This post contains spoilers through Chapter 17 of Treasure Island. The two articles I chose for today’s post make a really good juxtaposition of different readings of this novel. One looks at the narrative structure and how it’s mix of historicity and fantasy; one looks at the social allegory being made, accidentally or not, by the characters.
[Text that looks like this] are my own thoughts and discussion questions. Articles were accessed via my free-but-limited JSTOR account (which you can get, too!).
“Historical Reality and Fictional Daydream in Treasure Island” by William H. Hardesty III and David D. Mann
This article goes through the plot of the novel bit by bit and shows how the narrative moves from “Historical reality (England in the mid-eighteenth century)” to “fantastic daydream (Treasure Island and its promise of great wealth)” (94). Hardesty/Mann point out that the first third of the novel establishes a very realistic setting. We can extrapolate from the clues that Jim’s inn is on the north Devon coast, at about 1758 or 1759 (95). All of RLS’s internal dates are consistent with each other. [This is especially nice after reading Stoker, amirite]. RLS gets the reader to empathize with Jim immediately, and establishes him as a reliable narrator (98). [DISCUSS: do you agree or disagree that Jim comes off as reliable? I agree, but I’m curious].
Once he’s got the realism set up, RLS uses the sea voyage as a “transitional device” (99) that leads from the Real World to the Fantasy World/ Romance of Treasure Island. Hardesty/Mann point out that we are deliberately kept in the dark during the voyage as to the island’s location, because of narrative reasons (the characters don’t want anyone stealing their treasure) but it also works to ease us into the less-realistic world of the island.
The island itself doesn’t seem very Caribbean – it’s based off RLS’ experiences in California and off of pirate tropes, which help it“acquire a pseudo-historical validity” (99). Additionally, the passing of time isn’t very specific once we get to the island. [I won’t talk more about this because of spoilers, but it is kinda interesting. Pay attention to how time works haha.] However, RLS “[maintains] a precise orientation in space, thanks to the map” (100); we know where everything happens because of the map and his matching descriptions.
The article also talks about the end of the book, but no spoilers here. [But pay attention to if and how the story returns to the “realistic” beginning or if it stays in the vaguer, more romantic island world.]
“Long John Silver, Karl Marx and the Ship of State” by Loraine Fletcher
Meanwhile, according to Fletcher, Treasure Island
“offers an analysis of the contemporary condition of England in an allegory as precise as Animal Farm (1945) and on much the same subject: class conflict and the threat posed by Marxism. In the Hispaniola, Stevenson creates a ship of state whose cabin party and alarming crew represent respectively Britain’s ruling class and an underclass of workers gathering confidence with the growth of the Trades Unions and the circulation of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ publications” (34).
Fletcher points out that the conflicts in the novel revolve around “working relationships, identifies the cash nexus that binds them, and examines received ideas in the light of changing economic conditions” (35). [I mean, this seems legit. Gentry vs. pirates, they all want money, they have different ideas about how the money should be distributed….DISCUSS how socalist this book is on a scale from 1-10.]
Jim isn’t gentry or underclass. As Fletcher notes (and I’ve mentioned in my posts, just saying), he admires Livesey’s “educated gentility” (35). He’s also the “most upwardly mobile figure” (39) in the novel.
Aside from Jim, both the pirates and the cabin group want the money, but Trelawney judges the pirates for wanting the same thing he does (36). There’s a very fedual master/servant relationship system that’s upheld through the story – if characters go against it, they are evil and/or die. The pirates want what their former masters the gentry have, but they are represented as not fully human, their “consciousness is formed only of appetite and competitive individualism” (36).
Abraham Gray is an example of a “rare working man of good character” (40) who sticks with the established system of the gentry and is rewarded for it (38), whereas the pirates are criticized for wasting their resources. [Interestingly, Silver himself criticizes the pirates for this and considers himself super great for being good with money but also good at murder and stuff.] Since he’s so clever but also evil, “Silver is a worthy fictional representation of Marx the nineteenth-century bourgeois nightmare” (44). He encourages fighting the system, and he’s good at it, too.
So according to Fletcher, Treasure Island is basically an allegory about feudalism between the owners, their servants, the military, and “the dogs of the proletariat” (40), although she admits that RLS most likely didn’t intend it as an allegory. [DISCUSS: does authorial intention matter? Why or why not?]
I recommend reading the full article once you’ve finished the book, as she goes into a lot of other specific examples that I haven’t mentioned here.
Fletcher also criticizes the fact that multiple pirates have disabilities and it is “concomitant with their moral shortcomings, and constructed as vengeful and frightening” (38), and she also goes through all of the anti-Semitism and stereotypes represented by Israel Hands. [I think these are important things to point out and give the side-eye. DISCUSS. Problematic book is very problematic!]