To encounter Treasure Island for the first time is a great and uncomplicated pleasure for a reader of any age. One of the classic adventure stories in English, published first in 1881, Stevenson's novel transcends its time and genre and remains today not only a page-turner but also an engaging portrayal of personality and conflict. Treasure Island, once described as a "boys' book," appeals now not to boys alone but to anyone who likes exciting, believable, non-stop action and colorful characters in an exotic setting.
Set in the mid 1700s, first along the coast of western England and then in the seaport of Bristol, the book takes readers quickly to the high seas and finally to a remote and secret island on a quest for pirate treasure. And although this premise may sound far-fetched, in reality it is anything but that, as a brief look at history shows.
In the early twentieth century, pirates still plundered shipping and private vessels on the world's seas, but they were relatively few and not newsworthy. Two hundred years earlier, however, they were big news. Between 1713 and about 1725, thousands of pirates prowled the Atlantic; in 1717 alone, American colonial officials put the number at approximately 1,500 waiting off the eastern coast of North America to take advantage of a rich commercial trade that included several European nations. Mercantile vessels were easy pickings for these pirates — partly because the crewmen on such ships were so badly treated and poorly paid that they often volunteered to join their captors. And, although many merchants and government officials, especially in the American colonies, turned a blind eye to piracy and often actually supported it, it was not always easy for the pirates to find ready markets for goods. Coins, precious metals, and other nonperishable items in particular were likely to be stored in safe places, awaiting the pirates' opportunity to dispose of them profitably — and what safer place than buried on one of the many small islands around the Caribbean Sea, with nothing to reveal the cache but a cryptic map secreted in an old man's sea chest? Certainly, believing in the existence of such a map and its discovery by someone willing and able to go in search of the riches, as in Treasure Island, does not require much stretch of the imagination.
The other circumstances of the novel, in particular the characters of the pirates, are equally believable; Stevenson's "sea dogs" bear the mark of authenticity. During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the Atlantic, it was not unusual for the men sailing under pirate flags to be in their teens or sometimes even younger (one such, of whom a record was kept, was "Thomas Simpson, about ten"). Most, before they were forty, were retired, blind, crippled, or dead. The pirate's life at sea was in most cases easier — and surely a lot more fun, for those of a certain turn of mind — than that of navy crewmen or merchant sailors, but it was still hard and dangerous, requiring a young man's energy and fitness. The older pirates of Treasure Island, including Billy Bones, Pew, Tom Morgan, Long John Silver, and perhaps several others, in their fifties at most, had had their day in the late teens and early twenties of the century (Silver says he sailed with Edward England, who died shortly after 1720), and had either spent their shares of the loot taken from ships and towns or, no doubt infrequently in real life, had saved what they could. The chance to recover a large treasure, like the one Billy Bones' map leads to, would have been a dream come true for such men. Pirate crews (unlike the crews of naval or merchant ships, who served under the strict rule of a captain and officers they had not chosen) were generally democratic, electing their captains and reserving the right to depose them. Thus, Stevenson's pirates, freely choosing the redoubtable Silver as their leader, are off on a last grand adventure with a captain whom they trust, or so they must believe.
Jim Hawkins himself would not have been an unusual boy in the English (or colonial New England) eighteenth century, although he may seem to the twenty-first-century reader remarkably free from the normal responsibilities of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. An innkeeper's son, he would have expected to inherit his father's trade and would have been educated early in the skills to pursue it. Those that required schooling — reading, writing, and arithmetic — he would have acquired by age ten or so; the others would be learned on the job, and (especially with his father ill and the inn not particularly successful) he would have been needed there to do as much work as he could. At the same time, an intelligent boy like Jim, with a man like Dr. Livesey to befriend him, may have had the opportunity to read adventure stories and see traveling actors perform (as Jim hints that he has done). At thirteen or nearly so, he would have been considered a man in all but physical strength, and, given the prospect of going on a voyage like the one Squire Trelawney invites him to join, he would likely have jumped at the chance — probably the only one he would get in his lifetime. He could take the voyage, however, only if his mother would have other help in running the family business, as the generous Trelawney offers.
So the reader may be assured that, although Treasure Island is in some ways more romantic than entirely realistic, it is true to its time and place. But is this a book that you, in your time and place, can still enjoy? Yes, and although some students may tend to resist so simple a truth, there's no better reason for reading Treasure Island than enjoyment. To comb it for learning experiences or moral guidelines would be to miss the point completely, although the novel does yield some of each. To "deconstruct" it would be possible but equally pointless and would tend to mutilate a lively and live book.
Moreover, to view Treasure Island solely as a classic text or an example of fine popular writing (although it is both of these) or especially as a period piece (for it is certainly not typical of the popular fiction of the late nineteenth century) is to do it an injustice. While many best-selling novels published in the 1880s are difficult or nearly unreadable today, Treasure Island has never lost its seductive power, from the first page, to engage a willing reader — a strength derived from Stevenson's narrative genius and the sheer, sure revelation of his characters through their language.
No summary can do Treasure Island justice, and to rely on a summary without reading the text is to do oneself no favor. However, if its nautical and other terms are unfamiliar, the glossaries included in the Critical Commentaries section can help, as can a dictionary. And if you have trouble following the closely described action, the summaries and commentaries can help, too. To use a metaphor based in the novel, any reader who allows himself or herself to be swept out on the tide of Stevenson's narrative, and who then comes about and sets sail to windward, aided as need be by compass and chart, is in for a memorable and excellent adventure.