Guest Post: ‘Treasure Island’ as Ring Composition?

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island: An Exploration of its Possible Ring Composition Story Scaffolding

by Michael Murray

I would like to heartily thank Professor John Granger for drawing my attention to this book.

If any reader has not read it, or not read it recently then I urge them to do so; I have greatly enjoyed re-reading the book. The book was published in 1885, after having been serialised in the magazine Young Folks, between 1881 to 1882.

The scenes, characters, events are all very well realised; the seaman’s language is always used to great expressive effect, and never sounds unnatural, obscure or artificial.


The story is told wholly as narrative by the central character, young Jim Hawkins. The only times Hawkins is not the narrator are chapters sixteen, seventeen and eighteen when the narrative is supplied by Doctor Livesey.

The story is told in retrospect. It opens by explaining that the following is a record of the events and circumstances consequent upon the discovery of the treasure map of a notorious privateer/pirate Captain Flint.

For those unsure of the story by now, allow me a brief run-through.

The story relates the voyage and recovery of that treasure by Hawkins, Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and crew aboard their ship the Hispaniola. The treasure was buried on a small island by notorious pirate Captain Flint.

As can be guessed, other parties are also interested in the recovery of that treasure: the remains of Flint’s crew. The map of position of the island, and the site on the island of the buried treasure had disappeared with a member of the crew.  The crew broke up on the death of Flint.

We discover that it is this crew member, Billy Bones, who turns up one day at Jack Hawkin’s father’s inn, The Admiral Benbow. We also discover that he seems to be hiding out there, fearful of certain persons discovering his whereabouts: Hawkins is paid to keep watch for a certain one-legged man.

This all happens in an isolated cove on the north Somerset coast. Maybe not far from the ‘gentleman from Porlock’s’ home, as we have it from Coleridge.

The tavern is owned by Hawkin’s father and run by mother, father and son.

The events following the arrival of the old buccaneer, Billy Bones. It results in Hawkin’s father’s death, and then Bones’ death through several strokes. Hawkins  in turn claims the treasure map in recompense for lost payment.

Local Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey all become part of the story when Hawkins takes the map and the story to them for advice. Trelawney travels to nearby Bristol to obtain a ship. He is not good at keeping secrets however, and by the time a crew has been amassed we find several of old Captain Flint’s members amongst them, including Long John Silver as cook.

All seems well on the voyage, apart from Captain Smollett’s doubts about the crew. On reaching the island Hawkins overhears the other side of the story: Silver is revealed as chief plotter, who has been busy throughout the voyage gaining followers. His plan is to help gain the treasure, then take over the ship plus treasure on the homeward voyage.

Once alerted, Livesey’s party play it quiet, allowing the crew ashore. They then slip out to the Stockade on the island, taking as many provisions as they can.

Meanwhile Hawkins has slipped ashore with the others. Here he witnesses Silver murder a crew-member, and he runs. He comes across Ben Gunn, marooned on the island for three years. Gunn befriends Hawkins, and lets in on some of his secrets.

When Hawkins rejoins the Livesey party they are under fire from the remaining crew on the ship.

Silver declares the position of both parties, and conflict between them breaks

out. There are casualties and deaths on each side.

Hawkins slips away again, and takes Gunn’s coracle to take the ship away from the mutineers by cutting it loose; in doing so he is carried along with it on the strong sea currents. Eventually he has to board the ship.

With the help of injured Israel Hands he manages to beach the ship in a hidden cove. When he rejoins his party he finds the Stockade taken over by the mutineers, that Livesey gave it up, and gave Silver the map. Hawkins is in now in dire straits. Livesey visiting the injured learns of Hawkin’s actions.

The mutineers set out to dig up the treasure. They are spooked by voices, and ghastly signs from dead Captain Flint.

But there is no treasure! It has been dug up. The mutineers are in uproar, and Silver himself is in dire straits. The Livesey party intervene, several mutineers killed, and the rest run off.

Silver and Hawkins are united with Gunn, and the treasure. The treasure is loaded on board, and the party along with Gunn and Silver depart, leaving three mutineers stranded.

On the journey home Silver slips away with a small amount of the treasure. The party return to England. Their lives afterwards are briefly sketched. Finis.


It is much in favour of Stevenson’s telling of the tale that nothing works out predictably, that all works through circumspection.

This greatly adds to the apparent veracity of the tale; we gain a wider and more rounded idea of character by this method. This also helps the reader enter into the story more fully, because it earns our trust. We, like the characters, become engaged in the adventure; there are no awkward scenes or events that cause us to draw back and question the whole enterprise of our entering into the contract with the book.

The central character of Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate, gains greatly from this; his shiftings of alliance between parties as fortunes shift, is keenly portrayed.

Yet he is hardly ever without sympathy. We see him murder a crew member Tom, who will not join his conspiracy; but we also see him protect Jack Hawkins from torture by the other pirates. Silver always has one eye on his chances with the opposite party. If it can be proved he has helped Hawkins his chances of survival are so much better. Similarly if he can persuade the other pirates that it is better to keep Hawkins alive and unharmed then his use as ransom with the other party is greatly in their favour.

One party has the map, the other access to the ship.

Hawkins changes this balance by cutting loose the ship; and by skilful negotiation with a wounded pirate, Israel Hands, set to guard the ship (he having killed his companion in a drunken brawl) is able to beach the ship in a hidden cove. Hands is killed in a life-and-death struggle with Hawkins.

This constant changing of the balance of advantage between the two parties is imaged majorly at this point in the book in who has control of the Stockade.

The secret ingredient in the mix is a Mr Ben Gunn.

Gunn was also a member of Flint’s initial crew; in a subsequent legitimate voyage Gunn was marooned on the island. He survived there alone for three years before the arrival of the Hispaniola.

In that time he had located the treasure and removed it to a place of safety.

His existence on the island, and subsequent action, was unknown to all parties.

Hawkins comes across Gunn in Chapter fifteen, Part Three. This friendship is crucial, it provides Hawkins with the means of access to the Hispaniola, anchored out in the bay.

Gunn also changes the balance of the conflict when Doctor Livesey seeks him out, on Hawkins’ word.  Gunn imparts to Livesey the major part of his secret. As yet this is not revealed to the reader.

Livesey offers the treasure map, then useless, to Silver as head of the pirate mutineers, without revealing its useless value. Silver’s position among the constantly vacillating allegiances of the mutineers becomes relatively sound once more. This also cements an allegiance with the Livesey party which pays off when they leave the island with the treasure, for England, and the possibility of justice.

Gunn also plays a major part in the escape of Silver on the journey back.


I am concerned here though, with the structure of the book.

The book is divided into six parts, in all thirty four chapters, each of varying length.

The parts are:

1  The Old Buccaneer

2  The Sea Cook

3  My Shore Adventure

4  The Stockade

5  My Sea Adventure

6  Captain Silver

Straight away we see a patterning of Parts three and five: My Shore Adventure, and My Sea Adventure.

Quite rightly too; both adventures start with Hawkins secretly leaving the company, and end in him re-joining the company, each time in the Stockade.

In each chapter Hawkins meets one important character, key to the balance of power. In Chapter three it is Ben Gunn; in Chapter five, Israel Hands.

In both these chapters we witness the death of two crewmen: Part three Hawkins hears Alan killed, and sees Tom killed – Part five we find the red-capped mutineer dead, and Hawkins kills Hands.

In three Hawkins leaves the ship; in five he re-enters the ship.

The main difference between the two chapters is that the balance of power has shifted, and the company in control of the Stockade has changed from Livesey’s party, to the mutineers.

The central part of the story is Part four, The Stockade. It is important here that of the seven chapters of this Part, the first three are not narrated by Hawkins, as his presence is elsewhere.

This central part tells how Livesey’s party leave the ship and take as many provisions as they can to the Stockade. This is under the noses of the mutineers, whose mutiny to this point has not been openly declared.

Their last trip is discovered, and their boat (‘jolly-boat’) and provisions lost. The fighting begins. And ends with casualties on each side.

When Hawkins rejoins the company the change in matters becomes concrete. Silver turns up to parley, and the result is open opposition, followed by an assault on the Stockade. All is out in the open, all is changed.

Parts two – The Sea Cook, and Part six – Captain Silver, also parallel each other. Silver is the Sea Cook: his change in status is telling, from very low to high. His negotiating with his fellow mutineers is very precarious throughout. We can see this paralleling the unquestioned authority of Captain Smollett on the outward voyage.

Behind all this appearance of normality we discover the opposite is actually true, that Captain Smollett is marked for death by the mutineers, and that the status of Silver, as original quartermaster on Flint’s ship, is very high amongst the remains of Flints’ crew on board the ship.

It is this reveals the paralleled nature of these two Parts, two, and five. At the end of two we have the chapter Council of War in which the threat of mutiny is being faced for the first time. At the end of six, And Last, we have the mutiny dealt with and put to rest.

The position of Silver in the first is as subordinate, yet key plotter; in the latter we again see him as subordinate, but discover him to have been cutting through a bulkhead to steal some of the treasure, and then escaping at the first port he puts into: once again we see Silver as plotter.

Captain Smollett is paralleled with Squire Trelawney: Smollett is very wary of the crew that Trelawney has gathered. There is much friction between the two; in last chapter of the section once the mutiny has  been discovered, Trelawney honourably apologies to Smollett.

The captain is injured early on in the fighting, and thereafter takes no more part in the events.

There is a parallel here with that of Israel Hands in Part five: an injured Hands has to advise Hawkins how to run the ship so it can be beached safely, just as the injured captain advises the remains of the crew on the journey to the first port, where a new temporary captain can be hired.

There is also an interesting parallel between Billy Bones and Ben Gunn. Bones opens the story not only by turning up at the ’Admiral Benbow’, but by introducing the character of Silver: the one-legged man Hawkins was to watch for and warn him about.

Gunn ends the story by releasing Silver at an American port on the journey home.

Both characters balance each other: both are original members of Flint’s crew, but there cannot be a greater difference between them. It is a difference of opposites. Hawkins and his neighbours all fear Bones at the tavern; in Gunn we have a figure of great innocence. When Silver discovers his identity he and the mutineers dismiss him instantly as offering no threat. His innocence frees Silver.

And yet they are paralleled by the treasure: Bones held the only extant map of location of island and site; Gunn held the island, and the treasure itself, having discovered it himself and dug it up.

Doctor Livesey himself plays a crucial role in the negotiations of power between parties. As a medical doctor his commitments (duty) are to the health of all, irrespective of party. He is able therefore to move between parties freely.

Honour and duty (‘dooty’) are the key values in the story.

Livesey matches Hawkins in his ability to move between parties. With Hawkins, however, his Shore Adventure and Sea Adventure are impulse-driven, whereas the Doctor negotiates between parties through his duty to the sick, and planning.

Livesey is not only a Doctor, but a magistrate. He is the only one not browbeaten by Billy Bones whilst all others at the Admiral Benbow do Bones’s bidding, suffer him in silence, Livesey invokes the power of law over him, and silences him. Bones cannot draw attention to himself, especially not the law, with his background as a pirate.

Livesey is the rational man of learning and authority, whist Hawkins is the impulsive youth; Hawkins’ plans are never thought-through and appear reckless;  his retrospective comments in the text emphasise this.

What connects them is both their reliance, recourse and utmost respect for the law and authority. When Silver takes pains to relate to Hawkins what LIvesey said about him after his sneaking away from the Stockade, we see that Livesey’s opinion matters most to Hawkins.

Is it possible to draw a parallel between the three men who die in Part One: Hawkin’s father, Bones, and Pew, with the three mutineers left marooned on the Island in Part Six?


I would suggest that one key to the tale is the character of Silver. The tale begins with Silver in the wings as it were, but whose presence dominates: Bones hires Hawkins to keep a watch out for him specifically.

That Silver does not appear at the ‘Admiral Benbow’, but his minions do, only further builds the tension.

Silver is first encountered as proprietor of ‘The Spy Glass’, a tavern in Bristol and frequented by a dubious clientele of seamen. And yet he comes across as a jovial host.

Silver’s embassy to Livesey’s party in the Stockade, and how it is received, at the heart of the book, determines the tone of the second half of the book.

The penultimate chapter of the book is entitled Fall of a Chieftain, and relates to Silver’s precarious position; back on board ship he returns to his subordinate position, only this time he is a known quantity, and his future in jeopardy under the law.

We see Stevenson at his best when charting the shiftings of allegiance; the complexity of planning and out-arguing that Silver exhibits are astonishing. And we are always aware of much more not revealed, much more in his head than we are made privy to.

This issue of wealth, money, is also a key factor. Bones has wealth: the bar silver and coins of all countries in his sea chest. And yet after the first admittedly generous payment for his bed and board he refuses to pay more. This is important because it hastens the death of Hawkins’ father.

Hawkins’ mother insists on reimbursement to the right amount and not a penny more when they open Bones’ sea chest upon his sudden death. This delay in sorting through the different values of coin nearly leads to their capture by the pirate body as they arrive to claim their cut of Bones’ map (‘Flint’s fist’).

And the presence of the treasure undermines every attempt to consolidate a united pirate body under Silver: greed is opposed to just earnings.

What each character does with his share further shows his character and nature. And yet, as the fate of Ben Gunn showed, to have great wealth is by itself worthless: on the island he was rich beyond his dreams, but lived in terrible conditions. Wealth by itself is valueless; its value is in commerce: Silver kept his wealth from previous campaigns, he had banked it, invested it in a tavern, whilst his other crew mates drank theirs. Gunn back in England lost his cut of the treasure in a matter of months. Status is implied in how wealth is used: that Silver invested his increases his status in the story. This, I think, is a personal judgement of Stevenson’s.

The last chapter And Last opens with Hawkins labouring over the bagging up of the many denominations of coin in the treasure hoard, to be stowed on the ship. This scene cannot but remind us of the scene in the ‘Admiral Benbow’ when Hawkin’s and his mother attempt to claim their unpaid lodging fees. The same descriptions of coins and coinage occurs in each scene, and similar effort and labour.


There are two main questions I want to attempt to answer here.

One is: how much of a ring-structure is Treasure Island?

And following on from this,

How closely is it reasonable to expect the book to follow the classical structure?

The book was originally written and published in episode form. Maybe this form is more conducive to ring structure in that the writer has to constantly remind readers of plot points, and so reiterates throughout, thus producing a constantly referencing structure to the story.

The Arabian Nights had been long known in Britain by this time – Wordsworth and Coleridge attest to its power on the young imaginations.

The definitive translation of the period by Sir Richard Burton, was not published until 1885.

Stevenson’s own book, A New Arabian Nights, was set in Europe and consisted on newly written pieces; according to Conan Doyle, they were the first short stories in Britain. The book was published in 1882, that is, whilst Treasure Island was being serialised, but before its publication.

I have previously observed that the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, from the Arabian Nights proper, have a very strong and explicit ring structure: it is a ring, of seven rings; that is, one ring per voyage.

Close reading of these sea-going wonder tales could not but impress its structure on a reader who, as Stevenson seems to have been, ultimately unsure of the quality of his own work. Such a writer is constantly comparing structural forms, as well as character creation to learn from, and enhance his own skills.

It was not until his last years Stevenson felt he had written anything with distinction; that is, he appears to have been such a writer as I suggest.

Do we have here, in Seven Voyages of Sinbad, a possible template for the structure of Treasure Island?

If this is so, does Treasure Island contain smaller rings in its structure?

It is important at this point to determine whether the patterns we have already noticed are due to the episodic form, or are ring structures. To do this we need to look at each Part to determine whether it’s structure is serialised or ringed.

I have been looking at the six Parts of the book in turn.

Part One: The Old Buccaneer.

The strongest pattern we find in this section charts the arrival and then death of Blind Pew. In Chapter Three he arrives at the ‘Admiral Benbow’ and gives our seaman the Black Spot. After which he hastily departs. At this point Bones has the first of his seizures.

In Chapter Five Pew and his cohorts arrive at the ‘Benbow’ at the appointed hour

written on the reverse of the Black Spot. By this time, however the old seaman has died.

Then there is the patterning of the arrival of the pirates, in the appearance of Black Dog at the ‘Benbow’ in Chapter Two, and their departure on board ship pursued by Revenue Men, in Chapter Four.

There is also another set of related chapters outside this: One, and Five.

We identify the narrator of the tale as Jack Hawkins by his own admission, from the outset. We see in the first chapter the story begin with the arrival and residence of Billy Bones at the ‘Benbow’, with his mysterious sea chest. In the last chapter we see Hawkins arrive and take up residence at Squire Trelawney’s.

The central chapter is Chapter Three, The Sea Chest. All the storylines to this point tie-up here: it is here that Hawkins claims the Treasure Map as his own – in recompense for lodging owed by Billy Bones. At this point he does not know the value or content of what he holds, that is revealed in the last chapter of the First Part.

This chapter is central because we see Hawkins claim the map, surmising it the key to the mystery. He does not at this point investigate its contents. This is the secret of the sea chest we see arrive at the beginning, and as is revealed at the end of the Part.

The first and last chapters of this Part are concerned with arrival, residence, and the disclosing of the key element, the treasure map.

In Chapter One, The Old Sea Dog at the ‘Admiral Benbow’ we see the old sea man first appear with his sea chest, and him take up board at the Benbow. He is constantly on watch, and his safety his chief concern

In Chapter Six, The Captain’s  Papers, we see Hawkins arrive at Squire Trelawneys, and take up residence there, for safety. The key content of the sea chest we saw arrive in Chapter One is disclosed, and plans made.

This is indeed a ring. So far, so good.

Part Two: The Sea Cook

There are two distinct parallelings in this Part.

The section opens with a convocation: plans for the sea voyage are put into action, a ship procured, and crew and provisions secured. The scene moves from an undisclosed coastal settings, to the port of Bristol. We see the party move there before boarding.

The last chapter of the section, Chapter Twelve, Council of War, we find the party all at sea and the Island itself having just been sighted. In effect we see departure, and arrival bounding Part Two of the book.

This Part of the book is very much Long John Silver’s part; we see him lauded, then revealed as plotter and mutineer and pirate.

Chapter Eight, At the Sign of the “Spy-Glass’ shows the gathering of Silver’s party for the voyage but most importantly we see here the jovial, pleasant and public face of the man. In Chapter Eleven, What I Heard in the Apple Barrel reveals Silver as he really is.

Where is the turn?

Difficult one, this. It is just as possible to see Chapter Nine, Powder and Arms, related to the Apple Barrel: the former sees Captain Smollett relocate the vital powder and arms to a safer location, one controlled by the Captain and Livesey. This is a major blow for the plotters who are revealed in the latter chapter, because they no longer have so easy access to them should a mutiny begin. The ship cannot be so quickly secured by them.

I am inclined to collapse chapters in this Part, that is, combine them because content can be blended. In which case I would place the Apple Barrel as central: all changes from here.

In Part Three, My Shore Adventure we see Hawkins leave the party, and the ship, at the beginning, and rejoin the party in the stockade at the end. A sound parallel.

Hawkins sees Silver kill a crew member who refuses to join the mutiny, and then we see the skeleton crew left aboard ship fire on Livesey’s party as the disembark for the Stockade.

The parallel to this must surely be the meeting and befriending of former Flint crew-member, Ben Gunn: the change is in the friendship rather than the fear Hawkins experiences.

The central point in all this is the meeting with Ben Gunn on the island. He is a crucial character in the whole book. Gunn has secrets, and they are released to us, the reader, part by part.

Part Four, The Stockade overlaps with the previous on the time scale, and so we see the disembarkation, the ship firing on the party, related to the last chapter and Part, where the mutiny fight begins outright

Silver has already inadvertently revealed his murderous intent to Hawkins, so when Hawkins rejoins his party in the Stockade we see events held in abeyance come to fruition in Silver’s Embassy, Chapter Twenty.

Chapter Nineteen, where Hawkins returns to the Stockade, his knowledge of Silver’s actions and his meeting with Gunn, is the central turn of this Part.

Part Five, My Sea Adventure begins once again with Hawkins leaving the party at the Stockade, and ends with him rejoining the Stockade – only to discover in is in enemy hands.

Central to this he seizes the ship, and is able to hide it; he is the only person to know where it is – all the others are dead. This is indeed the central part.

Around this we have him attempt to navigate Gunn’s unwieldy coracle in a strong sea current along behind the ship he has just freed; twinned with the steering of the ship Hispaniola, under injured Israel Hand’s tutorship.

Part Six, Captain Silver is a complicated one. It begins in the enemy camp of mutineers, Silver finds himself in a very precarious position with his cohorts. He is greatly suspected of bungling the treasure hunt.

At the end of this Part we see him once more in a very precarious position, on board ship and going home, to justice.

The central chapter is Chapter Thirty, On Parole. Here we see Hawkins meet up with Livesey, the tale of the ship relocation relayed, and the warning of Ben Gunn’s last secret given in return. Silver once again deals with Livesey for his safety, and is accepted. All is change in Silver’s fortunes.

Around this we see Silver given the Black Spot, and has to satisfy all that his actions have been legitimate: there are four questions he has to answer. If we twin this with the actual finding of the site of the treasure, that it has gone and the Livesey party saves his life by firing on the furious mutineers, we can see a neat balancing that answers the accusations put in the first half.

We do indeed see here a good solid ring structure to the novel.

Stevenson does appear to understand the mechanics of the structure to a high degree.

This is indeed a skillfully constructed book: six rings forming one major ring.

As such I am not yet convinced that the Sinbad tale is sufficient to explain this form to have been adopted here. More, and wider, evidence is needed.

Michael Murray is a UK-based writer and researcher. He is currently working outside of the academies.

A fan of The Harry Potter books – which he is currently re-reading with even more enjoyment, thanks to Mr Granger’s work!

He is also a participant in the Pottermore adventure.

He is currently exploring the world of Ring-Structures. Results can be seen on his blog:

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