This is a post participating in Allie’s Victorian Celebration, hosted at A Literary Odyssey.
One of the reasons I’m so eager to tackle classic literature is to discover the original meanings and contexts of literary figures and phrases that have crept into modern parlance. Shakespeare, of course, was the start of a whole host of idioms that are now used in ordinary conversation, usually without the speaker or listener realizing that he is quoting the Bard. Countless cultural expressions come from literature: the crazy wife in the attic, for example, seems to be known to all even though Jane Eyre is not so widely read. Over the last few months, I’ve been enjoying learning the true origins of this and other familiar concepts. And so, I was delighted to discover that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (serialized 1881-82 and published as a book in 1883) was the birthplace of Long John Silver, X marks the spot, the talking shoulder parrot, and the repetitive singing of a pirate ditty – and surprised to find that it contained few other familiar pirate tropes, such as Blackbeard, the pirate code, or walking the plank. I suppose I’ve come to take Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as the standard example of piracy! Overall, Treasure Island differs from these films and other more modern pirate narratives in that it is mainly an adventure story, not an action story.
Treasure Island is a quest narrative and a coming-of-age story. The narrator, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper; his father keeps the “Admiral Benbow” inn. I think innkeepers are among the most passive of literary professions. By definition, they remain in place while others depart. The innkeepers get to hear stories of other people’s adventures, but don’t typically get to have them themselves. Innkeepers provide lodging, the calm after the storm, the rest after the action (unless, of course, it’s the great fantasy film Stardust, in which the villain poses as an innkeeper and the inn thus becomes a further source of danger, but one of the reasons that scene worked so well is because it turned traditional expectations of inns and their purpose upside down). At the start of Treasure Island, Jim’s father runs the inn, and left to his own devices, Jim finds himself in a terrifying relationship with a seafaring man with a temper and scary stories and acquaintances. As the novel progresses, however, Jim’s passivity turns around by necessity. First, his father dies, and Jim and his mother must take over the running of the inn. When the pair discovers what is certainly a map to pirate treasure, Jim departs with it and sets off a chain of events that lead to a voyage to claim the gold and silver. Over the course of the novel, Jim becomes an active presence. His often-foolhardy decisions directly impact events; lives are lost and saved because of Jim’s choices.
I’m not really going to discuss the plot in this review. You should go read it for yourself, and I don’t want to give anything away! Treasure Island is a rollicking good read, full of action and suspense, nautical terms and survival skills. There’s pirates, guns, gold, conspiracies, and betrayals. As a serial novel, it is a fairly quick, engrossing read, since each chapter ends leaving you wanting more.
What I do want to talk about is its expectations of children. Stevenson wrote Treasure Island for his young stepson, Lloyd. It was published serially in a boys’ magazine. Thus it was always intended as an adventure story for children. This makes it an interesting study in the evolution of children’s literature. Treasure Island is a children’s story about adults. All characters, with the exception of the narrator himself, are adults – not a single other child appears in the entire novel. The narrator is a child, for children readers to identify with, but he doesn’t talk like a child. He writes like an adult. His prose hardly differs from that of the few middle chapters that are narrated by Doctor Livesey. Jim’s language and construction is more complex than is usual for children’s books nowadays. Most modern children’s books tell the story of adventures had by children who, through one of several established narrative devices, become independent of parents and other adults. Thus we have stories of orphans (the Boxcar Children series, A Series of Unfortunate Events), stories of kids away on summer vacations (The Penderwicks), stories of kids who find themselves magically spirited to distant lands (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), kids whose parents can’t be bothered to care about them or take part in their daily lives (The Secret Garden, His Dark Materials trilogy, Artemis Fowl). Treasure Island, in contrast, is the story of adults, observed by a child who participates in their adventure. In writing Treasure Island, Stevenson demonstrated a very different attitude toward children than is common today. The literary child he created was perfectly capable of handling adult situations and being treated by adults as an equal. In fact, Jim’s participation in their treasure-seeking saved many lives and enabled the “good guys” to finally get the gold. The children for whom Stevenson wrote his book were expected to be able to handle tougher language. Jim narrated as if he was an adult; therefore, kids would also have to read as if they were adults. I don’t at all mean to disparage modern children’s literature – I think it is really valuable for kids to learn, through their reading, how to be grown-up, responsible, and independent. However, I also think that the expectations that children can be treated as adults and interact meaningfully with adults are useful ones. I applaud Stevenson for this, and it makes me wonder whether other children’s books written in the Victorian era expressed similar ideas.