Coming of age stories are traditional parts of literature throughout human history. There are certain stories which seem to have more urgency for adolescents and young adults than for mature people. These stories show the difficult and sometimes perilous transition that each individual makes from childhood to adulthood and although the story is, itself, timeless or archetypal in nature, particular tellings of the coming-of-age theme are more important in literary history than others.
Robert Louise Stevenson’s Treasure Island is an example of a novel which uses the coming-of-age theme and has attained critical and popular fame for many generations. While the story is overtly an adventure tale, the real theme of the novel is the development of its central character, Jim , from a young and shy boy to a determined and purposeful young man . (Stevenson).
In order to initiate the coming-of-age theme in Treasure Island, Stevenson dispenses with Jim’s immediate family, bringing the plot of his novel into a fantasy of pirates and buried treasure which reflects what modern literary critics and psychologists might refer to as a fantasy of “wish-fulfillment. ” For many adolescent boys, such fantasies are a natural part of their maturing process: “Even the happiest children occasionally enjoy fantasies about some terrible injustice they imagine they’ve suffered, and they sob themselves to sleep […
] Freud, as I was later to learn, called such fantasies “family romances” (Kaplan) and it is just such a “family romance” that Stevenson sets out to construct in Treasure Island. The course of the novel traces Jim’s maturing from a frightened young child to a young man capable of outsmarting Long John Silver, and also capable of making moral decisions based on his own wits and convictions. A central theme of the coming-of-age story is that the story’s protagonist usually bears some kind of grudge or wound which helps to propel the events of the story forward.
Like any “family romance,” Treasure Island draws its themes primarily from the inter-relationships of the story’s characters. As Long John Silver becomes a male role-model and substitute father for Jim, the two characters also enter into a revenge-based hatred of one-another, which is a central theme of family discord: “‘This was revenge, driven by the festering sense of injustice that he shared with the hero of my family romance” (Kaplan) and the revenge, in the case of Treasure Island is symbolized quite plainly and directly by the treasure of the novel, and — by close association with the treasure itself — the treasure map.
In fact, the treasure map can be looked upon as the second most important symbol used in Treasure Island, with the treasure itself being the only more important symbol. The treasure is the controlling symbolic element: the concrete symbol of the inner goal which all of the characters in the novel are actively pursuing.
In order to understand what is meant by the term “symbol,” in literary terms: “a symbol is “that which stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention or accidental but not intentional resemblance; especially, a visible sign of something invisible, as an idea, a quality or a totality” (Tindall 5) and in this case, both the treasure map and the treasure itself stand symbolically in treasure Island as symbols for the inner-transformation of a person from childhood to adulthood.
When it first appears, the treasure map draws Jim into the web of intrigue and association which will later bring about his initiation into manhood. So even very early on in the novel, the treasure-map becomes a central symbol and it stands for the call of adventure and mystery which one might associate with the maturing process of anyone from childhood to adulthood. The implication of a treasure map is that there is, of course, a treasure worth gaining.
over the course of the novel, the reader sees how Robert Louise Stevenson transforms the treasure from a literal bounty of gold and jewels to an inner-goal based on self-assurance and individuality. At the opening of the novel the symbolic associations of the treasure map are more important than the treasure itself. (Stevenson). There is some evidence to suggest that Stevenson may have undertaken the writing of Treasure Island, in part, due to his own life experiences with his own family.
A sickly individual when young, “Critics have suggested that some of Stevenson’s early adventurousness derived in part from a will to escape the invalidism that characterized his life, especially his childhood” (Herman 6) and this wanderlust and adventure-seeking stayed with Stevenson throughout his life. During a visit to Switzerland, (Doyle) and event happened which would begin Stevenson’s involvement with writing Treasure Island:
One day, for lack of better employment, the elder of the playmates drew a fancy map of an island, and, as he records, “with the unconsciousness of the predestined” inscribed it “Treasure Island. ” In the hands of Fate small events take on a great significance. That map, designed as the amusement of an idle hour, was the genesis of Stevenson’s most popular book, the central turning point in his history. (Steuart 375) Interestingly enough, the inspiration for Treasure Island, itself, was a hastily scrawled child’s map which caught Stevenson’s imagination.
His immediate pursuit of the coming-of-age theme did not seem to work with his intended audience at first. When the novel ran as a magazine serial, it was not very popular during its first chapters due to the lack of eventful action. At that time, as now, “Boys like a story to plunge at once into the active excitement;” (Steuart 382) so while Stevenson may have understood, intuitively that Treasure Island was a coming-of-age story, his initial writing failed to capture the adolescent imagination adequately.
At any rate, it was the mention of the treasure map in the story with all of its collective symbolic associations which finally gained interest in the serialization of Treasure Island. Just as in the story itself, it is the symbolic association of the treasure map which draws Jim deeper and deeper into his involvement with the pirates and in so doing, deeper and deeper into a confrontation with his father-figure — Long John Silver — and with his own inner-demons and the struggle to become a man. (Stevenson).
The use of a treasure-map as a symbol for the allure of adventure and self-exploration was chosen by Stevenson because it is a universal symbol:”Stevenson’s folkloric fiction crosses both generic and national boundaries, dazzling the reader with fairy visions of foreign lands” (Harris) and he wanted his themes to resonate across racial and cultural boundaries as much as possible. To help show that the symbol of the treasure map is, indeed, a universal symbol for self-exploration in the coming-of-age story, the following brief discussion of another famous “pirate story” — this one “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe is included.
Hopefully by a short comparison of the symbols and themes in the two works, the universal capacity of treasure-maps as a symbol for the summoning of adventure and self-discovery will be made a bit easier. Poe’s famous story “The Gold Bug” is about a possibly-mad fallen-Aristocrat, Mr. William Legrand, his “free slave” named Jupiter who still serves his former Master, an exotic island, namely, “Sullivan’s Island,” a mysterious code, a treasure hunt, and — finally — the discovery of Captain Kidd’s long-lost pirate’s fortune. Poe inserts an actual code (with tables) into the story and shows how such a code is solved.
The story takes the quest of three characters: the narrator, Mr. William Legrand, and his free-slave, Jupiter, to break a code they have accidentally found on a piece of parchment, which is actually a treasure map. The map is from Captain Kidd, with instructions to where a great loot is buried. All through the story, the narrator and Jupiter are convinced that Legrand is crazy. Despite their disbelief and puzzlement at his actions, Legrand by deductive reasoning (what Poe called “ratiocination”) is able to break the code and lead them all three, picks in hand, to the place where Captain Kidd’s treasure is buried.
Even though the end of the tale is reached mid-way through “The Gold Bug,” Poe is able to sustain reader interest even after the discovery of the treasure, even after the code is visibly explained to the reader, and right up to (and beyond) this closing paragraph, which is a response to the narrator’s asking Legrand about the significance of the aforementioned skeletons with bashed-in skulls: ” if Kidd indeed secreted this treasure, which I doubt not — it is clear that he must have had assistance in the labor.
But this labor concluded, he may have thought it expedient to remove all participants in his secret. Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen — who shall tell? ” (Poe) Poe placed his characters in the exact same predicament as Kidd’s pirates would have been in as they buried the treasure. This insinuates that if Kidd did indeed kill his fellow-pirates in order to keep his secret mum, then Legrand could also kill the narrator and Jupiter, then keep the treasure all to himself.
The universal quality of the treasure-map as a symbol for the initiation of the coming-of-age story is very evident in the comparison of the two stories Treasure Island and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Gold Bug. ” Stevenson, like Poe, sets his narrator up against a possibly insane father-figure who, if potentially crazy, is also brilliant: “the cunning and complex pirate Long John Silver” (Doyle 147) who proves to be such a formidable adversary that Jim is forced upon confronting Long John Silver, to become a man.
The treasure map was the fits call to action and the first symbol of manhood, the invitation to grow up by immersing in the mysterious and dangerous world of pirates. (Stevenson). The emergence in this world helps to bring about an inner transformation within Jim which leads him away from the collective group of the pirates and their collective and mutually exclusive search for the treasure, to an individual morality adn an individual determination which, later, will having nothing whatsoever to do with literal treasure.
The thematic extension of the treasure map as a symbol for something much more important than literal pirate-treasure begins the moment each of the characters, including Jim, begin to project their fantasies and hopes about what the treasure will contain. In this way, Treasure Island forwards greed and ambition as a central theme and posits these aspects as important obstacles or considerations which play a role in the coming-of-age process.
The map symbolizes greed and ambition, but it allows for the transformation of these initial emotions and experiences into something more. Instead of treasure, the pirates — like Captain Kidd’s associates — find en empty grave. Nobody realizes that the treasure has already been taken, so when Silver finds the empty hole, the treasure map has come to symbolize the futility of looking for true “treasure” in the outer world.
Stevenson is casting away the literal meaning of the treasure map but preserves and increases in symbolical meaning. (Stevenson). As if to put out any possible doubt that Stevenson intends the symbolic implications of the treasure (and treasure map) to be regarded as more important than literal treasure, there is the plot of the novel itself which shows that Ben who has the literal treasure has gone insane while living in a cave in isolation. His predicament is that of a failed coming-of-age example.
in other words, by believing in the literal rather than learning from the symbolic associations of the treasure, he has failed to gain what real treasure there is: which is the lesson of how to be a man, a moral and self-possessed person. By contrast, Jim forsakes the pursuit of gold, refuses to take part in further bloodshed, thievery, and murder. He renounces the life of piracy and the immoral ways of Long John Silver, and he also tries to distance himself from both the literal treasure nd treasure map which brought upon his personal transformation.
For Jim, the true treasure lay in his self-discovery and his coming-of-age and in his ability to see the difference between inner and outer riches. If Jim is ever to attain a literal treasure — material wealth — the reader suspects correctly that it will into be earned through bloodshed and blind greed. Jim has become a responsible individual and in many ways has become the “father figure” he vainly sought in his own blood father and in his relationship with Long John Silver. (Stevenson).
Unlike Poe’s hero in “The Gold Bug,” Stevenson’s protagonist fails to find a literal treasure of riches but he becomes a man in the process. While the narrator of “The Gold Bug” shows a more traditional story’s end, Stevenson’s inventive changing of a stereotypical plot and his inventive use of treasure and the treasure map as symbols of personal development certainly play a large role in why Treasure Island stands out from the almost countless other examples of coming-of-age stories.
Other aspects of why Treasure Island is unique among coming-of-age stories include the extension of the symbolic associations such as those revealed by the treasure map to the actual characters and events of the novel. For example, Long John Silver is not only a character in the novel, but a symbol as well. Like Legrand in Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” Long John Silver functions as an alter-ego for the mani character of the novel, Jim, and Long John Silver symbolizes what would become of Jim if he chose to pursue a life of greed and murder and hatred.
The association of excitement and danger with Long John Silver helps to show just how close of a potential this is for Jim as he feels and instinctive connection to Long John Silver, one which seems to be shared with the pirate himself. (Stevenson). The interaction of the two characters can then be read as the symbolic interaction of Jim’s two possible futures. Long John Silver is Jim’s alter-ego and his pursuit is of the literal treasure while Jim’s true pursuit is of the treasure of moving beyond Long John Silver in personal maturity and development.
Likewise, the ships in the novel is both a plot component and symbolic component. Because the treasure map indicates the goal, the symbolic goal of inner transformation, Long John Silver’s pirate ship symbolizes the power to control one’s personal destiny and the pursuit of the goal. By the end of the novel, Jim has gained control of the ship and overthrown Long John Silver, but he uses this power to a very different end than Long John Silver. By symbolic association, Jim has learned to substitute a different ambition or goal, still associated with the treasure map as a symbol but not with literal pirate treasure.
(Stevenson). By combining a logical and universal set of symbolic associations with a traditional kind of story adn then experimenting with the plot of the traditional story in light of the symbolic associations embedded in the work, Stevenson was able to address themes and ideas in his coming-of-age story that went deeper than the more traditional coming-of-age stories of the time and relied on still relevant uses of universal symbols, such as the treasure map, to help lead interested readers to the discovery of his important themes.
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