Study Guide

Treasure Island Themes

  • Criminality

    Obviously, this is a book about pirates, so it's also a book about crime. At the same time, it's an adventure novel, so there isn't much room for gritty realism here. Treasure Island is a fantasy of crime involving men with ridiculous names and parrots on their shoulders who are searching for literal piles of gold.

    At the same time, while this isn't a realistic portrayal of pirate life, Stevenson's characterization does seem to reveal certain views about criminals. The pirates are all self-indulgent and childish. If they were more disciplined, they might have achieved all they hoped for, but their plans come to nothing because they have no self-control. This is what's led them to a life of crime in the first place. Stevenson seems to be suggesting that pirates and other criminals are trapped in a vicious cycle: they fall into the criminal life because they're reckless and careless, and this very self-indulgence and lack of discipline means they can't hang onto what they steal. The one exception to this rule is Long John Silver – but everyone recognizes that he's the odd man out in pirate society.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. As outlaws, how do pirates enforce their own rules? What are the rules of pirate life?
    2. We see two examples of the black spot: first for Billy Bones, then for Long John Silver. What crimes against their fellow pirates are these two supposedly guilty of? What do their crimes have in common?
    3. How do pirates reconcile their own law breaking with their belief in a Christian God who forbids sin?

    Chew on This

    Both Long John Silver and Billy Bones are guilty of the "crime" of not sharing treasure with their fellow pirates. This is the only crime truly recognized by pirate law.

    In this novel, pirates from a Christian background are caught in a paradox: they believe in God, but they are too self-indulgent to stop sinning. This paradox makes these characters unusually afraid of the afterlife.

  • Duty

    A lot of people talk about duty in Treasure Island, especially that upstanding representative of English order, Captain Smollett. Obviously, the pirates have a flexible notion of duty, what with the fundamental pirate value being "get rich quick." More interesting is the way that slightly less high-minded good guys like Doctor Livesey and Jim approach duty. They seem to have a situational notion of what duty entails: they stay loyal to their friends but don't necessarily feel bound to follow specific orders. Ultimately Jim helps everyone by being a deserter, and Doctor Livesey saves the life of a murderer, Long John Silver. We think Captain Smollett would not approve, but this practical approach to duty helps the good guys survive in the novel.

    Questions About Duty

    1. How do different good guys seem to conceptualize duty? What principles do they agree on?
    2. Can the pirates be said to have a sense of duty? If so, to what or who? How does this sense of duty display itself?
    3. How does social class seem to play into ideas of duty? What idea of duty seems to unite Squire Trelawney's three loyal servants?

    Chew on This

    By representing Squire Trelawney's three servants as loyal even at the expense of their own lives, Treasure Island suggests that the ideal servant is willing to sacrifice everything for his master.

    Even though Captain Smollett, Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey, and Jim Hawkins hold different ideals about duty, they all resolve that the end justifies the means by the novel's conclusion.

  • Appearances

    Lots of characters in Treasure Island are exactly as they appear: Captain Smollett looks sharp and he is sharp. Ben Gunn looks shifty and strange and he is shifty and strange. We've also talked throughout this guide about the many ways in which Long John Silver is a chameleon (see our thoughts on him in "Characters" for highlights). Jim Hawkins is also somewhat difficult to read. None of his allies – indeed, not even Jim himself – can fully conceive of what he is capable of. Similarly, the pirates are completely surprised (and enraged) when Jim tells them that he has been the root of their failures since coming to the island. We don't get a sense of what Jim looks like (except that he is young), but there is clearly nothing in his face that suggests the lengths to which he is capable of going. These surprising reserves of ability are something else that Jim shares with Long John Silver. Perhaps Long John Silver is what Jim would be if he had grown up without morals.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. We know that Long John Silver and Jim are not as simple and straightforward as they first appear to be. Which characters in the novel are as simple as they appear to be? How is appearance used as a tool of characterization in the novel?
    2. How does Stevenson use character appearance to create suspense in Treasure Island?
    3. How does the appearance of the island contribute to the adventures Jim finds there?

    Chew on This

    The marshy, sickly atmosphere of the island and its many hidden caves and forests underlines the plot turns that take place there.

    Characters like Israel Hands and George Merry fail to win out over wily figures like Jim and Long John Silver because they cannot disguise their intentions.

  • Exploration

    This novel began with a map, so it certainly is concerned with charting new places and things. However, anyone looking for a gung-ho celebration of exploration will be disappointed with Treasure Island. While leaving his home is what permits Jim to see the world, it also means living in constant danger. Even Jim seems unsure whether leaving home was a foolish thing to do, since he ends his narration with an oath that, "Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island" (34.26). If Jim finds exploration so hazardous, maybe we should leave the travel and adventuring to him; we'll just stay home and read about it.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Why might Stevenson end his novel with Jim's nightmares about the island? Does this serve as a warning against the dangers of exploration? What is the novel's attitude toward exploration and adventure?
    2. What are some of the advantages of setting Treasure Island in a fictional place? How does Stevenson evoke the layout and feel of the island through language?
    3. Do some parts of the island appear more welcoming than others? Why?

    Chew on This

    Jim's nightmares about Treasure Island at the end of the book make exploration of new places seem even more intense and exciting.

    By setting Treasure Island in a fictional space, Stevenson can force the geography of the island to evolve along with changing plot lines.

  • Language and Communication

    Long John Silver is clearly a master wordsmith. He can make nearly anybody believe nearly anything, at least for a while. But the spoken word is only one form of communication in Treasure Island. There's also the language of appearance, in which a sharp look demonstrates Captain Smollett's intelligence and a terrified shudder reveals a superstitious pirate's fear of ghosts. And then there is the language of the island itself: the map tells one story, but the shifting alliances and actions of the people on the island rewrite its geography (for more on this, see "Setting"). All of these languages – spoken, physical, and geographical – can also be deceptive. For a writer, Robert Louis Stevenson is surprisingly suspicious of the persuasive value of language.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How do the different classes of people on board the Hispaniola talk? Can you distinguish a pirate's speech from that of fellow seafarer Captain Smollett?
    2. Are there characters besides Long John Silver and possibly Jim who can lie successfully? What characteristics seem necessary to be a good liar in this novel?
    3. How does Stevenson's invention of a special pirate language shape the atmosphere and tone of Treasure Island?

    Chew on This

    Robert Louis Stevenson deliberately makes some pirate words and phrases too obscure to understand in order to increase the mystique of pirate society.

    Even though Captain Smollett occasionally uses sea slang, his willingness to speak his mind against the wishes of his employer distinguishes him from pirate flatterers like Long John Silver.

  • Youth

    There are three largely inexperienced youths in Treasure Island. Abraham Gray is fresh off the farm and decides to stand by his captain rather than his new sailing buddies. His reward for loyalty is a portion of the treasure, which he uses to buy a share of a ship and start a family. Then there is Dick Johnson, who is weak-willed and easily flattered. He decides to go with the flow and join Long John Silver and the pirates. His reward for this treachery is to be marooned on Treasure Island as he becomes steadily sicker with fever. Last but not least, there is Jim Hawkins. He is neither obedient like Abraham Gray, nor is he easily bullied like Dick Johnson. Jim is a free thinker who is willing to strike out on his own. This independent thinking is what enables him to save his friends. So is Stevenson encouraging young people to ignore their elders and follow their own instincts? We will leave that question for you to ponder.

    Questions About Youth

    1. How does Jim describe his own early, inexperienced youth? Does his tone seem pitying, ironic, sympathetic, melodramatic...? How does the fact that Jim is an adult narrator looking back on his own childhood affect the novel?
    2. What activities does Jim as narrator chalk up to his youth at the time? How does youth work as an excuse for him?
    3. Does Jim's youth give him freedom that the other characters lack, or does it impose more restrictions on him? How does Jim's relative freedom or restraint affect his actions in the novel?
    4. Do you read Treasure Island as a coming-of-age story? Why or why not? (See Jim's "Character Analysis" for more on this.)

    Chew on This

    As the youngest man in the novel, Jim has the fewest duties, and this freedom allows him to explore the island without terrible consequences.

    By blaming his own morally questionable decision to leave the fort on his youth, Jim is showing his bias as a narrator. Doctor Livesey is an adult, takes risks much like Jim's, and receives no such excuse from Jim's narration.

  • Friendship

    We're using friendship a little loosely here. We don't just mean the ties that bind people together; we're also talking about the ambition and greed that tears them apart. The guilt that Jim feels about deserting his post and leaving Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey to fend for themselves reflects the responsibility we feel toward the people we care about. We can contrast this sense of obligation with the extreme self-interestedness of pirate life. The pirates may appear to have a more equitable way of organizing their society, using direct elections based on respect. But in a system in which no man trusts another because they all lie, cheat, and steal at every opportunity, the only way to establish authority is through fear. No friendship is possible when everyone is just waiting for the next betrayal or double-cross. Treasure Island really hammers home the old lesson that crime doesn't pay: even if you get away with your loot, you'll spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder and suspecting your nearest and dearest of robbery.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Are any of the characters in Treasure Island real friends? Why or why not? What might prevent the formation of mutual loyalty among these different characters?
    2. How does Long John Silver maintain authority over his men? What is it about pirate society that makes Long John Silver's various strategies necessary?
    3. When does Jim start to feel more sympathy toward Long John Silver after his initial betrayal? What affect do Jim's changing feelings have on the reader's loyalty toward Long John Silver's character?

    Chew on This

    Because pirate society is highly individualized and self-interested, Long John Silver can only maintain control over his men through fear. Once he becomes the official captain of the pirates, his veneer of friendship to all of the men under his command disappears.

    Friendship between Squire Trelawney and his three servants or between Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollett is impossible because the good guys in Treasure Island still maintain rigid class divisions.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    The word "rum" is used over 70 times in Treasure Island. The only fun thing the pirates ever do together is drink. This reliance on alcohol also proves to be their undoing. Because they are all stone drunk their first night on the island, no one notices when Ben Gunn sneaks up and kills one of them. And who wants to imitate both Billy Bones and Israel Hands, so desperate for a shot of hard liquor after their injuries that they will promise Jim anything to get it? Rum becomes another means of symbolizing the moral weakness and lack of discipline among the pirates.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Why are the pirate characters so particularly given to drinking too much? What does this overindulgence say about the character of pirates?
    2. Which other characters in the novel are chronic alcoholics? What purpose does it serve to the plot to give them this affliction?
    3. What critique of alcohol does Long John Silver offer? How do Long John Silver's views differ from those of the other pirates?

    Chew on This

    Long John Silver differs from the other pirates in that he recognizes that drinking too much rum wastes money. His views on alcohol become another tool of characterization to show his unusual discipline and restraint.

    Alcohol is the root of all of the pirates' problems in defending their territory and organizing attacks on Captain Smollett and the rest of the ship's leadership.