Treasure Island | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Treasure Island | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Old Buccaneer (The Old Sea-Dog at the Admiral Benbow) | Summary

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Summary

The narrator, Jim Hawkins, begins his story about Treasure Island with a brief explanation. The account, he says, is being written at the request of Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and some unidentified gentlemen. He then quickly sets up the tale and slips into the strange arrival of an old seaman at the Admiral Benbow Inn.

The new guest is a "tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man" with a "tarry pigtail," looking for a secluded place to live for an extended stay. Drunk on rum much of the time, the "captain" is always on the lookout for a "seafaring man with one leg." He hires Jim to help him keep watch at the rate of a silver fourpenny a month.

The months pass. Though the captain owes more money for his room, Jim's father is too intimidated by the fearsome old seaman to ask for it. Jim suggests that the strain of it all contributes to an illness that eventually kills Mr. Hawkins.

One evening the captain's drunken storytelling leads to a confrontation between the captain and Dr. Livesey, who has been looking in on Jim's ailing father. When the doctor refuses to listen attentively, the old seaman threatens him with a knife. But Dr. Livesey will not be intimidated and stares the man down.

Analysis

A short poem, or epigraph, precedes this chapter and encourages potential readers to purchase the book. The first verse hints at the exciting story they will read. In the second, Stevenson aligns his book with those of other popular authors: Kingston, Ballantyne, and Cooper. William Kingston was an English writer of adventure stories for boys. Robert Ballantyne was a prolific Scottish author of juvenile fiction. James Fennimore Cooper is known for his historical, though somewhat romanticized, stories of frontier and Indian life in the early years of America. Perhaps the best known is The Last of the Mohicans.

Treasure Island begins at the Admiral Benbow, a secluded inn located in Black Hill Cove, on the southwest coast of England, not far from the seaside port of Bristol. The inn is named after a successful pirate hunter and naval hero in the 1600s, who lost a leg in battle against a French fleet. The time is vaguely the mid-18th century.

With the opening paragraph Stevenson plunges the reader into the story, setting its quick pace while creating a tone of dark mystery and hinting at ominous events to come. The reader meets the narrator and two additional main characters, as well as an old, scarred seaman (as yet unnamed). The inn, Treasure Island, and the time period are also introduced. There are allusions to a treasure "lifted" and a treasure yet to be found.

Stevenson quickly establishes several themes. Jim's innocence and youthfulness are apparent. In reporting events he seems to stand off to the side and observe the action with a child's keen eyes. In his dealings with Billy Bones, Jim defers to the old seaman and does as he is asked. Alone in his childish world, he grapples with his nightmares about the one-legged seaman. As the "coming of age" theme develops, Jim will be forced to mature or die on Treasure Island.

The thread of a minor theme is bound to Jim's coming of age. This is Jim's search for a father figure. Jim's real father is weak and sickly and fears Billy Bones. Though Jim loves his father, there is nothing manly here to respect. Jim admires Dr. Livesey, who courageously stands up to the old seaman, and will look to him for advice later. Even so, Jim's yearning for a guide along his road to adulthood will lead him to trust a man undeserving of the role.

Another minor theme set up in this chapter is the contrast between savagery and civilization. Jim paints a picture of Billy Bones as ragged, dirty, and scarred; always drunk on rum; and wildly uncivilized in his manners. He frightens decent people. Jim presents Dr. Livesey as the flip side of that coin: clean and neat; his wig always powder-white. Without a weapon, he bests Billy Bones in their confrontation at the inn. Stevenson uses contrasts in physical appearance and behavior to mark the division between the savage and the civilized men in Treasure Island. Only one character will break the mold and demonstrate both sides of the coin.

Finally, the quest for adventure is another minor theme suggested by Jim's account of guests of the Admiral Benbow. They are horrified by the tales of the sea spun by Billy Bones. Simultaneously, they are enthralled. As Jim notes, "it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life." Pursuit of excitement will draw Jim and others into a real life adventure.

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