by Robert Louis Stevenson
An Ordinary Hero
Treasure Island is supposed to be a novel for boys. This is coming out of stodgy, Victorian England, so girls aren't supposed to want to sail away and hunt for treasure. But some of us here at Shmoop are both girls and want to go on treasure hunts, so we still love this book. Robert Louis Stevenson gives us a main character with whom his desired audience of ordinary boys can identify: a smart lad without too much money or education who comes out all right in the end. Sure Jim Hawkins is a little more imaginative and adventurous than many, but he is still average enough to be relatable.
Jim is the only child of English innkeepers in an unspecified decade of the 18th century. He stumbles into his pirate adventure by chance when Billy Bones ("the captain") happens to blunder into Jim's parents' inn. Jim's mother is the one who insists on opening the dead Billy Bones's chest, where Jim chances on a packet of papers containing the treasure map. Later, luck will have it that Jim falls asleep in just the right place to overhear Long John Silver's plans to rise up against the captain of the ship. What's more, Jim slips into the forest at just the right time to bump into Ben Gunn, the marooned former pirate and possessor of Flint's treasure. Even Jim's one real act of violence is an accident: he's holding two loaded pistols in the direction of murderous pirate Israel Hands when Hands' knife grazes his arm and he squeezes the triggers.
Basically, Jim's real gift is his good luck. He's no hero; he's just always in the right place at the right time. It's Jim's luck that makes him so easy to identify with. He doesn't have any great skills or spectacular bravery – it's kind of the opposite, actually, since he's no help at all in any of the pirate battles on the island and he only manages to dodge evil Job Anderson's sword blows by tripping and falling at just the right time.
Still, we like to imagine that, if we found a treasure map and fell in with a bunch of pirates, we would muddle through OK like Jim does. Part of what makes him so likable is that he comes out OK without there being anything special about him. After all, most of us aren't really that special either when it comes down to it (at least, not in a pirate-defeating kind of way), but we still dream of treasure and adventure. So Jim's our kind of hero: ordinary, practical, adaptable, and above all, lucky.
Jim's "Coming of Age"
Occasionally people describe Treasure Island as a coming-of-age novel. We can totally see why, because it involves a boy going on an adventure. He has to make some kind of personal transition over the course of fighting pirates and finding treasure, right? And we certainly agree that Jim's journey from his parents' small country inn to Treasure Island and back leaves him with the kind of experience most of us can only dream of.
Even so, we're not totally convinced that Jim's experiences have brought him to adulthood. You can change and still remain a kid – otherwise, childhood would be completely boring and static. Jim's a teenager, so of course he is learning new things. But that doesn't mean that he's reached some well-defined new stage of his life, which is what "coming of age" seems to imply.
After all, Jim doesn't exactly spend a lot of time reflecting on the lessons he has learned from his time on Treasure Island. (And how applicable is fighting pirates to his everyday life back in England?) What's more, the novel closes on the open-ended note that Jim still has nightmares about his time on the island (and the sound of Long John Silver's parrot, Captain Flint). He has not moved on or gained closure or however you might put it – the island is still a place of fear that haunts his dreams.
We don't know anything about Jim's future; all we know about his later life is that he has written down his adventures at the order of Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey. So it seems problematic to say that Jim began the book as a boy and has now become a man. Stevenson doesn't seem that interested in such an easy A to B story of personal development.
That said, this is a book about a teenager taking initiative and saving a bunch of adults from pirates, which is a pretty mature thing to do. So if you want to read Treasure Island as a story of Jim Hawkins's coming of age, that's totally fair. Certainly the issue of Jim's development as a character is complicated enough to allow more than one reading of the story.
Jim as Narrator
So Jim is our trusty narrator (well, except in the three chapters that get taken over by Doctor Livesey). But he's not narrating Treasure Island while it happens – he's looking back on the events of the island from some point in the future. This shows us a couple of things: first, we know that Jim, our main character, survives, so the book can't get too stressful. Second, Jim is more than just our main character. Everything in the book gets filtered through his perceptions and observations, so Jim's character subtly influences pretty much the whole book.
Robert Louis Stevenson is using a pretty common storytelling strategy for the 19th century. This whole Future Main Character narrating the adventures of Past Main Character features in tons of novels from the period, including Jane Eyre , David Copperfield , and Stevenson's own later adventure novel Kidnapped (all available through Shmoop guides near you!). But Jim gives us a bit of a twist. When David Copperfield, say, analyzes his own past life, he discusses the lessons and emotional consequences of what happened to him. It's not that Jim is unfeeling or anything, but he's not melodramatic. He keeps his emotional commentary to a minimum.
Jim starts out the book saying that he's jotting all of this down because "Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen" (1.1.) have asked him to. Most of Jim's comments from the perspective of his adult wisdom and experience seem to be more about building up suspense than giving us profound insights into Jim as a human being. Take, for example, when Jim writes:
Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought; sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us; but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventures. (7.1)
What Future Jim, is saying is that, as Past Jim looked at his treasure map, he imagined any number of things about the island and what awaited him there. But nothing that Past Jim pictured in his mind was as weird and terrible as what actually happened. This passage shows us that 1) something "strange and terrible" is about to happen, and 2) it's going to be beyond our ability to guess what it is. Future Jim is telling us that, if we keep reading the book, we're going to be both excited and surprised. So we do get some insight into Past Jim's feelings. We know he's excited and terrified by what the island might hold. But these feelings seem to tell us less about Jim than about the plot of the story and how much fun is in store if we keep reading. Jim's narrative voice builds up our suspense without dwelling too much on Jim's psychology. For more on Future Jim, see our analysis of "Narrator Point of View."