by Robert Louis Stevenson
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
The plot of Treasure Island is pretty gosh-darned simple. It's about treasure and pirates – that's about it. The complicated twists and turns of how Jim deals with the pirates to get the treasure is what fills the book's 34 chapters. Still, that's not to say that Jim's adventures lack deeper meaning. The last chapter of the novel, "At Last," is actually pretty thought provoking.
There's a serious moral problem in the last chapter. There are still three pirates left alive on the island: Tom Morgan, Dick Johnson (who is sick with fever), and a third nameless fellow. As Jim Hawkins and his buddies (the anti-pirates) load up their ship with treasure, the three pirates start to fall apart. The island's climate isn't healthy and they start getting sick. They're also drunk all the time. As Jim Hawkins and the rest of the good guys (plus Long John Silver, who is...complicated) sail away from the island, they see the three abandoned pirates kneeling on the beach with their arms outstretched, begging to be picked up. But the men on the ship decide to leave them behind. Let's go through the pros and cons on this choice:
- The pirates are murderers and have proven themselves unreliable and untrustworthy. There aren't many good guys left, so if the three pirates suddenly decided to rise up against Captain Smollett and the others, it could really cause trouble on the trip back to England.
- Even if the three men were rescued, they would just be going back to a trial and execution in their home country.
- The good guys do leave the pirates some supplies and ammunition, enough for them to survive on their own on the island.
- At least one of the pirates (the youngest, Dick Johnson) is seriously sick, and the other two are probably going to get sick. If the good guys abandon the three pirates on the island, aren't they condemning them to a slow, painful death?
So this is definitely a moral gray area. By presenting us with this pitiful scene, Stevenson is actively drawing our attention to the difficulty of this final decision. Even though the men on the ship decide to leave the pirates behind, Stevenson is acknowledging that their choice is not the only one they could have made – it may not even have been the best choice, ethically speaking.
Stevenson is pointing out that the pirates are not simply "bad guys"; they are also human beings, frightened of being left alone. And the good guys are not saints; they are practical fellows who decide to do what's best for themselves no matter how ethically problematic it might be. In the end, Treasure Island isn't about abstract concepts of good versus evil; it's about the complexities of human nature. For more on human nature and the end of this book, head of to "Characters" and check out our thoughts on Long John Silver and Ben Gunn.