Treasure Island

Treasure Island

Sometimes disability is used in writing as a metaphor for a broken soul. As you might imagine, I absolutely hate that.

I think it was particularly popular in the 1800s to tell you about the inner mind of a character by his outward appearance. There was no expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover” in those days. I think they did believe that you could tell about a person by what he looked like. So, good guys are handsome, good women are beautiful and demure, and bad guys have some kind of deformity.

That tradition has carried on in subtle ways. It still happens in stories today, though not as much.

I still wonder whether Long John Silver fits into this category. On the surface, I would have to say that he does. He is the bad guy of the story and to further solidify it, every one of the mutineers has some physical disability. They are all missing some body part. Yet maybe that is to show that these men deserved the treasure, as they were the ones who shed blood to bury it in the first place.

Also, Long John’s disability (Yes, I am on a first name basis with him) is used to inspire fear: “Beware the one-legged man.” He himself uses it to make himself seem harmless.

Yet, Long John is not a simple bad guy. He is not straightforward in the way that bad guys in other stories of that time are.

I first read Treasure Island when I was 8, and I was very impressed with his character. He is charismatic, manipulative, cunning and selfish. He knows how to keep people on his side. Despite having one leg, he keeps a foot in each camp throughout the book.

It seems that the purpose of his disability is to warn the reader that he is “damaged” in some way, so I do strongly object to that aspect of the story. Unless, as I suggested before, it might also be a way to show how much he had sacrificed for the sake of that treasure, while the squire and the doctor just show up with their fancy clothes and nice boat and go out looking for it like it’s a game.

I like that the disability doesn’t stop Long John from being powerful and in control of himself and all the men around him. He is complex. He is likable. One can even sympathize with his reasons for mutiny, which seem to me to come down to a class struggle.

There are some books that can be reduced to simple stereotypes, but this is not one of them. It stands the test of time as a classic because the characters are believable and human and extremely well rendered. I have mixed feelings about it, obviously, but it remains one of my favorite books.

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