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Treasure Island

Text by: David Lumb

For a month of treasure — of shimmering doubloons piled high in a chest, along with the tender things more dearly hidden — there is no tale that captures the imagination quite like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. True, even the concept of treasure has been relegated to antiquity, as wealth, accumulated on Wall Street or Main Street, has become the goal of the workingman's toils. And while some of these investments are more tangible — the house, the car, the laptop — others lie in digits, as investors buy ethereal scraps of corporations. How predictable the adult game is! So we turn to an old tale whose novel language carries us back to an era defined by frontier, but not one of lopsided Manifest Destiny. On Stevenson's wind we ride with a crew spanning the just and the vicious — but all unashamed in their lust for treasure.

Chief in our hearts is the young Jim Hawkins, the story's narrator and axis upon which much of the plot's action and moral trials focus. Young Jim resides in a quiet, English, seaside town, tending the inn his mother and father own, when fortune calls in the form of an old, grizzled sailor. Harsh are his manners and harshly he drinks, but Jim minds him even after his credit has run out. In his tales Jim finds the spark of adventure he craves, while the old sailor drinks his days away, until another character finds the inn and gives the sailor a pirate's summons: the Black Spot. In a whirlwind of action, Jim and his mother (his father has passed on) escape the inn just before its ransacking, and local agents chase off the pirates, who leave without the item they came for: a map Jim took from the old sailor's possessions.

Upon inspection by local gentlemen Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney, the map proves the most hallowed of artifacts: directions to treasure where "X" marks the spot. An expedition is sponsored and men gathered - with the help of a charming, gregarious, one-legged fellow named Long John Silver. Jim is seduced by Silver's silver tongue, but after overhearing Silver's plan to mutiny as the titular island looms, Jim soberly prepares the trustworthy Livesey, Trelawney, and Captain Smollett against the swarthy crew Silver hand-picked to recover the treasure.

So begins the adventure Jim has been yearning for, but even as the novel opens — wherein Jim explains that he wrote the account at Livesey and Trelawney's request, not of his own desire — we hear Jim's reluctance to tell the tale and begin to understand what this treasure has cost him; namely, his romantic vision of life at sea. There is a brief moment of hesitation before he leaves on his voyage: "I said good-bye to mother and the cove where I had lived since I was born, and the dear old "Admiral Benbow" — since he was repainted, no longer quite so dear … Next moment we had turned the corner, and my home was out of sight." Like Jim, we blow through the paragraph paying homage to his youth, and then on with the journey! Like Jim, we are swept away by the promise of a frontier without borders and the charisma of Long John Silver along the way.

The adventure of treasure is in the hunt, not the prize at the end, and the race draws characters of all sizes, but none in Jim's retinue can dare match Long John Silver. Fiendishly cunning, amoral, and perfidious, Silver is the unofficial master of the book's waters, rallying the ragtag ruffians into a force to scour the island while he counters Jim's daring efforts on behalf of Livesey and the men of Reason. Jim sees little of value in the scoundrels that follow Silver, yet the one-legged pirate impresses him — and how can Silver not, as Jim sees in him the spirit of pirating adventure? His manipulation of men is awe-inspiring, but Jim eventually sees the rough creature for what he is — a man wholly bent on the acquisition of treasure beyond devotion to any man, moral, or cause. Unlike the straight-arrow Livesey and Trelawney or the lawless brigands, Silver is his own agent, and were it not for Jim's bravery, he would likely succeed in his designs. Thus, we see Jim as Silver's only contender as the stakes rise. We grow fascinated alongside Jim, as Silver becomes the paragon of treasure hunting — the man Jim could become if he left all his civilized habits behind, a man free of all earthly bonds to pursue his dream.

He doesn't, of course. Stevenson has Jim hold the line of valor, even when Livesey offers to spirit him away from Silver's company late in the book, but Jim maintains his earlier promise to be a hostage. In keeping Jim by his side, Silver tries to keep a foot in both camps in case the tide turns against him — another of the sly games Silver plays to stay alive long enough to see the treasure. Thus, Silver is the most challenging of Jim's father figures (his biological father having passed on with little more fanfare than was mentioned above) as Jim is tempted to see the advantage in playing any side until the treasure is had.

So we see the seemingly inanimate treasure play its hand, as it draws the best and worst from the sailors and gentlemen on the expedition — but all are drawn by greed. Sure, Livesey and Trelawney are not vicious in their methods of treasure hunting, but Stevenson never has them apologize for their treasurelust. Ultimately, this is the crux of this era's appeal: seeking treasure is not just shameless, it's expected. The modern shame in coveting tangible wealth is thrown by the wayside as every character agrees on the prize, but not the method (or its cost). Jim may regret the seventeen souls lost on the voyage, but not the adventure, nor the stories, as he recounts his tale of hunting for the place where "X" marks the spot.