literature.

For readers during the nineteenth century, the details of Treasure Island seemed to come from an idealized past. By the time of the novel’s publication, piracy was largely a distant memory though a compelling one. Pirates had been a scourge on British shipping in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the British would not have soon forgotten them. In addition, colorful and notorious characters such as Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were prominent in pirate lore and helped establish the romanticized images of pirates that many Victorians possessed. For a nation racing into its future on newly invented locomotives and steamships, tales of the swashbuckling pirates of its past offered a romantic escape.

For a Victorian readership schooled in the conventions of the day, moreover, an adventure like Treasure Island was both innovative and provocative. Children’s books in the Victorian Era were written for their moral lessons; any entertainment they might have provided was secondary or even deleterious. Many parents and educators of this period distrusted imaginative tales, so Treasure Island and its imitators—with their exotic and romantic geographical settings and their celebration of nationalistic, if not missionary, accomplishments—were deemed to possess an educational quality that lent the stories a degree of merit worthy of young readers. Treasure Island does embrace some moral values—responsibility, courage, and resourcefulness—but for its readers, it was primarily an exciting adventure, an engaging contrast to the dull world of Victorian children’s literature. In spite of the book being identified as a “boy’s novel,” Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson were well-respected by the most prominent literary voices of the day, including Henry James.

Significance

The popularity of Treasure Island created an intense interest in adventure stories and inspired a flood of literary works with heroic explorers, dangerous quests, and exotic locales. The best known such work was Haggard’s Haggard, H. Rider King Solomon’s Mines King Solomon’s Mines (Haggard) , though even works of more obvious fantasy, such as James Barrie’s Peter Pan: Or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (pr. 1904, pb. 1928), grew out of the adventure craze inspired by Treasure Island. Even more popular were the “dime novel” adventures written primarily as inexpensive entertainment for young men. Largely forgotten now, these novels were published by the hundreds and found an enormous audience in their time. Their most successful authors were British war correspondent George Alfred Henty, who wrote more than 140 novels, and American Horatio Alger, whose 135 “rags-to-riches” novels made his name synonymous with the American Dream.

Novels such as Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines also had an influence on popular perceptions of colonialism in Great Britain, particularly in their assumptions about and portrayals of Britain’s overseas territorial possessions. Britain’s colonial empire stretched around the world and included exotic and mysterious locations like India and Africa, so the successful adventures of fictional British explorers in such exotic locales encouraged the idea of British hegemony in those regions. As a result, adventure narratives provided an entire generation with an education, albeit distorted, regarding the cultural and economic exchange between Britain and its colonies. As a result, most Britons took great pride in being leaders in the global empire united by British cultural, moral, political, and commercial values.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson. Langhorne, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2005. A diverse compilation of essays reflecting the twentieth century’s best literary criticism of Stevenson’s major works, with an introduction by Bloom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colley, Ann C. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination. London: Ashgate, 2004. Explores Stevenson’s personal and cultural connections to the South Sea Islands and their influence on his writing, with an emphasis on the prevailing imperialistic values that were deeply embedded in the British mind-set of Stevenson’s time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, William. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave, 2004. Traces the evolution of Stevenson’s writings in the context of the five dramatically different geographical locations in which he wrote the works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Roger, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings. Honolulu: Bess Press, 2003. A compilation of Stevenson’s many stories and essays about the South Seas, the setting of Treasure Island and Stevenson’s home for the last years of his life.

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