I’ve completed my first book for the Back to the Classics reading challenge! I started the year off with an epic adventure of pirates, murder, treasure, and escapades on the high seas; in short, none other than Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island fills category 6. Adventure Classic.
I’ll be honest, I’m not much of an adventure reader. My tastes are more in line with historical fiction (especially westward expansion) and girl’s coming of age stories – best matched together in my favorites Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, along with the Kirsten series and a huge portion of Ann Rinaldi’s work. If it hadn’t been for this challenge, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Stevenson until it came up in the Ambleside curriculum. I’m glad I did though! I was on the edge of my seat, reading well into the night to see what Jim Hawkins would come up with next.
I can sum up Treasure Island in one word: Greed. Greed drives the decision making of nearly every character nearly the entire way through the book. When greed isn’t the primary motive, it is greed’s close cousin selfishness.
For those not familiar, Treasure Island is the story of Jim Hawkins. At the beginning of the novel, his family keeps an inn along the coast in England. A rough old pirate boards with them, terrorizing them with his anger and drunkenness. After Jim’s father passes away, pirates descend on the inn. The resident pirate dies of rum and fright. Although Jim and his mother at first run away, they return to sort through the pirate’s chest and claim the money that is due them for his stay – “how I blamed my mother for her honesty and her greed,” Jim states. When they hear the pirates returning they sprint from the house taking with them an oilskin packet they don’t have time to open.
Once in safety, this packet is opened to reveal a map to Treasure Island where the infamous Captain Flint buried his vast riches. The squire of the area and Jim’s friend Dr. Livesey decide to buy a ship and follow the map to claim the treasure. Jim will attend them as cabin boy. The squire heads to the seaside to begin preparations. After Jim and Dr. Livesey join him, it becomes clear the squire has been a bit too free with his conversation – although they have hired some good sea hands (especially the honorable Captain Smollett), they have also found themselves with some unsavory characters. Even before they have left port, the thought of mutiny is on everyone’s mind.
From here on there may be spoilers! Don’t read on if you don’t want to know!
The crew is fairly quickly divided in two: the “faithful hands” and “honorable gentlemen” against the “gentlemen of fortune” also known as pirates. Tensions are kept under the surface while on the empty sea but as soon as the boat is anchored at Treasure Island, the parties split. It isn’t long before they begin killing each other. Yet these two parties are closer together than it may seem: both are motivated by greed. The squire and Dr. Livesey’s greed is the reason they came to Treasure Island in the first place. Long John Silver’s greed has motivated him to keep the peace between the groups while on the sea, since the squire holds the treasure map. Greed leads to infighting among the pirates. Once Ben Gunn is on the scene, the greed of the “honorable gentlemen” leads them to hand over the now-worthless map so they can leave the pirates to their own devices while they leave (this plan is complicated by Jim stumbling into the enemy camp). Even Jim acts in ways consistent with greed, though his is more for notoriety and adventure than material wealth: He wants to do things that will make him a hero.
Craving fortune is never a good thing. Greed kills – in this story, literally, but I see parallels in our modern world as people sacrifice time and peace to pursue ever greater jobs. People work ever more hours not out of a need to survive or even enjoyment, but so they can have more material wealth. For what purpose? You can’t take money with you to the grave – a point confirmed in the book, especially by the pirates as they reflect on Captain Flint and the men he killed when he first buried the treasure.
Jim reflects on the violence inherent to greed at the end of the novel:
I beheld great heaps of coin and quadrilaterals build of bars of gold. That was Flint’s treasure that we had come so far to seek, and that had cost already the lives of seventeen men from the Hispaniola. How many it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow, what good ships scuttled on the deep, what brave men walking the plank blindfold, what shot of cannon, what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell.
Although this book is first and foremost an adventure novel, it is also a coming of age novel – Jim at the end is not the same boy who left England. He has killed men. He has saved men. He has made choices of his own and proved himself to be a quick thinker (though not always a wise thinker). At the end of the story he has earned the respect of the other men. We aren’t told what Jim does with the rest of his life, but we do know he remains haunted with nightmares of his adventure to Treasure Island. We have to assume those memories affect his decision making in the future. While I wouldn’t have grabbed this book without the challenge, I was glad to find a familiar and favorite pattern within all the pirate jargon that goes completely over my head.
I wonder what Stevenson wanted readers to understand, beyond the basic story. For me, the lesson on greed stands clear – greed is costly. Ill-gained wealth costs lives, through both death (those who died on the island) and ongoing suffering (Jim’s nightmares). Although not every reader will walk away with the same warning, for me I’m having to pause and question my own motives. What do I desire that isn’t worth the cost?
Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Luke 12:15