Study Guide

Treasure Island Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Treasure Map

The whole idea for Treasure Island started with Robert Louis Stevenson and his girlfriend's son designing an imaginary island together, so it should be no surprise that a map of Treasure Island plays a huge role in this novel. For more on this exciting document, check out "Setting" and "In a Nutshell."

The Black Spot

The black spot is probably the one piece of Treasure Island pirate lore that hasn't made it into broader popular culture. It's kind of what it sounds like: a circle of paper that's black on one side and has a message on the other. These are supposed to represent the will of the pirates as a group. When Pew delivers one to Billy Bones, it contains a demand for him to appear before his crewmates at a certain time. And George Merry, Tom Morgan, and Dick Johnson dare to give one to Long John Silver declaring that he is no longer their elected captain (that is, until he shows them he has the treasure map).

Jim describes Long John Silver's black spot as darkened on one side with ash, with the word "Deposed" written in ash on the reverse. But the ash has rubbed away, leaving the black spot totally unrecognizable. Perhaps this symbolizes the fleeting nature of pirate law: one minute you're in favor and the next you're out.

The Skeleton Pointer

In Chapter 31, as the remaining pirates go in search for the treasure under Long John Silver's leadership, they find a neatly laid-out human skeleton. It's too neatly positioned to be natural, so the pirates realize that it's a clue, a pointer toward Captain Flint's treasure. The pirates manage to identify the skeleton as that of a former crewmember, Allardyce. They feel no grief for the man himself, but his skeleton reminds the pirates (and the reader) of just how much violence and human life this treasure has cost. Sure, Captain Flint may have acquired a fortune in gold that his crew is seeking even now to find, but, as the nameless pirate of the final five comments: "Dear heart, but he died bad, did Flint!" (31.33). The skeleton pointer provides an opportunity for the pirates to reflect: is any amount of gold worth this price? (Because they're pirates, they decide that, yes, it sure as heck is, and keep going.)

Captain Flint (the parrot)

One of the most enduring images of pirates we have is that they carry parrots. Maybe it's the name: parrot, pirate; pirate, parrot. And maybe it's that parrots symbolize trips to distant climes and strange lands. (You definitely don't find many parrots native to England.) But the real role of this particular parrot, Captain Flint, is to allow Long John Silver to meditate on good and evil.

Long John Silver isn't just a pirate; he is a pirate-philosopher. He points out that Captain Flint the parrot is completely innocent (after all, it's a parrot; how evil can it be?). Still, she swears a blue streak. The problem with poor Captain Flint is that she's been tainted by her upbringing and associates. It would appear that one of the moral lessons of the novel is that the only way to stay morally pure in this world is to stay out of dangerous situations in the first place. Be that as it may, if we all did our best to avoid any appearance of impropriety, we would never get to go on treasure hunts. So there's a subtle conflict in the novel between what's ethical and what's fun. After all, we're reading Treasure Island precisely because everyone in it is at least a little morally ambiguous. (For more on moral ambiguity in the novel, check out our section, "What's Up With the Ending?")


The Jolly Roger, the pirate flag with a white skull and crossbones on a black background, represents Long John Silver's authority. When Jim takes over the Hispaniola, one of his first acts is to bring down the pirate colors and drop them into the sea. The good guys have a flag, too: the British Union Jack. This flag represents order, discipline, and national pride, so it's no wonder that Captain Smollett (the most dutiful man in the novel) carries not just one, but several Union Jacks with him. For a further consideration of the Union Jack and its symbolic relation to authority, see our thoughts on Captain Smollett under "Characters."

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