Study Guide

Treasure Island Drugs and Alcohol

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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Drugs and Alcohol

Chapter 3
Billy Bones

But [Billy Bones] broke in cursing the doctor, in a feeble voice but heartily. "Doctors is all swabs," he said; "and that doctor there, why, what do he know about seafaring men? I been in places hot as pitch, and mates dropping round with Yellow Jack, and the blessed land a-heaving like the sea with earthquakes – what do the doctor know of lands like that? – and I lived on rum, I tell you. It's been meat and drink, and man and wife, to me; and if I'm not to have my rum now I'm a poor old hulk on a lee shore, my blood'll be on you, Jim, and that doctor swab." (3.4)

Billy Bones has spent many evenings shocking and impressing the quiet country folk of Jim's town with his tales of distant places and adventures. Here, after his stroke, we get the full story: he's lived through terrible situations and has used rum to drown his sorrows. Now he's become so dependent on rum that he demands it even though it will kill him. This contrast between how fun pirate adventures sound and how awful they really are may explain why we can enjoy the story of Treasure Island even as Jim ends the novel swearing that it was horrible and he would never repeat his adventures. (Btw, "Yellow Jack" is yellow fever.)

Chapter 10

Mr. Arrow, first of all, turned out even worse than the captain had feared. He had no command among the men, and people did what they pleased with him. But that was by no means the worst of it, for after a day or two at sea he began to appear on deck with hazy eye, red cheeks, stuttering tongue, and other marks of drunkenness. Time after time he was ordered below in disgrace. [...] He was not only useless as an officer and a bad influence amongst the men, but it was plain that at this rate he must soon kill himself outright, so nobody was much surprised, nor very sorry, when one dark night, with a head sea, he disappeared entirely and was seen no more. (10.7-9)

Mr. Arrow can't maintain discipline with the crew because he's drunk all the time. Long John Silver clearly has no trouble identifying and manipulating Mr. Arrow's weakness, just like he exploits Squire Trelawney's blind patriotism and Jim's vanity. Mr. Arrow's weakness isn't so different from the others'; it's just more visible and difficult to ignore. This is why we find Jim's contemptuous conclusion that Mr. Arrow is better off dead a little bit hard to take: it's not like Jim has been so perfect.

Chapter 11
Long John Silver

"Why, how many tall ships, think ye, now, have I seen laid aboard? And how many brisk lads drying in the sun at Execution Dock?" cried Silver. "And all for this same hurry and hurry and hurry. You hear me? I seen a thing or two at sea, I have. If you would on'y lay your course, and a p'int to windward, you would ride in carriages, you would. But not you! I know you. You'll have your mouthful of rum tomorrow, and go hang." (11.25-7)

Long John Silver offers this diatribe to Israel Hands when Hands tries to hurry him into mutinying before they reach the island. He points out that he's got experience and a plan on his side, but the other pirates are so impatient that they want everything right now. Long John Silver's go-to symbol for this self-indulgence is their "mouthful of rum tomorrow": they would rather have a shot of rum tomorrow than carriages in the future. And Silver proves correct: as soon as they fall to open warfare with the good guys, all the pirates get drunk, leaving them vulnerable to more sober minds.

Chapter 12
Captain Smollett

"My lads," said Captain Smollett, "I've a word to say to you. This land that we have sighted is the place we have been sailing for. Mr. Trelawney, being a very open-handed gentleman, as we all know, has just asked me a word or two, and as I was able to tell him that every man on board had done his duty, alow and aloft, as I never ask to see it done better, why, he and I and the doctor are going below to the cabin to drink your health and luck, and you'll have grog served out for you to drink our health and luck. I'll tell you what I think of this: I think it handsome. And if you think as I do, you'll give a good sea-cheer for the gentleman that does it." (12.19)

Captain Smollett tricks the pirates into holding off their mutiny temporarily in the simplest way possible: he offers them a round of drinks in the name of Squire Trelawney, and they are so cheerful that they wait to rise up against their leaders. The thing that surprises us to no end about this book is that the pirates are so cheap! They are like children, easily bought off. Their willingness to get drunk at a moment's notice allows Captain Smollett and Squire Trelawney to get the drop on the mutineers and take the Hispaniola for themselves before rowing to the island fort.

Chapter 15
Ben Gunn

"Ah, well," said [Ben Gunn], "but I had--remarkable pious. And I was a civil, pious boy, and could rattle off my catechism that fast, as you couldn't tell one word from another. And here's what it come to, Jim, and it begun with chuck-farthen on the blessed grave-stones! That's what it begun with, but it went further'n that; and so my mother told me, and predicked the whole, she did, the pious woman! But it were Providence that put me here. I've thought it all out in this here lonely island, and I'm back on piety. You don't catch me tasting rum so much, but just a thimbleful for luck, of course, the first chance I have. I'm bound I'll be good, and I see the way to. And, Jim"--looking all round him and lowering his voice to a whisper--"I'm rich." (15.22)

Ben Gunn has spent three years on Treasure Island, and all this time alone has made him decide to go back to God (he's "back on piety"). But we can already see signs that he's just waiting for the chance to go back to his old ways. Even though he swears that "you don't catch me tasting rum so much," he'd take "a thimbleful for luck [...] the first chance [he has]." And indeed, the first chance Gunn has to drink a thimbleful of rum, he doesn't stop there: he goes on a nineteen-day bender that leaves him penniless. We find the foreshadowing of this future self-indulgence right here in his speech on the island.

Chapter 20
Long John Silver

"Well now, you look here, that was a good lay of yours last night. I don't deny it was a good lay. Some of you pretty handy with a handspike-end. And I'll not deny neither but what some of my people was shook--maybe all was shook; maybe I was shook myself; maybe that's why I'm here for terms. But you mark me, cap'n, it won't do twice, by thunder! We'll have to do sentry-go and ease off a point or so on the rum. Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind's eye. But I'll tell you I was sober; I was on'y dog tired; and if I'd awoke a second sooner, I'd 'a caught you at the act, I would. He wasn't dead when I got round to him, not he." (20.24)

Long John Silver comes to make a deal with Captain Smollett (which Captain Smollett promptly rejects) in response to an incident that has "shook" all of his men, even the unshakeable Long John Silver. While all his men were drunk on rum the night before, someone crept into their camp and killed one of them. Even the disciplined Long John Silver can't keep his men sober enough to stand guard. This inability to keep watch because of drunkenness proves to be a repeated theme: not only does Ben Gunn come around and kill a pirate their first night on the island, but Jim Hawkins walks right into their fort unnoticed. It's lucky for the pirates that Jim has no clue what he is doing.

Chapter 25
Jim Hawkins

"Come aboard, Mr. Hands," I said ironically.

He rolled his eyes round heavily, but he was too far gone to express surprise. All he could do was to utter one word, "Brandy." (25.11-2)

Like Billy Bones, Israel Hands is physically badly off (from a stab wound rather than a stroke) but he still wants nothing more than alcohol. The dependence on alcohol leaves all of these characters in a sorry state not only because they're drunk all the time, and therefore careless, but also because when they're sick or injured, they become totally dependent on whoever is nearest to them. In both Billy Bones and Israel Hands's cases, that would be Jim.

I went into the cellar; all the barrels were gone, and of the bottles a most surprising number had been drunk out and thrown away. Certainly, since the mutiny began, not a man of them could ever have been sober. (25.16)

When Jim takes control of the Hispaniola once more, he discovers what's been pretty clear from the pirates' behavior (their singing on the beach, their inability to keep watch): they've been drunk pretty much this whole time. We have to wonder, if the pirates had been at all sober during their time on Treasure Island, would the outcome of the novel have been entirely different?

Chapter 34
Doctor Livesey

"Drunk or raving," said [Doctor Livesey].

"Right you were, sir," replied Silver; "and precious little odds which, to you and me."

"I suppose you would hardly ask me to call you a humane man," returned the doctor with a sneer, "and so my feelings may surprise you, Master Silver. But if I were sure they were raving--as I am morally certain one, at least, of them is down with fever--I should leave this camp, and at whatever risk to my own carcass, take them the assistance of my skill." (34.9-11)

In our discussion of "Quotes: Duty," we use this passage to explore Doctor Livesey's dedication to treating the pirates even at the risk of his own life. Here we will focus on the fact that the three remaining pirates on Treasure Island are either drunk or crazed (or both). Now that these pirates have lost the treasure, the ship, and their leaders, their drunkenness is perhaps like Billy Bones's: an effort to avoid acknowledging a horrible reality. We find their descent into total drunkenness and/or sickness both pitiful and tragic. This detail makes the decision of the good guys to leave them behind on Treasure Island seem all the more cruel and ethically problematic to us. What do you think?

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