Treasure Island | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Treasure Island | Themes


Coming of Age

A central theme of Treasure Island concerns Jim Hawkins's personal growth from boy to man. This arc of maturity is behind much of what happens in the story. Jim's decisions and behavior spark new events and push the narrative in unexpected directions. These decisions and behaviors are based on Jim's changing perceptions and strengthening character as he matures.

At the beginning Jim is childlike and still living under the influence of his parents. He meekly follows orders and can be forced to act against his better judgment. For example, when Dr. Livesey orders Billy Bones to swear off rum for his health, Billy is able to push Jim into bringing him a drink. When Jim inherits the treasure map from Billy, he turns to Dr. Livesey for guidance and is drawn swiftly into a scheme—without being consulted—to pursue the buried treasure. Even so, embarking on the voyage is an important step toward maturity, forcing Jim to leave his mother and his home.

Loss of innocence is the main force behind Jim's transformation. It begins with the harsh reality of his father's death and that of Billy Bones soon after. Then Jim's childish illusions about the treasure hunt slowly crumble. Before the voyage to Treasure Island starts, he entertains innocent daydreams of adventure on an island paradise; of great battles with island savages and encounters with dangerous animals. These dreams clash terribly with reality, beginning with the unappealing, pest-infested appearance of the island. Each jolt moves Jim closer to adulthood.

Moral Ambiguity

Throughout Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson explores the idea of moral ambiguity. A person who is morally ambiguous lacks clarity when there is a moral or ethical decision to be made. Morally ambiguous characters have contradictory feelings—both good and bad—that impede their ethical decision-making. The reader never knows when their dark sides will take over, which spices the plot with tension.

In some cases Stevenson's characters understand right from wrong but are confused by a situation. As a result they make morally questionable decisions. For example, upon discovering that Billy Bones's map leads to a treasure, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney are blinded by avarice. Though honest men at heart, they greedily agree to go in pursuit of the stolen gold.

Long John Silver represents another kind of moral ambiguity. He knows, but is indifferent to, accepted standards of right and wrong. He moves easily and without conscience between the two, and his decisions are based entirely on self-interest. When it suits his purpose, he is pleasant, helpful, and almost fatherly in his treatment of Jim. However, he is equally capable of dishonesty, disloyalty, and ruthless violence to get what he wants. He represents most vividly the moral ambiguity of the adult world—a condition that Jim must come to understand and deal with as events unfold.

Duty and Honor

Several characters in Treasure Island exhibit the ideal of devotion to duty. It is the sacred principle by which Dr. Livesey lives—the standard that guides his behavior. It compels the doctor to treat the sick and injured mutineers, though he knows "his life, among these treacherous demons, depended on a hair." Though Long John Silver and Dr. Livesey stand on opposites sides of the law, the doctor's faithfulness to duty moves Silver to admit that he is "a good man and a true; I never seen a better man!"

Devotion to duty is the moral value that honest sailor Tom dies for rather than participate in Silver's mutiny. He says, "As sure as God sees me, I'd rather lose my hand." In the name of duty, Captain Smollett defiantly raises the Union Jack over the stockade and fights the pirates against all odds. He assures Squire Trelawney that his deceased servant Tom Redruth will be rewarded in the afterlife, having been "shot down in his duty."

For these characters duty is the principle, and honor, or personal integrity, is the objective. For example the doctor explains why he has so dutifully treated the mutineers, saying, "I make it a point of honor not to lose a man for King George or the gallows."

Long John Silver has his own special brand of duty. "Dooty is dooty," he's fond of saying. However, his idea of duty breaks all the rules and has no association with honor. "Dooty" is whatever is necessary for him to get something he desires. It can mean telling a lie or murdering a man who gets in his way. For example, he cites "dooty" as the reason he votes for death to all the honest men on the ship during the mutiny.

Jim Hawkins's sense of duty is immature and subject to whims. For example he shirks his duty when he stows away in a rowboat going ashore. Then an attack of conscience compels him to spy on Silver and the sailor Tom. He explains that "the least I could do was overhear them at their council," and "my plain and obvious duty was to draw as close as I could manage." Later, out of boredom, he sneaks away from the stockade—another dereliction of duty. Yet, he soon assigns himself the task of setting the Hispaniola adrift and then reclaiming her for his party. These tasks are triggered by a sense of duty to his comrades as well as the honor he will gain as the result of a job well done.

Consequences of Greed

The theme of greed and its consequences threads the story throughout. The end results range from bloodshed and death to foolishness, betrayal, and madness.

Even before the novel opens, Flint has acquired his vast treasure at the cost of countless ships and lives. When Billy Bones takes refuge in the Admiral Benbow, it is to escape the greed of his old shipmates who have spent their cut of the treasure and want more. Knowing Billy has the treasure map, they will do anything to get it. Blind pirate Pew's greed gets him killed as he searches for Jim and the map.

Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney become foolish victims of greed when they decide to pursue Flint's treasure. Neither man needs the money, but the idea of treasure hunting and gold is irresistible. Their greed leads to the death of good men as well as pirates. As for the mutineers among the Hispaniola's crew, few have qualms about betraying the trust of their captain or employer. Mutiny is acceptable. Upon reaching the island, they are wild to get their hands on the map and treasure.

The madness of Ben Gunn illustrates another consequence of greed. He was marooned on Treasure Island by angry shipmates, whose greed had not been satisfied with gold. Now, as "man of the island," the entire treasure is Gunn's, yet it means nothing to him. What he longs for is human contact and perhaps a bit of cheese. For this, he will trade all but a bit of gold to live on.

Only Jim seems resistant to the blinding influence of Flint's treasure. He is more interested in adventure than in becoming rich. Long John Silver has his own unique response to the waiting riches. Like his mates he desires the gold and will go to extremes to get it but maintains a clear, cool head in the process. He navigates calmly between the worlds of honest gentlemen and gentlemen of fortune (pirates). When other mutineers grow wildly impatient and endanger his scheme, he holds them together. When the pirates discover Flint's treasure is gone, Silver coolly changes his plan. When he makes his escape, he sets greed aside and takes only a single bag of coins from the stores of treasure.

Dreams versus Reality

Dreams are often at odds with reality in Treasure Island. They can be disappointing, or worse, dangerously deceptive.

The first dream of note is Jim's repeated nightmare about "the seafaring man with one leg," inspired by Billy Bones's fear of this shadowy figure. In these "abominable fancies," Jim dreams of him "in a thousand forms, with a thousand diabolical expressions." Yet, when he meets the man himself in the person of Long John Silver, the reality is quite different and very deceptive. Silver is tall, strong, pleasant tempered, and intelligent—far from the dreadful ogre of Jim's recurring nightmare. As a result, he is deceived about the man's real nature until it is almost too late.

Billy Bones's terrifying stories of life at sea represent another type of dream. Jim explains that guests at the Admiral Benbow who heard the tales " were frightened at the time, but on looking back, they rather liked it." Billy's stories conjure visions that spark the imagination of the visitors, scaring them, but at the same time providing "fine excitement in a quiet country life." His audience is free to indulge in fearful imaginings, while safe from the realities of the seafaring life.

Before sailing to Treasure Island, Jim indulges in imaginings of his own about the adventure to come. His daydreams are fanciful and childishly romantic. The island is a tropical paradise. He and his fellow explorers engage in battles or encounter wild animals. There is danger, but no death. However, by the time the adventurers reach the island, Jim has learned that all the honest men are in mortal danger, and his first sight of the island shatters any illusions of paradise. Jim states that nothing in his daydream "occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventure."

Finally, there isa poignant dream of childhood that casts Long John Silver in a more sympathetic light. As the island first comes into view, Silver speaks about the boyish fun Jim will have swimming, climbing, and exploring while ashore. It's a daydream laced with nostalgia and seems to recall Silver's own youthful past. It is a dream in stark contrast to the reality of his physical limitations. It is also at odds with the real and violent end for Jim and his friends that Silver has been secretly planning with the other mutineers.

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