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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Search for Heroic Role Models

Treasure Island is an adventure tale, but it is also the story of one boy’s coming of age. At the outset of the novel, Jim is a timid child, but by the end he has matured incredibly. He has outwitted pirates, taken over a ship, and saved innumerable lives. Jim has become an adult in character if not in age. Like any maturing boy, Jim must try out various male role models. Jim’s father does not appear to be a significant role model: he passes away early in the novel, and even before that he does not seem to have much effect on Jim’s inner life. In fact, Jim scarcely mentions his father in his narrative.

Alternatively, we might expect a local authority figure to act as role model for Jim. Dr. Livesey, for example, has high social status in the community and represents the civilized, rational world. When Jim finds the map, he immediately thinks of Livesey when wondering what he should do with it. It therefore initially seems that Jim looks up to Livesey as a role model. Squire Trelawney, like the doctor, is another symbol of worldly authority. However, while both men are upstanding citizens, they do not captivate Jim’s mind or inspire him. They are simply too staid and predictably upstanding.

When the pirates appear, however, Jim begins to pay close attention to their actions, attitudes, and appearance. He describes Silver with an intensity and attention to detail that he does not show for any other character. Soon, Jim is imitating some aspects of Silver’s behavior. He acts impulsively and bravely when he sneaks into the pirates’ boat in Chapter XIII. He even deserts his own captain in Chapter XXII, effectively enacting his own mutiny. He sails a pirate’s boat out to the anchored ship, kills the pirate Israel Hands, and names himself the new captain of the ship. The pirate side of Jim is so apparent that Silver himself remarks that Jim reminds him of what he was like as a boy, hinting that Jim could grow up to be like Silver.

At the end of the novel, the pirates’ influence on Jim’s development is clear, and not necessarily detrimental. Jim displays more courage, charisma, and independence than the captain, squire, or doctor. Just as he has not mentioned his father, he does not mention these men at the close of his narrative, an omission that suggests that they have not been important to his development. Instead, Jim pays a touching tribute to Silver and wishes the pirate well. Indeed, Silver has been more instrumental than anyone else in shaping Jim’s identity, hopes, and dreams.

The Futility of Desire

Treasure Island explores the satisfaction of desires, and, indeed, the motivation of all the characters is greed: everyone wants the treasure. By the end of the adventure, Jim and the captain’s crew have sated their greed, having won the treasure. Stevenson vividly describes how the men haul the gold bars to the ship, as if to underscore the final satisfying achievement. But Stevenson also casts doubt on the possibility of ultimate satisfaction. For the pirates, desire proves futile and goals unattainable, as the treasure map leads them to an empty hole. The empty hole becomes a symbol for the futility of the treasure hunt and for the loss of one’s soul in searching for the treasure. When the pirates dig in the ground, it is as if they are digging their own grave. Their greed and irrationality lead only to death, loss, and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, though Ben has possessed the treasure for three months, he is half mad and living in a cave. Such treasure is useless to him if he is alone on an island. Without the structure and rules of a society that places monetary value on gold, the treasure is worthless. Likewise, we see that Jim himself is not satisfied by the gold. He does not mention its value and focuses instead on the coins’ nationality and their design. He does not refer to his share of the windfall or to what happens to the treasure when he gets back home. The gold coins elicit nightmares, not dreams of his riches. Jim displays no desire to return for the remaining silver treasure left behind. Unlike other literary adventurers such as Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Jim does not want to travel or treasure-hunt endlessly. He has learned that the desires associated with such lifestyles are futile—he will never attain a good life through greed and bloodshed.

The Lack of Adventure in the Modern Age

Stevenson frames his tale of piracy with a number of devices that emphasize the end of the story. He suggests that the tale belongs firmly to the past rather than to the present. Stevenson’s decision to set the story in the eighteenth century underscores the fact that the pirate life is outmoded. Stevenson also has Jim begin his narrative in the form of a retrospective chronicle that begins after the adventure is already over. We know from the first sentence that Jim, Squire Trelawney, Smollett, and Livesey have survived as victors. This knowledge lends a tone of gloom to the pirates’ first appearance, as we know they are doomed. The pirates die out rapidly over the course of the novel and are continually associated with death, disease, and disappearance. Indeed, the pirate’s skeleton found near the treasure site symbolizes the pirates’ impending doom.

Stevenson, however, does not glorify the death of piracy and the eradication of criminals. With Jim’s final sad farewell to the memory of Silver, in which he says that he will go on no more adventures, Stevenson creates a sort of elegy to the pirate life. Stevenson does not mourn its loss, but he makes us wonder whether the world is better off without the pirates’ charisma, charm, and spirit. He challenges the Victorian idea that captains, doctors, and other responsible professional men are the natural leaders of society. Stevenson was critical of stodgy Victorian professionalism throughout his life, and his somewhat romantic portrait of vanished pirates forms a sad tribute to what he feels is missing from the modern world.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Despite Jim’s solidarity with Smollett’s crew, teamwork is not a dominant motif in Treasure Island. Instead, Stevenson emphasizes Jim’s recurring moments of solitude. Though Jim does spend time with his family at the beginning of the novel and is later frequently in the company of the captain’s men and the pirates’ band, these intervals are punctuated by far more crucial moments during which Jim is alone. For instance, Jim is alone when he meets Pew, the pirate who delivers the black spot that sets the story in motion. He is alone in the apple barrel when he overhears the critical information about the mutiny that enables him to save Smollett. He is alone when he meets Ben Gunn in the woods and learns the directions to the treasure. Jim is also alone when he sails in the coracle to cut the ship adrift, depriving the pirates of their means of escape. Throughout the novel, Jim’s instances of solitude are associated with self-reliance and show his maturity. This solitude may also have a downside, however. Jim’s decision to function independently, rather than as part of a larger team, may be what prompts Smollett to tell him that they will never voyage together again. Jim may be too individualistic to make a good rank-and-file sailor.


Though many works of children’s literature link animals to childhood, in Treasure Island animals are associated not with Jim but with the pirates. Jim does not have a pet in the novel, but Long John Silver has his eerie parrot named Cap’n Flint. The parrot does not affirm Silver’s humanity, but rather emphasizes the pirates’ inhumanity, as the bird is witness to two centuries of heinous pirate crimes. Cap’n Flint’s raucous screeching of other men’s words echoes the pirates’ constant singing about their greed, violence, and selfishness. The parrot’s incessant mockery suggests that the pirates are better at making noise than producing intelligent statements.

The pirates resemble other animals as well. As they climb over the stockade fence in Chapter XXI, Stevenson compares them to monkeys. When Jim first sees the ex-pirate Ben Gunn in Chapter XV, he likens him to a “creature ... like a deer.” Later, when Jim faces down his captors in Chapter XXVIII, they all stare at him “like as many sheep,” suggesting that they are all faceless, submissive members of a herd. Notably, Stevenson never likens the captain’s group to any animals, suggesting that the captain’s men are decent human beings while the pirates are subhuman creatures.

The Color Black

Stevenson also repeatedly associates the color black with the pirates. The pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, is black, in sharp contrast with the colorful British flag, the Union Jack. The pirates also give out black spots, verdicts delivered to their victims. Significantly, the pirate who discovers Billy in hiding is named Black Dog. Likewise, the pirate Pew, in his blindness, lives in a state of unending blackness. When Jim creeps among the sleeping pirates, he proceeds “where the darkness was thickest,” an image that likens the pirates to chunks of blackness. Many of Jim’s most frightening encounters with the pirates, such as his examination of the dead Billy, his drifting near the pirate camp on the island, and his accidental entry among the sleeping pirates in the stockade, occur in the black of the night. Certainly, as the color of funerals and mourning, black is associated with death, and the pirates leave a wake of death wherever they travel. Black is also the color of absence, the total lack of light, enlightenment, and illumination. The pirates’ lack of light contrasts with the shining, glimmering gold for which they search—and which they wrongly imagine will brighten their dark lives.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Coracle

Jim discovers the coracle—the small boat that Ben Gunn has constructed out of wood and goatskin—at the end of Chapter XXII. In the chapters that follow, Jim uses the coracle to sail out to the Hispaniola, cut it adrift, ruin the pirates’ chances of escape, and climb aboard to kill Israel Hands. The irony of a small boy using a small boat to overpower a large man in a large ship points to a David-and-Goliath symbolism in Jim’s adventure. Indeed, Jim ultimately proves a victorious underdog.

However, the coracle, which belongs to a former pirate, also symbolizes Jim’s desertion of Captain Smollett. In leaving his superior to go hunt for the boat, Jim becomes a bit like a pirate himself. His heroism is not unequivocally good in a moral sense, which may be why the captain does not wish Jim to accompany him on any more voyages. Despite Jim’s disloyalty, his adventurous spirit leads him eventually to save many lives and stop the pirates from escaping. The coracle therefore also represents the boy’s moral ambiguity and his pirate apprenticeship.

The Treasure Map

Though the treasure map appears in the novel’s first chapter, when Jim and his mother ransack Billy Bones’s sea chest, it retains its fascinating and mysterious aura nearly to the end of the novel. The map functions as a sort of magic talisman that draws people into the adventure story. Jim’s possession of the map transforms him from an ordinary innkeeper’s son to a sailor and a hero, and changes the stodgy squire and doctor into freewheeling maritime adventurers.

In addition to symbolizing adventure, however, the map also symbolizes desire—and the vanity of desire. Everyone wants the map and seems willing to go to unbelievable ends to attain it. Ironically, however, Stevenson ultimately shows us that the map has been useless throughout the whole novel, as Ben Gunn has already excavated the treasure and moved it elsewhere. The map directs Silver, its possessor, not to a final happiness but to a significant letdown: the empty hole where the treasure should be. In this sense, the map symbolizes the futility of hunting for material satisfaction.


Rum reappears throughout the novel as a powerful symbol of the pirates’ recklessness, violence, and uncontrolled behavior. In Stevenson’s time, people considered rum a crude form of alcohol, the opposite of the refined and elegant wine that the captain’s men occasionally drink. The pirates do not engage in light social drinking—when they indulge in rum, their drunkenness is destructive, as reflected in the pirate song lyric about the “dead man’s chest.” The first sailor to drink himself to death is Billy, who keeps drinking though Livesey warns him it will kill him. Later, Mr. Arrow, the first mate aboard the Hispaniola, is constantly tipsy until he falls overboard, presumably to his death. When Jim climbs on board the ship, he finds that in their rum-induced drunkenness the two watchmen have lost control of the ship and that one of them has killed the other. Jim is able to defeat his adult attacker largely because Jim is sober and Israel Hands is drunk. Rum therefore symbolizes an inability to control or manage what is one’s own: one’s property, one’s mission, and one’s very self.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



What is Silver able to provide Jim with that he doesn’t find in the civilized world?
A heroic role model
A welcoming home
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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by same156, August 06, 2012

whats the conflict? then name one or two episodes from the book which display the following conflict


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by same156, August 06, 2012

describe an decision that jim had to make. be sure to list why it was important and why he made the decision he did


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by same156, August 06, 2012

pick a theme then describe one scene that fits


14 out of 27 people found this helpful

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