- Gold Standards and Silver Subversions:Treasure Island and the Romance of Money
But there's no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination.—William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham
Bromfield Corey's remark in The Rise of Silas Lapham has particular resonance for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. After all, Treasure Island is first and foremost about a hunt for treasure, the pursuit of money—a fact often overlooked in critical discussions of the book.1 Because Treasure Island is a historical adventure novel set in the eighteenth century, it has suggested to some readers a romantic distance from the factory and office work of industrial capitalism. Leslie Fiedler (1960) identifies the myths informing Stevenson's work as ones that defy the mundane and elude established systems of value: "There is an astonishing innocence about it all—a world without sex and without business—where the source of wealth is buried treasure, clean gold in sand, for which only murder has been done, but which implies no grimy sweat in offices, no manipulating of stock, none of the quiet betrayals of capitalist competition" (80-81). Treasure Island is, however, a romance about money, an excursion that, in its search for treasure, also defines the value of persons in monetary terms and provides an extensive commentary on the mechanisms of capitalist profit.
Fiedler's claim that Treasure Island's appeal lies in its distance from the "quiet betrayals" of capitalism is belied by the structure of the book and by nineteenth-century critical responses to it. Edward Salmon, a children's literature critic and contemporary of Stevenson's, saw a tacit link between the novel and capitalism: "[Treasure Island] [End Page 61] is romance, pure and simple. There is little poetry, little humanity. It is desperately realistic, and desperately earnest; and regards nothing but the circumstances attending the strife for lucre and life" (107). Salmon's apparently contradictory assertions ("it is romance"; "it is desperately realistic") note a tension central to the problem of evaluation—economic and moral—not only in the book, but also in Stevenson's cultural milieu. Treasure Island thematizes questions about value and accurate representation, about romance and its debasement, and in so doing reveals that the bourgeois economic and moral systems, in the words of Marx and Engels, are actuated by "naked self-interest" rather than by "purer" devotion to God or country, thereby deconstructing the gold standard of value that they purport to uphold.2
My purposes here are twofold: I want to set Treasure Island accurately in one of its contemporary contexts, the economic debates over gold- and silver-based currencies and the ways they reflected cultural assumptions about value, and I want then to offer a fresh reading of the novel showing how it expresses the same concerns about surface and substance, signifier and signified, extrinsic and intrinsic value, what was gold and what was merely silver, that were being articulated by contemporary economists. Establishing the economic context of Treasure Island enables us to recognize Stevenson's ironic critique of essentialist evaluative modes. He demystifies value by revealing its binaries as constructed rather than essential; like money, value inheres not in the object but in its use. Furthermore, although Stevenson is often described as conservative and dualistic, a close reading of Treasure Island shows him resisting categories and actively deconstructing binaries in favor of a far more ambiguous aesthetic.
Gold, Silver, and Value
During the writing of Treasure Island, the merits of silver versus gold were being widely discussed in Europe and America; Robert Louis Stevenson lived both in the western United States and in the British Isles between 1879 and 1883, as gold was set against silver in public debates. These discussions are demonstrably reflected in the themes of the novel. Understood as representing competing socioeconomic interests and ideologies, the silver standard was associated with populist politics, whereas the gold standard was advocated by conservative establishment types. In England, silver was associated with counterfeit value and the commoner; gold-standard advocates justified their [End Page 62...