Treasure Island stands out as a classic of young adventure fiction for good reason. Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale has survived the test of time because it is fast paced enough for the modern reader, packed with action and heroism that the young readily take to, and populated mostly with characters who leave little doubt about whose side they’re on. I say mostly, because one exception added a new element to this type of adventure fiction in the 1880’s—moral ambiguity. But more about that below.
I recently revisited Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, because his tale is one of the most read of all time. And it has gone on to become a story to be savored beyond the printed word. Without including the scads of TV serializations in many languages, at least seventeen movie versions of the story have been filmed since the first one in 1912.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883
In case you’ve forgotten Jim, or were never aware of him in the first place, he is a 14 year-old who is helping his struggling parents run a quiet country inn when events overtake him. The inn is chosen as a hideaway by a frightening sailor with a dark secret. The sailor, Billy Bones, stays on long after his money runs out because Jim’s parents are too intimidated to send the man packing. Eventually, several rogues Bones has double crossed catch up to him. In the turmoil that follows, Jim’s father dies, his mother loses the inn, and Jim comes away with a treasure map.
It’s here that the real adventure starts when the second most famous character from the book, Long John Silver, joins the crew that sets out on the voyage to recover the treasure. Silver is the model for all the later fiction pirates with parrots on their shoulders and peg-legs. The plotting begins soon after the ship hoists anchor, but the actual skullduggery doesn’t begin in earnest until arrival at the destination, the tropical Caribbean island marked on Jim’s map. There the two sides become clear. They become even clearer at the actual site of the X marked on the map.
Jim Hawkins, a young hero
Jim sees what needs to be done to save his friends and confronts the various pirate mutineers several times. Because Jim’s companions are unaware that he is responding to the threats he uncovers, they come to question his reliability and loyalty. However, it is Jim’s brave actions that more than once allow his friends to stay half a step ahead of the pirates.
Jim proves himself when he is captured by the pirates and puts his word and honor above his own safety. His actions eventually redeem him in the eyes of his friends and set him free, but only after he learns everything is not always black and white in the adult world. This is where the moral ambiguity comes in because Jim accepts help from the dubious character alluded to in the opening paragraph. I am speaking of Long John Silver, of course.