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Often there can be seen many parallels between a writer’s life and experiences and his or her works. A biographical approach to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is not easy, as at first sight the characters don’t have much in common with the author and up to the time the story was written, Stevenson hadn’t visited the West Indies or other exotic places. But there still are possibilities to link Stevenson’s biography with his work.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on 13th November 1850 as the only child of Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer, and Margaret Isabella Balfour, a minister’s daughter. From his early childhood on R.L. Stevenson suffered from a poor health. During his long periods of illnesses his parents and his nanny sat by his bedside and told or read out stories to him. His nanny for example used to read out from the Bible, as she was a very religious person and his father even invented stories for him. According to David Daiches, Thomas Stevenson ‘had a romantic imagination, and put himself to sleep nightly with stories of ships, roadside inns, robbers, old sailors, and commercial travellers before the era of steam.’ (David Daiches, Robert Louis Stevenson and his world, p. 8) He entertained his small son with similar stories which certainly had a great effect on the young boy.
R.L. Stevenson was barely six years old when he dictated to his mother ‘A History of Moses’, a mixture of accurately remembered biblical language and a child’s narrative style. Growing he became more and more interested in literature. Because of his frequent sickness his attendance at school became fairly sporadic and in general he was regarded as a rather solitary boy who spent his free time reading and writing, who made up games for himself and who lived very much on his own imagination. He also often accompanied his father to the seaside. This seemed to have a fascinating impact on him and soon he learned to cope with sand and sea.
Maybe Jim Hawkins and his adventures were already part of his imagination at that time. Or maybe he even represented a counterpart, an ideal I, of the sick little boy and reflected his wishes and dreams.
Jim Hawkins is an only child as well yet he is of a completely different social background than the author.
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"Treasure Island - A Mirror Of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Childhood?." 123HelpMe.com. 22 Sep 2019
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At the beginning of the book the reader learns that it is Jim who tells the story and thus it represents his perceptions, his point of view and his outlook on the adult world. One can hardly say how the author percepted the world as a young child. But it is highly probable that Jim’s outlook is based on Stevenson’s own experiences, as all in all he still is a realistic, down to earth character. He might be clever and daring, but he also knows that he depends on other peoples’ help like for example Dr. Livesey’s after the destruction of the Admiral Benbow, and he also admits that he is scared sometimes (e.g.: Jim is haunted by Billy Bones in his dreams, p.3).
Furthermore he is not all alone on his journey. He is accompanied by or rather he accompanies Dr. Livesey, who embodies a fatherly friend and whom Jim apparently admires, and Squire Trelawney, who initiates the journey. But in spite of his company it is Jim and not the older, more experienced men on the journey who uncover the pirates’ plan for mutiny, find Ben Gunn and enlist him in their cause, and steal the Hispaniola and return it to captain Smollett. Thus one can say that even if Jim didn’t initiate the journey himself, he plays the main part.
In his account Jim proves to be a very good observer. He doesn’t only give a detailed description of the people he meets (for example Billy Bones, p. 2, or Long John Silver p. 48)
and of the atmosphere prevailing (e.g.:p.24: “My heart was beating finely when we two set forth in the cold night upon this dangerous venture. A full moon was beginning to rise and peered redly through the upper edges of the fog …”) but also provides vivid information about the scenery and the surroundings. The precision, with which for example the landscapes are described, e.g. the island on pages 79 and 80, makes the whole story seem very realistic. The reader even gains the impression that the writer knows every inch of the territory and is describing scenes and features he had personally faced and gone through.
As a matter of fact Stevenson hadn’t visited the West Indies or other exotic places up to this time. For the details of the scenery he relied on the time he spent with his father at the seaside as a child and on the knowledge he gained during his training as a lighthouse engineer.
After finishing school Thomas Stevenson expected his son to follow the family tradition and become a lighthouse engineer. At first R.L. Stevenson didn’t oppose his father, although he wasn’t interested in engineering at all. The only things he liked about the training were the visits of inspection to Scottish lights and harbours. This way he learned a lot about tides and currents and swells and about sandbars and headlands. This knowledge is reflected in Jim’ s statements again and again, as it can be see on p.___ or on p.___
During his academic years Stevenson adopted a bohemian attitude and started to rebel against the older generation. He sought the company of drop outs and prostitutes and although there is only little evidence about whom he met and who he spent his time with, it might be possible that the characters of the pirates- who are a kind of drop outs as well- were inspired by the people he met at this time.
In 1871 Robert Louis Stevenson gave up engineering for law. After he had completed his studies, he first left for France and later on, in 1879, for America. There he spent several months with his friend and later wife Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne. It is thought that apart from his experiences of the Scottish seaside, his literary sources and his own imaginations, Stevenson draw his inspiration from his memories of the Californian coast.
Treasure Island was published in book form in 1883 and provided Stevenson’s first real literary success. The story doesn’t have much in common with the author’s life, on the contrary. It is a thrilling story about adventures at sea, about savage, cruel people, about courage and about far away exotic places. These are all things Stevenson didn’t experience himself in his youth, but which probably revealed to him in his father’s stories, in the literature he read and in his own imagination.
After his father’s death in 1888, Stevenson returned to America and after he had established a financial base there, he headed for the South Seas, where he finally made his own imagination of adventures at sea and exotic places come true.