Saturday, February 10, 2024

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Opening Passage:

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof. 

 I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

 “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” 

 in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

Summary: Jim Hawkins's family owns the Admiral Benbow Inn, an out-of-the-way place. (A notable irony is that Vice-Admiral John Benbow originally made his career and became famous hunting down pirates; his fame led to inns and pubs being named after him. It's sometimes thought, although not known, that Stevenson got the name from the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance, which he had visited, because it was the informal headquarters of the 'Benbow Brandy Men', a famous and remarkably effective smuggling gang; the Admiral Benbow pub might actually be the inspiration for Silver's inn, The Spyglass.) One day they receive a temperamental guest, whom they know only as "The Captain", who tips Jim and tells him to be on the lookout for a one-legged seaman. Eventually, The Captain is recognized as "Billy Bones" by another traveler, known as Black Dog; they have a fight, Black Dog flees, and Billy Bones has a stroke. All the excitement contributes to Jim's father dying. Shortly thereafter, a blind man, named Pew, visits and gives Billy Bones the "black spot" with an ultimatum for ten o'clock; Billy Bones dies of apoplexy. Pew and a number of others attack the inn, but are interrupted, and in the excitement Pew is trampled to death by a horse; Jim Hawkins and his mother in the meantime escape, Jim having taken a packet from Billy Bones's sea chest. He shows the packet to Dr. David Livesey and Squire John Trelawney, and they discover that the packet includes a treasure map:

Treasure Island (1909) - Map of Treasure Island

Trelawney fits up a schooner, the Hispaniola, to travel to the island and hires a hardened man of the sea, Alexander Smollett, to captain her. A significant help in finding suitable crew is due to an innkeeper Trelawney meets, John Silver. Learning that Silver has one leg raises Jim's suspicions, which are intensified when one of the associates of Pew is discovered eating at Silver's inn, but Silver is charming and charismatic and quickly puts him at ease. Indeed, Silver does this with everyone; the facility with which he does this is one of the things that makes him one of the most memorable characters in fiction, and extends far enough that he charms the reader as well as  the other characters. He of course turns out to be a pirate -- "gentleman of fortune", as they keep calling themselves -- but he is in a sense everything that makes pirates interesting as a subject of story, and one cannot help but admire the skill with which he quickly adapts to every situation in which he finds himself.

Jim learns Silver's secret, and thus the secret that Silver has packed the Hispaniola with pirates, in what has always been one of my favorite scenes in the story, when Jim accidentally ends up in the apple barrel while trying to get an apple and overhears Silver talking. Many of the crew are old hands who served under the notorious pirate Captain Flint, who buried the very treasure that they are seeking. Having discovered the plot and the plan to mutiny, Jim, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett are prepared when things begin to go south. From that point on, everything is a sort of checkers game between the loyal crew and the mutineers, with the mutineers having the numbers but the loyal crew having the map and a significant portion of the essential supplies. One of the things that struck me this reading is how extraordinarily reckless Jim is; his recklessness is obvious, of course, and it happens to be the case that it ends up giving the loyal crew the advantages they ultimately need, but Jim on multiple occasions does things on an impulse that could easily have led to his death and the death of everyone on the loyal side. In a sense, he plays the opposite role of Silver in the story; Silver is cunningly adaptive and smoothly moves into the optimal position available, regardless of how the board has changed, whereas Jim's bold recklessness keeps forcing everyone on the board to shift suddenly.

There are plenty of other things that could be discussed; Ben Gunn has always been a favorite character of mine, for instance. But what I really noticed in this reading is the structure of the work, which really starts out slowly as Stevenson puts pieces on the board one by one, but after Jim's time in the apple barrel begins to accelerate until the situation is shifting on almost every page, after which it deliberately brings the whole tale to a very quick resolution and denouement. This is probably why it didn't get all that much favorable attention as a serial, but became an overnight sensation as a novel. The slow build-up means that he doesn't have to stop the later fast-paced story to explain anything; the reader already knows the basics and everything else can easily be picked up on the fly.

In addition to reading the story, I also listened to one of the radio adaptations, that of Mercury Theatre on the Air (originally aired in 1938, fifty-five years after the novel's publication):

The fact that the book is not very long and the radio version has a whole hour to tell it means that the adaptation can be fairly faithful. It primarily condenses the preparations to set sail (Jim meets Silver on the voyage) and simplifies the back-and-forth on the island, particularly by stripping out Jim's dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Israel Hands.  I think the decision to keep intact much of the early part of the story -- which, abstractly, would be quite easy to condense -- was a good one, and gives the adaptation a very balanced feel. All in all, it is quite good, although Silver's voice in this version takes some getting used to. (I think the idea was to give his a voice an unctuous, or perhaps a thoughtful, feel, and I think this does work fairly well later in the tale, but early on it just cracks me up.)

Favorite Passage: There are plenty of good passages, but this is one that in this reading struck me as well done:

The captain sat down to his log, and here is the beginning of the entry: 

 Alexander Smollett, master; David Livesey, ship’s doctor; Abraham Gray, carpenter’s mate; John Trelawney, owner; John Hunter and Richard Joyce, owner’s servants, landsmen—being all that is left faithful of the ship’s company—with stores for ten days at short rations, came ashore this day and flew British colours on the log-house in Treasure Island. Thomas Redruth, owner’s servant, landsman, shot by the mutineers; James Hawkins, cabin-boy— 

 And at the same time, I was wondering over poor Jim Hawkins’ fate. 

 A hail on the land side. 

 “Somebody hailing us,” said Hunter, who was on guard. 

 “Doctor! Squire! Captain! Hullo, Hunter, is that you?” came the cries. 

 And I ran to the door in time to see Jim Hawkins, safe and sound, come climbing over the stockade.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.