Study Guide

Treasure Island Language and Communication

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Language and Communication

Chapter 1

[Billy Bones's] stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were--about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main. By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea, and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described. [...] People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life, and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a "true sea-dog" and a "real old salt" and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea. (1.10)

It's only appropriate, given that Robert Louis Stevenson is a writer, that he assigns so much magical power to language and storytelling. Billy Bones is charismatic and exciting because he tells amazing pirate stories – ones much like the one we are reading. Billy Bones foreshadows what's coming down the road for Jim. By placing this outlandish, larger-than-life pirate in the middle of quiet English society, Stevenson is really highlighting how different Jim's future with the pirates will be from the quiet life he's led up until now.

Chapter 5
Pew

"You'd be as rich as kings if you could find it, and you know it's here, and you stand there skulking. There wasn't one of you dared face Bill, and I did it--a blind man! And I'm to lose my chance for you! I'm to be a poor, crawling beggar, sponging for rum, when I might be rolling in a coach! If you had the pluck of a weevil in a biscuit you would catch them still." (5.25)

This amazing outburst of hatred for his fellow pirates emerges from Pew, the blind man who comes looking for Billy Bones after Bones chased off Black Dog with his sword. The "it" Pew is talking about is, of course, Flint's treasure. We can see what's wrong with pirate society in the way Pew addresses his fellow pirates: it's all about personal gain rather than teamwork. Pew is filled with loathing for the other pirates, who lack "the pluck of a weevil in a biscuit." He cares only about "[his] chance" to be "rolling in a coach" and has no patience for any man who stands in the way of his personal ambition.

Chapter 6

The squire and I were both peering over his shoulder as he opened it, for Dr. Livesey had kindly motioned me to come round from the side-table, where I had been eating, to enjoy the sport of the search. On the first page there were only some scraps of writing, such as a man with a pen in his hand might make for idleness or practice. One was the same as the tattoo mark, "Billy Bones his fancy"; then there was "Mr. W. Bones, mate," "No more rum," "Off Palm Key he got itt," and some other snatches, mostly single words and unintelligible. I could not help wondering who it was that had "got itt," and what "itt" was that he got. A knife in his back as like as not. (6.30)

Doctor Livesey is opening the packet of papers that Jim found in Billy Bones's sea chest. They find a few bits of writing that catch Jim's interest and imagination. As Jim speculates about "who it was that had 'got itt,' and what 'itt' was that he got, he is encouraging us to imagine along with him what this could mean. But by putting Billy Bones's spelling of "itt" in quotation marks, Jim is also pointing out the odd and uneducated way Billy Bones expresses himself. Language becomes another way for Stevenson to suggest the wacky, alien world of pirate society for his readers.

Chapter 7

Well, sir, I thought I had only found a cook, but it was a crew I had discovered. Between Silver and myself we got together in a few days a company of the toughest old salts imaginable--not pretty to look at, but fellows, by their faces, of the most indomitable spirit. I declare we could fight a frigate. (7.6)

This is an excerpt from Squire Trelawney's letter to Doctor Livesey. Unlike Doctor Livesey's three chapters of first-person narration, which don't seem that different in tone from Jim's, Squire Trelawney really sounds like a different character. His use of language helps characterize him, cluing us in to his misplaced overconfidence. His language is full of emphatic statements like, "I declare we could fight a frigate" (a kind of ship). He says he has found "the toughest old salts imaginable," fellows "of the most indomitable spirit." Well, of course they're tough – they're pirates.

Chapter 12

The stranger kept hanging about just inside the inn door, peering round the corner like a cat waiting for a mouse. Once I stepped out myself into the road, but he immediately called me back, and as I did not obey quick enough for his fancy, a most horrible change came over his tallowy face, and he ordered me in with an oath that made me jump. As soon as I was back again he returned to his former manner, half fawning, half sneering, patted me on the shoulder, told me I was a good boy and he had taken quite a fancy to me. (12-3)

This sneering stranger is Black Dog, and he's trying to ambush his former shipmate Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn. Black Dog is like a pale imitation of Long John Silver. And like Israel Hands, he is unable to keep his "sneering" manner off his face, so even his flattery rings false. These efforts to get on Jim's good side prove that Black Dog isn't stupid, but he's not as smart as the real thing, Long John Silver.

Chapter 15
Ben Gunn

"You see the mounds? I come here and prayed, nows and thens, when I thought maybe a Sunday would be about doo. It weren't quite a chapel, but it seemed more solemn like; and then, says you, Ben Gunn was short-handed--no chapling, nor so much as a Bible and a flag, you says."

So he kept talking as I ran, neither expecting nor receiving any answer. (15.54-5)

As Ben Gunn and Jim travel across the island, Gunn keeps narrating as though he is alone and doesn't expect a response from his audience. He is clearly used to talking to himself, which reminds us that he has been alone for three years. Stevenson is amazingly skilled at using language to suggest character. Here, we definitely get the sense that Ben Gunn has gotten a little weird during his years of solitude.

Chapter 20
Long John Silver

"Now," resumed Silver, "here it is. You give us the chart to get the treasure by, and drop shooting poor seamen and stoving of their heads in while asleep. You do that, and we'll offer you a choice. Either you come aboard along of us, once the treasure shipped, and then I'll give you my affy-davy, upon my word of honour, to clap you somewhere safe ashore. Or if that ain't to your fancy, some of my hands being rough and having old scores on account of hazing, then you can stay here, you can. We'll divide stores with you, man for man; and I'll give my affy-davy, as before, to speak the first ship I sight, and send 'em here to pick you up. " (20.37)

Long John Silver is offering Captain Smollett a deal. (The Captain, of course, will have none of it.) We find this an interesting example of Long John Silver's unusual speech, which is a weird mix of slang and officialese. He promises to "clap" them somewhere safe or else to hail a boat and "send 'em here to pick you up." But at the same time, he also promises his "affy-davy" (affidavit, which means oath) to abide by any deal they strike. Long John Silver's language is a puzzle, just like his character: he's got this odd mix of highfalutin' words ("affy-davy") and slang ("clap") that makes it difficult to place him.

Chapter 29
Long John Silver

"The black spot! I thought so," [Long John Silver] observed. "Where might you have got the paper? Why, hillo! Look here, now; this ain't lucky! You've gone and cut this out of a Bible. What fool's cut a Bible?" (29.10)

Of all the people we might think would respect a Bible, Long John Silver would be the last. As usual, his motives are unclear. We know he is frightened of what appears to be a ghost (but is actually Ben Gunn) later on in the chapter, so he is at least a little bit superstitious. But he's also clearly using this Bible thing to tease poor young, feverish Dick Johnson unmercifully about being cursed. Long John Silver is punishing Dick for giving him the black spot by frightening him half to death.

Chapter 31

Indeed, on a second glance, it seemed impossible to fancy that the body was in a natural position. But for some disarray (the work, perhaps, of the birds that had fed upon him or of the slow-growing creeper that had gradually enveloped his remains) the man lay perfectly straight--his feet pointing in one direction, his hands, raised above his head like a diver's, pointing directly in the opposite. (31.24)

As Long John Silver, George Merry, Tom Morgan, Dick Johnson, some nameless dude, and Jim all go searching for treasure, they stumble across a skeleton, which morbidly turns out to be pointing directly toward the treasure. This skeleton is the most literal example of the way that the island itself has become a kind of language. As the pirates and the good guys attempt to find the treasure and fight one another, they keep trying to read the island's clues to find its riches. In this particular language, Ben Gunn proves the only true expert. He's not courageous or intelligent, but he's the only one who knows the island's secrets well enough to have found the treasure on his own.