Thursday, March 1, 2018

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a very a famous work. Surprisingly, I had never read it before.  For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel tells the tale of thirteen-year-old Jim Hawkins. Most of the tale is told in first person from Jim’s point of view. Captain Flint, an old pirate, lodges at the inn owned by Jim’s parents. Flint dies of a stroke just when his old shipmates show up looking for a treasure map that Flint possesses. After Jim, his mother and local authorities fight off Flint’s old pirate friends, the map falls into Jim’s hands. Jim quickly shares the map with a local doctor named Livesey and a local Squire named Trelawney. The adults outfit a ship, bring Jim along and set sail in search of the treasure. Unbeknownst to them, most of their crew are ex-associates of Flint and are themselves pirates. When the ship reaches Treasure Island, the pirates begin to battle with the noncriminal members of the party, including Jim. A violent battle of wits and arms ensues on both land and sea. Though written as juvenile literature, a lot of people die in the fighting, and Stevenson describes the violence with some degree of detail.

I found this book to be fun and entertaining.  Stevenson is a master at depicting action and suspense.  Though his characters are not too complex, many of them are colorful and engaging creations. This is especially true of the pirate leader, Long John Silver.  I think that adults as well as young adults will find the novel enjoyable.  As an adventure story, the book holds up very well after all these years.

So much has been written about this novel that it is difficult to come up with anything original. Something I read about Stevenson on Wikipedia struck me as interesting, however. As part of the argument that Stevenson was not a lightweight author and that his works deserve serious consideration, some critics have noted that Stevenson was an influence upon Joseph Conrad.

I usually read commentary about a book only after I have read the book itself. However, I read the Wikipedia snippet before reading the bulk of this novel. As a result, I was on the lookout for similarities with the writing of Joseph Conrad.  Most obviously, both authors explored nautical themes.  However, the similarities go further.  I found the parallels between the two writers most apparent when it comes to descriptions of nature. In particular, certain descriptions of the jungle in Treasure Island bore a resemblance to the descriptions of some things that I read in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The following is a description of the landscape of Treasure Island,

"Grey-coloured woods covered a large part of the surface. This even tint was indeed broken up by streaks of yellow sand-break in the lower lands, and by many tall trees of the pine family, out-topping the others— some singly, some in clumps; but the general colouring was uniform and sad. The hills ran up clear above the vegetation in spires of naked rock. All were strangely shaped"

and later,

"the look of the island, with its grey, melancholy woods, and wild stone spires, and the surf that we could both see and hear foaming and thundering on the steep beach"


Compare this to Conrad’s description of the African jungle in Heart of Darkness.

"There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps."

 and later

"the great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not."

 I wrote about these passages in Heart of Darkness here. I do not find that Stevenson is as skilled a writer as Conrad. Nevertheless, his descriptions of nature are excellent and atmospheric. There seems a certain similarity between the authors that manifests itself in these quotations.  It is interesting that Stevenson uses adjectives like “melancholy” and “sad” to describe the vegetation. There is also something “strange” about the hills. Conrad also ascribes various attributes relating to emotion to describe the jungle.  Conrad’s jungle seems more complex, however. He endows the jungle with all sorts of human emotions.  His use of the words “monotonous grimness” seems similar to Stevenson.

As I have previously written in my commentary on his works, I think that Conrad is delving deep into all kinds of symbolism as it relates to human psychology. Though Stevenson, writing at an earlier time, may not match Conrad’s intricacy, he also was interested in humanity’s tendency to have a light and a dark side. That was prominently displayed in Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. I detect a little of this duality in Treasure Island as the good and bad of the various characters is compared and contrasted. In the passages that I posted above, Stevenson does not seem to be highlighting anything evil about the nature or the jungle, however. Instead, he is exposing the sad, the melancholy and the strange. Is this a reflection of the mind of Jim who is viewing the jungle? Is it a reflection of the world?

In the case of Conrad, I have little doubt that he is trying to reflect something about the human condition in his description of landscapes. In the case of Stevenson, I am not sure if this was intentional or not. Either way, he seems to have influenced Conrad.


I think that fans of either one of these authors will find something worthwhile if the give the other a try. Both of wrote compelling works. Both were very skilled at describing nature while delving into the mysteries of human nature.

54 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

a subtle point of comparison, citing the emotional content of both author's scenic descriptions... new to me and provocative... i've read both writers pretty thoroughly and agree that Conrad is, i don't know if i'd say "better", but certainly deeper... but muddier, too, i think: the great thing about Stevenson is the clarity of his vision; sometimes i had to reread Conrad several times to get the meat of his descriptions, but rarely with Stevenson... thoughtful post, Brian, tx....

James said...

Stevenson has been one of my favorite authors since I was a young boy reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped. I'm sure you understand why I enjoyed it as a youth, however it is worth rereading as an adult. As you point out, Stevenson is capable of more subtle and deep psychological writing in later works like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I also appreciate the comparison with Conrad, whom I read later in life and agree is overall a more accomplished prose stylist.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde was a psychological masterpiece. This book was less subtle but so much fun. I need to give Kidnapped a try.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

You make a great argument for reading books that I somehow overlooked in my youth. I’m persuaded. My “bucket list” reading will now include Treasure Island and similar neglected masterpieces. Thanks for the inspiration.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tim - I think that you would really like Treasure Island.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle - You raise a very good point about Conrad. His writing is a little muddy. It is so often dense and filled with odd phrases. I also find myself rereading passages when I read his books.

Maria Behar said...

OH, OH, OOOOOOH!!! TREASURE ISLAND!!! This was another of my favorite childhood reads!! Or perhaps I should say "pre-teen reads". I think I read this book around the age of twelve. And HOW could I have missed including Jim Hawkins in my list of literary heroes, when I wrote the post on this theme for the "Book Blogger Hop"?! I wanted to go off to find hidden treasure, just like Jim!! Lol. I now want to reread this book!!!

As usual, your commentary is EXCELLENT, Brian! I LOVE how you contrasted the prose style of Stevenson and Conrad. I had no idea that Stevenson had been an influence on the later writer, but the quotes you've included do bear this out. I agree that Conrad has a much more intricate style, but that might have been due to the fact that he was writing for an adult audience, and his theme was obviously much darker. (I have not read "Heart of Darkness", but your review of it gave me a very good idea of what goes on in that novel.)

I will DEFINITELY go back and reread "Treasure Island", perhaps pretty soon, too. I want to see what nuances I can pick up from it, now that I'm an adult. At the time of my first reading, I was in my "tomboy phase", so it was the great adventure that interested me. Now, though, I would also dig a little deeper into the theme of good versus evil. And I KNOW I'll enjoy this novel all over again!! :) :)

Thanks for your fascinating insights!! Hope you have a GREAT weekend!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. This book makes me want to go off and find hidden treasure now. I was surprised that folks had connected the two authors myself. When I thought about the nature descriptions I saw the one connection myself. I think that you would enjoy a read of this book.

Have a great weekend!

CyberKitten said...

It's on my read soon list..... With 'soon' being a comparative term....

PS Parks said...

It took me ages to get around to reading this and I finally did last year. I enjoyed it much more than I thought. I have yet to read Kidnapped but do have it on the shelf. Good review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - I know what you mean when it comes to not getting to books. This one is a good one though.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by P. S. Parks. I only read this myself as an adult. I also habe not yet read Kidnapped. I plan to do so eventually.

Sheree Strange said...

Hey Brian -

I'm exactly the same re: reading commentary/Wikipedia entries about books and authors only after reading the book itself. I think my sole exception was The Golden Bowl - mostly because I found it so impenetrable that I had to get some external signposts as to what I was reading and what I could expect :\

This review of Treasure Island is really interesting, I wasn't aware of the link to Conrad at all. I've not read Treasure Island - I only recently finished Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and that was my first Stevenson read. Might have to check it out someday (once I get this List of mine under control)... ;)

Thanks so much for sharing!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I too avoid reading commentary on a book before I read it and yet sometimes its necessary to check out what the critics have said beforehand, it enhances the reading of the novel. Didn't know for example that Conrad was influenced by Stevenson. I have read Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, a very thought provoking classic about human nature. Yet to read Conrad but must give Heart of Darkness a try and will also check out your commentary on Conrad.

Gently Mad said...

Stevenson is a favorite. I especially love his poetry which has been put to music by a number of twentieth century composers. I think Ralph Vaughn Williams music of Stevenson's Travel Songs are superb.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I have not heard Williams’s music. I will search for it today and give it s listen.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sheree - I thiought that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was brilliant and more meaningful then this one. At first the Conrad and Stevenson connection seemed a little odd to me. But it began to make sense.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I agree that sometimes a little commentary on a book gets one thinking about themes and ideas while one is reading it.

I thought that Heart of Darkness was s brilliant book and worth the read. I also think that I liked Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is better then Treasure Island.

Suko said...

Thoughtful commentary, Brian Joseph! I read this many years ago in school (I may have my old copy of the book, somewhere). And now I may reread it, due to your terrific review.

Laurie Welch said...

I find it interesting when authors are compared to one another. So thanks for that bit of information. And what you have shared is certainly intriguing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. It is a short book so you can likely get it on quickly.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie - I also find comparing writers to be fascinating.

HKatz said...

Interesting to consider what's an "acceptable" or expected level of violence (or other mature themes) in juvenile literature, now and in the past. I also enjoyed your comparison with Conrad.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila. Views and acceptability of violence have changed in interesting ways. The violence in this book is tame by modern standards. Yet I do not think that Young Adult would be this violent.

Hibernators Library said...

I love Robert Lewis Stevenson! Hadn't thought about this book for a long time. Glad you enjoyed it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - It is such a classic. So many people have read it.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I read Treasure Island years and years ago in school. Interesting commentary on these two authors. Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is on my TBR list. I like that story alot, I've only seen the film version with Julia Roberts. Happy Sunday :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think thought that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was better then Treasure Island. I would highly recommend it. I also liked the Julia Roberts version. There have been several good film versions.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Brian...
FYI
I had more problems with Blogger, and my stupid errors required a restart with a tweaked address; here is the restarted version with a posting on Shakespeare.
https://informalinquiries2.blogspot.com/2018/03/shakespeares-philosophy-2006.html
Best wishes,
Tim

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tim. I will add your new site to my blog reader.

Amy said...

Somehow I missed this one as a child but have read it twice as an adult and thoroughly enjoyed it!

thecuecard said...

Hi Brian, this is an interesting comparison of authors. I can see where there are similarities, especially their sea writing. Both authors also traveled quite a bit right? Stevenson to the South Pacific and Conrad all over the place. And weren't they both in ill health for good parts of their lives? wow lots of similarities. I'm glad how you point about how they both gave human qualities to describing nature. Hmm. I must read them again.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Amy. I think that adults can get a lot out of this one,

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I was not even thinking of all the is clarities between the two that you have pointed out. I guess that is one reason there seems to be connections in their writings.

Whispering Gums said...

Fascinating Brian. What made you decide to read Treasure Island? (I haven't read it either, I have to say).

I loved your comparison with Conrad. I can see the similarities you note, but also agree with you re Conrad being the more skilful writer. I think that skill is partly in the rhythm which carries the words and imagery - the rhythm underpins that intense emotion he is conveying in the language. That said, though, Stevenson's description is appealing and certainly conveys an emotion. It's not boring or cliched.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Whispering Gums. I read this as I really liked Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, which I first read a few years ago. I did not find this as psychologically interesting, but it was enjoyable in other ways.

I think that you are on to something when you mention Conrad and rhythm. There is a cadence to his prose.

I agree that Stevenson is s very skilled and original writer.

JaneGS said...

I always enjoy Treasure Island--I started reading it as a child, influenced by my older brothers, and have read it several times as an adult. It is first rate adventure, and Long John Silver is definitely an intriguing character. I always expect him to be a hero, but he's not, he's a pirate through and through. Glad you took the time to enjoy this iconic book.

Stefanie said...

Oh Treasure Island! That brings back memories. I read it in school in 7th grade. Loved it! MY husband had not read it until a few years ago and he enjoyed it very much. I did not know about Stevenson's influence on Conrad. Very interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - This book does lend itself to rereading. I agree about Long John Silver. He is such an interesting character. I could see him going a different way.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie- Both adults and children can get a lot out of this book. I have been reading a bit of Conrad lately so the similarities were somewhat apparent.

Fanda Kutubuku said...

Good point, Brian! I have read both, but never thought of any similarity. Actually my experience with Conrad was not quite good (I read Heart of Darkness years ago). I need to give him a second chance, though. I knew it was much deeper than what I have grasped at that first read.

baili said...

Excellent review once again Brain!

I might find the story interesting through the point of view of 13 years old boy who stay with good people to search this treasure island.
similarities of both writers do not surprise me actually .

Basically each has way of looking at things and has right to describe it in his own way .
no matter how hard we try to be unique in our expressions somehow they resemble in some aspects and this is not necessarily an influence but can be a coincidence .

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Fanda. I first read Conrad in my teens then in my twenties and I did not like him. Though I have not yet read all his major works, I find that I like him a lot now. So in a way, I think that you could say he is an acquired taste.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - I also wonder about how much of this is coincidence and how much is actual influence. With that, it seems likely that Conrad read Stevenson. Writers tend to be influenced by other writers who make an impression on them.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

I have also not read this yet! One day :) I always favor new releases though, not because I like them more, but simple cause I have publishing deadlines. Once I get out of my huge ARC TBR, maybe I'll finally get to the classics... and this one is definitely on the list :)

Emma said...

Fascinating.
I haven't read it either and I thought that all English speaking readers read this in school. I wondered if I'd like it as an adult, if it wasn't too late to read it. Thanks for the post, it shows that it's still a great read for growups.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - It is really well worth the read. I actually want to read more commentary books but there is so little time to get it all in. TBRs never seem to go down :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I felt a bit funny admitting that I never read this. But based on my comments secretion it seems like many others have also missed it. Also, it sounds like many folks also got a lot out of it as adults.

Tracy Terry said...

I always think it a risky strategy when publishers choose to compare their authors works with that of other authors.

Yes, I've read books because of the favourable comparisons being made between them and authors I enjoy just as I've been put off books by the comparisons being made between their work and the work of authors I don't like. Either way, I generally come away wondering at the comparison, largely having enjoyed the book despite that comparison and not because of it.

Anyway, one of my favourite childhood reads and one I still go back to every now and then but not for a long time, I still have the copy read by my mam as a girl.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I agree that influence is no gaurente that one will like both authors.

It is striking just how beloved this book is to so many.

Lindsay said...

Really interesting to read your thoughts on this classic, I think I read it when I was at school but haven't re-read it since, though I think it would definitely warrant a re-read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - It seems that a lot of people get a lot out of this book upon reading.

Carol said...

I haven't read Conrad yet so can't comment on the similarities but I'm surprised that they would be similar as I get the impression that Conrad's writing is quite dark. I think I've mostly thought of Stevenson as a children's author - Treasure Island & Kidnapped, for example, but as you mentioned they are great books for adults, too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - Conrad is certainly darker then Stevenson. Indeed many of Stevenson’s books were kind of like the Young Adult of the time. Yet from what I have read, there is a lot of depth to him.