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"
"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."
"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.