Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is both a bildungsroman and an adventure story, about a boy named Jim Hawkins who sets sail in pursuit of buried treasure. A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story that follows a young protagonist on their intellectual and moral journey from childhood to young adulthood. Because Treasure Island is a bildungsroman, the text’s central conflict is Jim’s quest for maturity, as symbolized in his quest for the treasure.
The inciting incident in the novel is Jim’s painful decision to leave his mother and set sail with Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney to search for buried gold after finding a map that once belonged to the fearsome pirate Captain Flint. Jim’s decision to leave the safety of home, the first step in any hero’s journey narrative, both kickstarts his adventure and marks his initial introduction to the adult world.
The first phase of the rising action portion of the novel takes place at sea aboard the Hispaniola. The ship’s captain, Captain Smollett, becomes increasingly wary of the voyage and is especially mistrustful of the crew that Trelawney hired. Jim initially resents Smollett’s unending negativity, especially since the crew includes Long John Silver, who Jim sees as a mentor. However, Jim is eventually forced to admit that he was wrong when he overhears Silver and other members of the crew, who Jim discovers are all pirates, planning a mutiny. This marks an important turning point for Jim because he has his first real moment of heroism when he alerts Smollett, Trelawney, and Livesey to the impending conflict. Tensions aboard the Hispaniola continue to rise until the mutineers successfully arm themselves and leave the ship upon reaching Treasure Island.
The second phase of the rising action portion of the novel is perhaps the most important section of the text because it encapsulates the majority of Jim’s maturation. Jim strikes out on two heroic but impulsive solo quests after the mutiny, once to spy on the pirates’ planning session in the jungle and once to set the Hispaniola adrift. Both of these quests are crucial to Jim’s coming-of-age narrative because Jim reveals the depth of his budding maturity by learning and adapting from his mistakes.
Since Treasure Island is an adventure story in addition to a bildungsroman, Jim’s maturation is also encapsulated in his growing hero status. In Jim’s second quest he is able to successfully set the Hispaniola adrift and manipulate the coxswain Israel Hands to help him land the ship at another part of the island, and he keeps a level head once Hands attacks him and even manages to kill Hands in battle. Jim also displays a confidence that the reader has never seen from him before when he repeatedly taunts Hands and makes him refer to Jim as “captain.” He even manages to keep a level head after his second quest culminates in him being taken hostage. Interestingly, Jim’s learned charisma can be attributed to Silver and the other pirates as opposed to the staid gentlemen he set sail with. Stevenson’s romanticization and celebration of Jim’s pirate-like charisma contributes to the idea that everyone, no matter their background, has a little pirate in them—one of the novel’s underlying themes.
In the climax of the novel, the pirates and Jim discover that the treasure has already been excavated from its burial ground. The empty burial site symbolizes the futility of the pirates’ greed. Jim manages to escape the pirates and rejoin his companions where he learns that they have the treasure.
In the falling action portion of the novel, Jim and his companions are able to outsmart the pirates and escape with Flint’s buried gold. However, before they leave, Jim helps Silver escape from the other pirates who have begun to turn on him. Jim’s empathy for his ex-role model in spite of his betrayal displays both his strong moral compass and the depth of his learned maturity. Jim and his companions return home, signaling Jim’s entrance into the adult world. He left for Treasure Island as a boy but returned as a young man.
The discussion of treasure is notably absent from the end of a book with treasure in the title. Jim may have earned his portion of Flint’s gold but he never mentions how much it was worth or what he used it for. Instead, he mourns the number of lives lost and condemns those who lose their soul in the futile pursuit of gold. He even concludes his narrative by saying that he will never search for the rest of Flint’s riches. By ending Treasure Island in such a way, Stevenson argues that, for Jim, the adventure and the maturation that accompanied it was far richer than any gold.