Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
"To the Hesitating Purchaser"
If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:
-- So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie!
In "What's Up With the Title?" we mentioned that the title of a book can be a marketing device to get you to buy it. Well here's another, even more obvious attempt to get the money out of your wallet: Robert Louis Stevenson starts Treasure Island with a poem he wrote himself, "To the Hesitating Purchaser." It's basically an extended ad (though he gets bonus points for putting it in rhyming verse), in which Stevenson tells us the book is a "sailor tale," which, of course, it is. A "schooner" is a kind of ship – to be specific, the kind of ship that our hero, Jim Hawkins, uses to sail to Treasure Island. And "maroon" (in line 3) isn't the color between red and brown; here it means someone stranded on an island, like the Treasure Island character Ben Gunn is. So Stevenson is announcing that this novel is going to be full of exciting stuff you don't see every day – schooners, marooned men, "storm and adventure," and "buried gold."
In lines 5 and 6, Stevenson offers us "all the old romance, retold/Exactly in the ancient way." In other words, he's promising us a piece of historical fiction – that's the "old romance" part. Stevenson doesn't mean "romance" like a love story, he means "romance" like a fictional tale. Treasure Island was written in the 1880s, but it's supposed to take place in some unspecified year in the 1700s, so it would be historical fiction even to its original readers.
Still, even though Treasure Island is supposedly set in the past, it's not a deeply researched piece of historical fiction like Stevenson's other famous adventure novel, Kidnapped. Stevenson is trying to make the book seem old-timey so that the pirate part of the plot seems convincing, but he's also inventing a lot of pirate lingo to make characters like Long John Silver and Israel Hands more exotic and entertaining. Sure, he's setting Treasure Island in the past, but it's a past Stevenson is making up himself.
Lines 12 and 13 of the poem clue us in to other books that have inspired Treasure Island. "Kingston" is William Kingston, a popular writer of adventures on the high seas. "Ballantyne the brave" is Robert Ballantyne, a Scottish writer of kids' books (btw, Stevenson was also Scottish). And "Cooper of the wood and wave" is American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a bunch of stories about pioneer life and sea adventures. So Stevenson is pulling an old advertising trick: if you liked Kingston, Ballantyne, or Cooper, you'll love this. We still see this all the time today on book jackets that say things like "Fans of Harry Potter will
As for line 8 and the "wiser youngsters of today," Stevenson is trying to attract young readers by flattering them a bit. He's pretending that kids today might be too serious for this kind of fiction – for tales of the high seas, pirates, and derring-do. But we all know that pirates never get old (just ask Captain Jack Sparrow!). No matter how serious the world gets, there's always an audience for a good pirate novel. This little performance of "pirates, out of fashion? No way!" explains the second stanza.
Stevenson ends his epigraph with, "And may I/And all my pirates share the grave/Where these and their creations lie!" (lines 14-16). In other words, if young people today no longer read these kinds of books, then let Stevenson's own work (and his pirates) be forgotten along with the adventure novels he read as a kid. As history has proved, Stevenson didn't have to worry – kids (and adults) today totally still dig pirates, and Treasure Island has been a popular book for 130 years.