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Treasure Island: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson offers an analysis of the important themes and formal traits of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The book, which was published in 1883, is about English buccaneers in search of buried treasure on a distant island.

Overview of the Novel

Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson about buccaneers in search of buried gold. The story was published in 1883. The plot summary is as follows: When an old sailor named Billy Bones dies, a boy named Jim unlocks Billy's chest. Inside he finds a treasure map. The district squire, Trelawney, buys a ship so that he, Jim, and the Doctor Livesey can pursue the treasure. Long John Silver, a one-legged tavern-keeper, is hired to cook. They set sail. Long John Silver plans a mutiny, but Jim overhears and alerts the captain. When the get to the island, there is chaos as the men vie against each other to find the buried treasure. At long last, they return to England, and Jim declares to never return to the island for treasure.

Important Themes

Treasure Island explores the theme of moral ambiguity. The characters often find themselves in situations in which there is not a clear distinction between good and evil. Also, many characters have both good and evil traits. Silver, for instance, is very kind and affectionate to some, while violent towards others.

Another important theme is importance of personal experience. In the beginning, Jim is isolated in a quiet country inn. He knows very little about the world. But when he goes on a journey to hunt for treasure, he learns a lot of important life lessons--for instance, that greed leads to personal ruin. At the end, Jim vows never to pursue treasure, because he has witnessed firsthand what the desire for riches can do to a man. Related to this theme is the search for role models. Jim longs for a father figure, since his own father has died. He tries to look up to the Squire and the Doctor, but these figures fail to inspire him. Long John Silver and the other pirates are too reckless, only looking out for themselves. Jim struggles to find his way in the world without a strong example of the kind of man he wants to become.

Another important theme is the quest for adventure. In the beginning of the novel, Jim leads a quiet life on the English coast. He longs for action and adventure, which he finds once aboard the ship. But he soon tires of this life, wanting to return to the peace and quiet of small town life. The narrative suggests that adventure is necessary for education and maturation, but it is not a desirable way of life.

Treasure Island also explores the conflict between savagery and civilization. The squire and doctor fancy themselves civilized Englishmen, but they prove to be just as ruthless as the savage pirates that they disdain. The novel even suggests that all men are savages and that each person is subject to the whims of nature.

Analysis

Treasure Island is a coming-of-age story, depicting Jim's transition from adolescence to adulthood. The novel depicts how Jim develops his moral character through the education of experience. The novel is also a quest narrative, since the central drama involves the pursuit of treasure. This creates for a dramatic and suspenseful reading experience.

The narrative juxtaposes the world of land and the world of sea. Jim reflects on the vast differences between the two, when he describes his strange feelings aboard the ship, 'Though I had lived by the shore all my life, I seemed never to have been near the sea till then. The smell of tar and salt was something new.' The sea promises something new and different.

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