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  • Reexamining Illustration's Role in Treasure Island:Do Images Pirate Texts?
  • Laura Eidam

Compare two illustrations of pirates—one of Blackbeard from Charles Johnson's 1724 A General History of the Pyrates (Fig. 1), the other of Billy Bones from an 1894-1895 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 classic Treasure Island (Fig. 2)—and the parallels are striking. With their similarly tangled dark beards, stern composures, and threateningly uplifted cutlasses, they exemplify the idea that pirates "steal time, sifting silkily through the uncanny wormholes that seem to open up between past and present."1 This visual echo in the Treasure Island illustration foregrounds the novel's participation in a tradition of representing historic and fictional pirates, which extends as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' Golden Age of Piracy. Just as Stevenson borrowed tropes of piracy from earlier histories and fictions, his illustrators seem to borrow images from each other's versions of Treasure Island, as well as from earlier texts about pirates. Attentive readers will recognize not only traces of Blackbeard in illustrations of Billy Bones, but also elements of, for instance, artist Walter Paget's rendition of Jim Hawkins and Israel Hands in N. C. Wyeth's version of the same characters. Though this visual "repetition" reinforces the estimation of Stevenson's pirates as stock characters, Treasure Island continues to attract readers, fulfilling the author's prediction that "with anything like half good pictures, it should sell."2 Today, with at least ninety illustrators, this novel remains the most illustrated as well as the most popular text in Stevenson's canon.3

If we use as a point of inquiry the images of pirates repeated from one illustrated edition to the next, we discover that the Treasure Island illustrations contribute to the pirate's reputation as a stock character not by closely imitating but by subtly altering and rearranging the text. Reading for this subversive repetition advances discussions about Stevenson's vexed reputation as a popular fiction author. As Glenda Norquay observes, "the ways in which texts are traded" prompted Stevenson [End Page 45]

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Fig. 1.

A General History of the Pyrates 1724
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Yale University

[End Page 46]

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Fig. 2.

George Hutchinson
Chums 29 August 1894
British Library Board, General Reference Collection P.P.5993.rka

[End Page 47]

to wonder "what distinguishes serious artistic endeavor from popular fiction aimed at the commercial market, and how might the circulation of a text through the market affect its status?"4 In response to questions such as this one, critics continue to focus on Stevenson's textual sources and on how the novel circulates in written form. As another medium for circulating the narrative, illustrations also deserve our attention because of their proliferation and Stevenson's preoccupation with them. In his account of writing Treasure Island, Stevenson envisions his map of the island as the first illustration and as resistant to reproduction. In a review of one of the illustrated editions, he worries that artists can devalue his text through inaccurate imitation or revision. Both sources reveal that Stevenson values illustrations for improving the novel's sales but also is concerned they contribute negatively to its status as popular fiction.

Despite illustrations' strategic role in the novel's genesis and reception, only two articles address them in depth.5 Except for these sources, Stevenson scholarship continues to overlook the complete written and visual text, reflecting a trend in late-Victorian literary criticism. According to Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, "[f]ew studies of nineties' books deal adequately with the implications of their publication as interart forms.... When illustrations are included in the discussion, they tend to be viewed as decorative embellishments, authenticating corroborations, or pernicious parasites of the host text."6 Kooistra refers primarily to criticism on fin-de-siècle illustrated first editions, but her assessment applies to the larger field of illustrated fiction from the 1880s through the 1910s, when a number of illustrated editions of Treasure Island appeared. Even so, since her observation over fifteen years ago, the increasing scholarship on this field demonstrates that...


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