October 29, 2009

The CCLaP 100: "Treasure Island," by Robert Louis Stevenson

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island (1883)
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Book #32 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Inspired by a doodle from his step-son and originally written as a rainy-day family diversion, the slim 1883 children's book Treasure Island (originally published serially in 1881 and '82) was not only the first novel of sickly genre author Robert Louis Stevenson's short career, but eventually one of his most famous. Essentially the tale of young adventurer Jim Hawkins, the story opens with him as a dutiful mama's boy off the southwest coast of England, helping to run a family inn that sees little action because of being located much more inland than most of the other local sailor-oriented hotels. Ah, but this is exactly what brings the drunken, scary Billy Bones there, where it becomes quickly apparent that he is on the run and in semi-hiding from a whole crew of mysterious, nefarious characters; and when they finally show up after Bones' alcoholism-related death, the family realizes that they are in fact pirates, on the hunt for a treasure map that Bones stole from a recent mutinous voyage that went horribly, horribly wrong. This then convinces a group of local Victorian gentlemen and family friends to go after the treasure themselves, eventually buying a boat and hiring a local crew to take them to this far-off tropical island; but little do they realize that the sailors they've hired are none other than the surviving pirates of the former mutiny, led by the charismatic yet psychopathic one-legged "ship's cook" Long John Silver, who plan on turning on the ship's owners once actually reaching the island and retrieving the treasure they were forced to leave behind during their last voyage. The rest of the book, then, is essentially an adventure tale, full of all kinds of legitimate surprises that I won't spoil here; let's just say that a lot of swashbuckling takes place, that many details regarding ship-sailing are faithfully recorded, and that the day is eventually saved by our fast-thinking teenage hero Jim, no surprise at all for a book designed specifically to amuse fellow teenage boys.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, to begin with, it's arguably the most famous pirate tale ever written, and in fact established for the first time many of the stereotypes now known within the genre, including one-legged buccaneers, treasure maps with a big 'X' on them, shoulder-sitting parrots squawking "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!," and even the very idea of British pirates being associated with exotic tropical islands in the Caribbean, an association now so strong that it's almost impossible to separate the two; and of course it's also the novel that created the unforgettable Long John Silver, now a thoroughly ingrained part of our Western culture at large. Add to this that it's simply an incredibly thrilling tale (rumor has it that England's Prime Minister at the time stayed up until two in the morning to finish his first reading of it), that it still holds up surprisingly well even 126 years later, and that it's also of immense importance to fans of Stevenson, a prolific author whose genius is just now starting to be widely recognized, after being dismissed by the literary community for almost a century as a frivolous "kiddie writer;" and now add to all this that Treasure Island is a surprisingly sophisticated examination of the era's ethics and moral code as well, taking an unblinking look at the "Victorian Ideal" as manifested in different ways among the stuffy gentlemen "heroes" (unable to improvise in changing circumstances, much to their detriment), the anarchic pirate villains (who almost kill themselves off just on their own, through drunkenness, ignorance and jealousy), and the ruthless yet principled Silver who straddles both these extremes.

The argument against:
A weak one at best; like many of the genre prototypes of the late Victorian Age, one could argue that this is simply too flippant a tale to be considered a classic. But we already established a long time ago here at the CCLaP 100 that genre stories are indeed eligible for "classic" status in this series, making this argument inapplicable in our case.

My verdict:
Holy crap! What an incredible book! And what a refreshing change in this case to not have to add my usual caveat to statements like these regarding late Victorian genre experiments: "...you know, for a century-old children's story that's kind of outdated and that you need to take with a grain of salt." Because the fact is that Treasure Island to this day still reads as fresh and exciting as the day it came out, which is a real testament to the writing skills of Robert Louis Stevenson (who I was already a big fan of before this essay series even started, because of his superbly creepy and also surprisingly relevant Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde); what a shame that this illness-plagued author ended up dying at the age of 44 in the prime of his career, instead of surviving to pen the truly mindblowing mature works I'm convinced that he had been capable of. And it's exactly for the reasons that his fans bring up that this book remains such an amazing one, and how it is that it can still easily be read for pleasure instead of having to force one's way through for historical purposes; because it is indeed not only a thrilling adventure tale, not only written in a style that largely rejects the purplish finery of the Victorian Age in which it was created, but is also a deceptively complex look at the entire nature of "gentlemanness" that was so prevalent at the time, gently poking holes in the entire notion of what it means to be a Refined Citizen of the Empire, even while acknowledging that a complete disavowal of these gentlemanly standards is even worse. There's a very good reason that Long John Silver has endured so strongly in our collective imagination over the last century, when so many other fictional pirates have fallen by the wayside, because he turns out to be a surprisingly complicated character worth coming back to again and again, a vicious killer but with a consistent internal moral code worth perversely admiring; it's but one of many reasons that I confidently label this book a undeniable classic today, and highly recommend it to anyone on the search for the best of 19th-century literature.

Is it a classic? Absolutely

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
The Castle, by Franz Kafka
The Ambassadors, by Henry James

Read even more about Treasure Island: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:32 PM, October 29, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |