A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Today’s entry: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I recently re-read for the first time since I was a kid.
Why “Treasure Island” works
Before I get to what I think works, let’s get this out of the way: by modern standards, Treasure Island is kind of a mess. It gets off to a meandering start, midway through the novel we suddenly and inexplicably veer off to Dr. Livesey’s perspective, and some action scenes feel confusingly short (the attack on the stockade) while others linger on almost endlessly (Jim in various small water craft).
And yet Treasure Island has had immense and justifiable staying power. While it built upon over a hundred years’ worth of seafaring novels that came before it, it is now almost single-handedly responsible, along with the relatively faithful 1950 Disney film adaptation, for our modern conception of pirate lore. People talking like pirates on Talk Like a Pirate Day are really talking like Stevenson’s Long John Silver.
Here’s what I think Stevenson does especially well.
Infusing characters with personality via precise description
One of the things I love most about 19th Century literature is the way writers like Dickens, Melville, Austen, and Stevenson are able to craft characters that to this day simply leap off the page.
One such character arrives early on, the old captain Billy Bones. Stevenson immediately grabs the reader on the first page not with plot fireworks or the appearance of his best character, Long John Silver, who arrives much later.
Instead, look at the way Stevenson invites us into the world of this novel through incredibly precise physical description and gestures:
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest–Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, linger on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.
“This is a handy cove,” says he at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”
The tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of a soiled blue coat, the stick he carries, the way he lingers over his rum, the scar that hints at a dark past. The iconic song that hints at a whole pirating world that we’re about to enter.
Billy Bones’ mere presence upends Jim Hawkins’ world. Stevenson only deepens the mystery from here.
Whether it’s Black Dog’s missing fingers, Dr. Livesey’s calm rectitude, and Ben Gunn’s strange exclamations and pinches, details and gestures make these characters come alive.
Long John Silver’s dialgoue
In contrast to many of the other characters, we don’t actually get that much description of Long John Silver. It’s memorable that he has one leg, a talking parrot, and he generally comports himself with an air of merriment, but Stevenson primarily relies on dialogue to build Silver’s character.
Long John Silver is able to talk himself out of nearly any jam. After Jim Hawkins spots Black Dog in Long John Silver’s tavern, Silver is able to allay Jim’s suspicions, even though Billy Bones had explicitly warned him about a man with one leg.
How? By talking:
“See here, now, Hawkins,” said he, “here’s a blessed hard thing on a man like me, now, ain’t it? There’s Cap’n Trelawney–what’s he to think? Here I have this confounded son of a Dutchman sitting in my own house drinking of my own rum! Here you comes and tells me of it plain; and here I let him give us all the slip before my blessed dead-lights! Now, Hawkins, you do me justice with the cap’n. You’re a lad, you are, but you’re smart as paint. I see that when you first come in. Now, here it is: What could I do, with this old timber I hobble on? When I was an A B master mariner I’d have come up alongside of him, hand over hand, and broached him to in a brace of old shakes, I would; but now–“
And then, all of a sudden, he stopped, and his jaw dropped as though he had remembered something.
“The score!” he burst out. “Three goes o’rum! Why, shiver my timbers, if I hadn’t forgotten my score!”
And falling on a bench, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. I could not help joining; and we laughed together, peal after peal, until the tavern rang again.
This combination of self-deprecation, flattery, and humor is Long John Silver’s M.O. He invites Jim Hawkins to help him, playing the weakling, and he gets very far with these tactics over the course of the novel.
Also, the slang goes a long way to fleshing out his character. “Shiver my timbers,” incidentally, didn’t originate in Treasure Island, but Stevenson made it iconic because Long John Silver is so memorable as a whole.
Stevenson also uses dialogue to show the flipside of Long John Silver’s charm. He can make a threat with the best of them. After negotiations break down between the pirates and the good guys, Long John Silver spits and says:
“There!” he cried. “That’s what I think of ye. Before an hour’s out, I’ll stove in your old block house like a rum puncheon. Laugh, by thunder, laugh! Before an hour’s out, ye’ll laugh upon the other side. Them that die’ll be the lucky ones.”
That last line (and the incredible delivery by Robert Newton in the film version) haunted me as a child.
Jim Hawkins is a lowkey badass
Treasure Island is not the easiest book to read, even by adult standards. I remember struggling through it as a child. And yet it still captured my imagination.
A huge part of that is how awesome it is to be Jim Hawkins.
Jim Hawkins starts as a humble kid who helps his parents run an inn, and he transforms into a virtual action hero who outsmarts and outfoxes seasoned pirates. But while he has incredible adventures and confronts danger and grows as a person, he doesn’t lose his Jim Hawkins-ness.
He’s open about his mistakes, and he recognizes that he sort of blunders into saving everyone by following some harebrained instincts.
Even after Jim Hawkins has managed to beach their ship, kill a pirate, and paddle ashore through rough seas, he is self-aware enough to recognize his desire to boast:
At least, and at last, I was off the sea, nor had I returned thence empty handed. There lay the schooner, clear at last from buccaneers and ready for our own men to board and get to sea again. I had nothing nearer my fancy than to get home to the stockade and boast of my achievements. Possibly I might be blamed a bit for my truantry, but the recapture of the Hispaniola was a clenching answer, and I hoped that even Captain Smollett would confess I had not lost my time.
Sometimes authors let their characters transform a little too much over the course of the novel, to the point where it stops being wholly believable. Stevenson’s treatment of Jim Hawkins shows how you can let a character grow while still retaining their essence.
Jump ahead in time when you need to
Want to know how Stevenson handled the several thousand mile journey from Bristol, England to the Caribbean? Like this:
I am not going to relate that voyage in detail. It was fairly prosperous. The ship proved to be a good ship, the crew were capable seamen, and the captain thoroughly understood his business. But before we came the length of Treasure Island, two or three things had happen which require to be known.
That’s it! Rather than proceeding linearly over the course of a several month voyage, Stevenson just brushes over the boring bits and picks out the few things we need to know.
But wait, there’s more!
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