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 13. He even deserts his own captain in Chapter 22, 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 The 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.