Silly Novels by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Warning: I am going to insult Robert Louis Stevenson right now. If you went online today intending to yell at some chick for failing to appreciate Treasure Island, I am that chick; you have come to the right site. @me in the comments.

I love The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love it so much. Everyone should read it at least three times. See my review of that story here for more on why I respect and adore it. I think that if Stevenson hadn’t written that one little story he would have been entirely forgotten. Nothing else he wrote is good.

I just don’t understand what is supposed to be great about Treasure Island or Kidnapped. I found both stories so under-stimulating that I am reviewing them together, because I cannot possibly scrounge up two posts worth of thoughts about these books. There just isn’t much to them. I imagine that some people appreciate the scary pirates in Treasure Island and the romantic highland setting of Kidnapped, but these books are Tom Sawyers they are not Huckleberry Finns. Well, they aren’t even Tom Sawyers, because Tom Sawyer is much funnier. Twain’s writing style is much quirkier and more engaging than Stevenson’s. What I mean by the metaphor is that like Tom Sawyer, Stevenson’s tales of childhood adventure are just that and nothing more. They do not have the emotional or thematic weight of Huck Finn.

Treasure Island concerns a young boy who comes into possession of a treasure map and falls in with a sordid set of pirates in his quest to recover the booty. This novel was wildly popular and influential. Half our silly ideas about pirates come from this book. Treasure maps marked with an X. One-legged pirates. Foul-mouthed parrots. Crazy marooned sailors. All that is very nice and imaginative. I admit the characterization is great. Long John Silver is a very creepy conman. Poor marooned Ben Gunn is simultaneously unpredictable, sympathetic and eerie. However, our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins is a thinly sketched everykid who could be swapped out for the main character of Kidnapped with no discernible difference. They’re just a couple of kids with no character traits in strange circumstances. I guess they’re both resilient and determined, but that describes every kid in every adventure story. I forgot their names immediately after setting down their respective volumes.

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David Balfour is the kid in Kidnapped, which is about getting shanghaied. Were you hoping for a plot less plausible than a kid getting his hands on an actual treasure map? Here you go: David Balfour has recently been orphaned. For some reason, his father died without once mentioning that David is the heir to an estate that is currently occupied by an evil uncle. Everybody has one of those: a secret, evil, rich uncle who lives in a rundown castle on the border of the Scottish Highlands. It’s so plausible that you should call your father right now, if you can, and ask him if he has a rich brother he has never once mentioned. Anyway, it turns out that David is the real heir. His uncle tries to kill him, but David is too clever. So, Evil Uncle enlists the help of a corrupt captain to shanghai David and sell him into indentured servitude in the Carolinas. David manages to avoid this fate through a series of absurd events that leaves him crossing the Highlands with an outlaw named Alan Breck. Breck has a few character traits, thank goodness. Stevenson drew inspiration for the plot and for Breck from real people and one real event, the Appin murder. Although the murder is more of an unnecessary tangent from than a meaningful backdrop for the plot. Briefly, England had just squashed the Jacobite Uprising and were working on further squashing the spirit and culture of the Scotts. Some important fella on the British side was murdered, so the local justice system gathered a biased jury and convicted the closest laird of the murder even though there was no evidence against him and everyone knew he didn’t do it. Think of all a skilled author could do with such an example of injustice in such a romantic time and location. Stevenson has his characters visit the laird who has not been arrested yet, but fears he might be. Then they leave. He never even mentions him again. I only know that he was later falsely convicted and executed because I looked it up.

What a waste.

I could forgive every literary sin I have mentioned if Treasure Island and Kidnapped excelled in one critical element. The most important element for any adventure tale. Pacing. These stories are both approximately 200 pages long, which is so short for a novel from this period. Yet, they both manage to drag on. While reading Kidnapped I found myself bored and feeling no sense of emotional connection to the characters or events. I thought “please just get to part where our two buddies have a fight, one of them almost dies and then they reconcile.” After two more chapters of nothing significant, we got to that exact point. Because every tale of two dudes adventuring together contains that element. David’s near death and Alan’s concern for him was the only moment that elicited an emotional reaction, but it was a weak response, because I’ve experienced it before while watching any number of predictable children’s movies.

Come for me in the comments, RLS fans. I am ready to hear how ignorant and obtuse I am. Make sure to criticize my punctuation while you’re down there.

 Final thoughts: George Eliot published an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in which she opines the publication of formulaic, unrealistic novels written by women. (Yeah, George Eliot kind of sucked. More on that when I have fully processed how disappointed I am in her.) She was not alone in this sentiment. I think Treasure Island and Kidnapped belong in a category of Silly Novels by Male Novelists. There’s just not much to them. They are not great novels. If Stevenson hadn’t written Jekyll and Hyde, I don’t think these stories would be read today. They are worth pilfering for inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, but that’s it. No other value.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson, 1886

I LOVE THIS BOOK. If you have never read it, go read it three times. If you haven’t read it in the past month, go reread it right now.

Ok, we’re back from reading Jekyll and Hyde? Excellent. Isn’t it perfect? There are so few truly great horror stories from this time period, but J and H has it all. The writing is atmospheric and spooky like an old house in a horror flick. The plot is intriguing and well-conceived. This is not one of those early horror stories that seems great, because later artists repurposed and improved the concept. Jekyll and Hyde is an excellent piece of writing, especially thematically. The allegory is clear, but complicated enough that many possible interpretations are valid. Most impressively, Stevenson maintains a level of focus throughout the novella that wordy Victorians with their 600 page tomes rarely achieved. Every line is purposeful. Stevenson continually pings little flecks of meaning at the reader that reinforce the mood and the theme.

I love how Stevenson hides nuggets like “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” in the second sentence of the story, which is merely introducing the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. I get a little shiver from that fragment, because I know something not eminently human will appear later in the tale. So clever. I can’t handle how great that detail is. You know what, Nabokov wrote that good readers “fondle the details” of good fiction; so let’s do that. You don’t need a summary of the characters or plot of this one. It’s too famous for that. Let’s get into some details.

Utterson is worried about his friend Jekyll’s connection to the odious Mr. Hyde, but does not want to pry because, as his friend Mr. Enfield states it “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name.” Such a quaint way to introduce the idea that proper, refined, well-regarded families are harboring dark secrets. Secrets that their friends would rather not know. Gentlemen are willingly looking away from the dark side of their fellows’ natures.

The maid states that moments before she witnesses Hyde committing a violent murder, she was enjoying a lovely moonlit night and “never had she felt more at peace with all men or felt more kindly of the world.” I just love that. By transforming himself into Hyde, by indulging the evil tendencies of his nature, Jekyll violates not just laws of nature, but the social contract. This romantic maid has her sense of peace and goodness permanently disturbed by witnessing a moment of pure evil. Jekyll has broken her faith in mankind, just as he has broken the unspoken compact shared by Victorians to repress their forbidden desires.

It seems so appropriate that this allegory about repression should come near the end of the Victorian Era. It fits nicely with our image of Victorians as tight-lipped, pleasureless and obsessed with respectability. Jekyll is driven to create his alter-ego, because he has never been able to reconcile his desire for pleasure with his need to maintain a gentile public face. He was already living a double life and felt a “morbid sense of shame” at his secret pleasures. Sex and drugs, right? I’m not sure what else it could be. Gambling, perhaps. General drunken carousing. I guess that’s beside the point. Jekyll has a dual nature, but feels that “both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I labored, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Oh, there’s so much in there. I love that Stevenson wrote “eye of day” rather than “light of day” to emphasize the watchful eye of society. He suggests that to get along in society one had to divide one’s true self into one acceptable public aspect and one hidden sinner. Go ahead and pause to think about the aspects of your true nature you’ve had to hide away so that you could feel accepted. Really, the duality of public versus private is more interesting than that of good versus evil. What we hide from the eye of day is rarely a desire to harm others. Call me naïve, but I think there’s enough room in society to indulge self-serving tendencies, that the part of ourselves we hide is not destructive or evil. What we hide is a failure or lack of desire to fulfill a role society wants from us. We hide emotions that others don’t want to see. Anger, depression, not wanting to do our gender roles. That’s the secret self we hide. Not evil. I know my Mr. Hyde doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s just a vulnerable Goth who doesn’t want to wear a bra. I think. Anyway, I didn’t mean to spin off in that direction. There’s just so much scope in this novella.

One last little thought. I appreciate Mr. Hyde being smaller and younger than Dr. Jekyll. The evil side of Jekyll’s nature is not as developed as his full self. So, it is shorter and younger. That’s such a great sci-fi-esque detail. So good.

You might like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • You like a good horror story.
  • You like a good story of any variety.

You might not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • I cannot think of a reason.

Final thoughts: Is it a cautionary tale about the peril of letting your dark side out or is it about the danger of squashing an aspect of your true self? I dunno. Both. It’s everything. So good.