Although Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) appear to be two separate literary seafaring adventure texts, they actually both posit a meaningful point about the harmful effects of pride, greed, and ultimately the dangers of the ego. Ultimately this helps us better understand how American authors in the 19th century wanted to convey ideas of imperialism, American patriotism, and chauvinism, and ultimately, the “American Dream.”
These themes of greed, selfishness, and ego can be most easily found in the characters of Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney. Even though both men are wealthy, upper-class, and well-off—not to mention cis, heterosexual, white men—they still are seeking further wealth, fortune, and adventure. The Squire is particularly interested in this venture, as he states that they will have “money to eat—to roll in—to play duck and drake with ever after” (Stevenson 26). From this quote we can see that the original purpose of the Hispaniola’s journey and the journey to retrieve the treasure: it was not in a vested interest to obtain more money because they needed money, but because they wanted money, fame, and adventure. Even though the crew is mostly composed of lower-class sailors, it was the upper-class “gentlemen” who began this journey and who ran the operation. This type of avarice is valued in a capitalistic society that has, and will continue to contribute to an uneven distribution of wealth, creating major separate divisions of classes within the system. This system is also inherently American; with the growth of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism and the idea of having to create one’s own autonomous wealth grew. This novel, written about forty years after the Industrial Revolution, is heavily embedded with ideals such as seeking one’s own wealth, being self-sufficient, and essentially proving that you are worthy of wealth. We can see this also at the end, where the main upper-class protagonists get to take a good deal of the treasure, and Long John Silver, one of the only surviving crew members, survives to only take a pouch of gold. The white, wealthy, male protagonists live to tell the tale with their treasure (although I give Stevenson credit for emphasizing the fact that after this horrible ordeal, Jim is at least haunted by nightmares).
Moby-Dickfunctions in much the same way, however, we can look at Ahab’s greed in terms of social wealth, particularly his status and masculinity, although financial wealth is still certainly part of the equation. Ahab is driven mad with the need to restore his leg by slaying the White Whale, which in turn would restore not only his dignity, but also his masculinity, and give him a “prize,” not only of the whale as a trophy, but also the completion of the voyage, which would give them wealth and pride. As we see in the novel, Ahab’s pride and need for revenge dooms the entire crew (except Ahab). Melville provides a virtual warning for those readers who are chasing after something uncatchable; perhaps his statement is that true revenge is impossible, and that chasing retaliation for the wrongs done to you can lead to madness. Ahab’s ego leads him to continue this chase, which leads him to madness and ultimately, his death. We can see this near the end of the novel, as the crew of the Pequod is struggling to catch the White Whale for Ahab, and Ahab falls into a Shakespearean-like madness, as he repeats his words and makes harsh decisions that get the crew killed. “My line! my line? Gone?—gone?” he says, as he receives the news that a member of the crew was caught in the line and dead; he is only concerned about his ability to catch the White Whale. Ahab’s egotistical actions get the crew killed: a selfish action that no good captain would ever make.
Treasure Island and Moby-Dick both present the same white crew members juxtaposed with the same lowly crew members of color, and in both stories, the white crew members (or member, in the case of Ishmael), are the only ones to survive and live to tell the tale and take the gold. However, these two stories have very different ending philosophies. Stevenson, obsessed with adventure, paints Treasure Island as an adventure tale where at the end, the already-wealthy protagonists succeed, get their treasure, and continue to live their lives. Their greed pays off, and their class status is unchanged. In Moby-Dick, however, the greed of Ahab is punished and Ishmael, the only survivor, lives to tell the tale of Ahab’s ego. In turn, Treasure Island was a critical success in its serial and eventually published form, and Moby-Dick was a financial failure, only made to be successful years after Melville’s death. We can gleam from this the value the American pro-capitalist ideals that exist in society today: people want a successful, wealthy venture; they want to know that they can achieve the “American Dream.” With Moby-Dick, the “American Dream” that is held so dear by the American public is unachievable, with ego standing in the way of true success.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Mineola, New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1993.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Mineola, New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 2003.