Narrative Summary of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial

Overview:

This book is a deep dive into the life and writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It explores his childhood and formative years in Edinburgh, his struggles with ill health, his travels, and his eventual settlement in Samoa. The author, Alexander H. Japp, knew Stevenson personally and uses this intimacy to provide an in-depth look at the man behind the works. The text delves into Stevenson’s literary influences, including Thoreau, Scott, and his own father’s theological writings, and examines how these influences shaped his writing style and thematic concerns.

Main Parts:

  • Early Life and Influences: This section explores Stevenson’s childhood, his education, and the profound impact of his nurse, Alison Cunningham, and his father, Thomas Stevenson, on his character and artistic sensibility.
  • Travels and Literary Career: Japp traces Stevenson’s early forays into writing, his travels, and his struggles with ill health, noting how his need for a healthier climate led him to Samoa, where he found solace and a new home.
  • Letters and Work: The author provides detailed analyses of Stevenson’s letters, especially those written from Samoa, revealing Stevenson’s warm personality, his love for life, his sense of humor, and his deep compassion for others. This section also examines Stevenson’s creative output, focusing on his major works and their evolution over time.
  • Critical Analyses and Influences: Japp explores the critical reception of Stevenson’s work, addressing various interpretations of his style and themes. The author contrasts different viewpoints, analyzing arguments regarding Stevenson’s use of symbolism, his moral views, and his portrayal of character.
  • Personal Reflections: Throughout the book, Japp shares his personal experiences with Stevenson, providing firsthand accounts of their interactions and offering intimate insights into Stevenson’s personality and character.

View on Life:

  • Hedonistic Puritan: Stevenson embraced a philosophy of embracing life’s pleasures while simultaneously maintaining a strong moral compass. He believed in the importance of kindness, generosity, and experiencing life to the fullest, yet he also recognized the inherent darkness and complexities of human nature.
  • Moral Casuist: He was deeply interested in the nuances of morality and the complexities of human behavior. He often explored the gray areas of right and wrong, questioning conventional moral boundaries and challenging simplistic interpretations of good and evil.
  • Romantic Mystic: Stevenson’s writing often contained a mystical and dreamlike quality, reflecting his fascination with the unseen and the unexplainable. His exploration of the subconscious mind and the darker side of human nature, as seen in works like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, reflects this mystical sensibility.

Scenarios and Situations:

  • Stevenson’s Illness: The book details Stevenson’s struggle with ill health, emphasizing how it shaped his life and writing. He constantly sought healthier climates and environments, ultimately finding solace in Samoa.
  • Family Dynamics: The book explores the complex relationship between Stevenson and his father, a devout Calvinist who found his son’s unconventional views challenging.
  • Travels and Adventures: The text recounts Stevenson’s various voyages and travels, including his journey as a steerage passenger across the Atlantic and his exploration of the South Pacific islands.
  • Life in Samoa: Japp vividly describes Stevenson’s life in Samoa, his adoption of Samoan culture, his relationship with the natives, and his active involvement in local politics.

Challenges:

  • Ill Health: Stevenson’s illness significantly affected his life, causing him constant pain and fatigue. He battled the limitations imposed by his condition, constantly seeking healthier environments and adapting his lifestyle to manage his health.
  • Literary Disagreements: Stevenson’s philosophical views and writing style, particularly his exploration of moral ambiguity, created tension with some of his contemporaries, notably his friend W. E. Henley.
  • Personal Conflicts: Stevenson’s relationship with his father was often strained due to their differing religious and philosophical views.

Conflict:

  • Inner Conflict: The text highlights the internal conflict between Stevenson’s inherent desire for pleasure and his strong moral conscience. He often struggled with the darker aspects of human nature, grappling with themes of guilt, redemption, and the inherent duality within each person.
  • Conflict with Traditional Morality: Stevenson challenged conventional moral boundaries and embraced unconventional viewpoints, often questioning the rigidness of traditional morality and exploring the grey areas of human conduct.

Plot:

  • Thematic Exploration: The book does not follow a traditional plotline but instead focuses on providing a comprehensive portrait of Stevenson as a person and writer. The author weaves together biographical details, literary analyses, and personal reflections to paint a nuanced picture of Stevenson’s life and creative journey.

Point of View:

  • Personal Perspective: Japp writes from a deeply personal perspective, drawing on his own experiences with Stevenson and incorporating insights from other friends and contemporaries. This intimate perspective allows the reader to gain a close and personal understanding of Stevenson’s character and work.

How it’s Written:

  • Conversational Tone: Japp uses a conversational and engaging tone, making the book feel like a personal reflection on Stevenson’s life and work. He often incorporates anecdotes and quotes from Stevenson’s letters, adding a layer of authenticity and immediacy to the text.
  • Scholarly Analysis: While the writing is approachable and engaging, Japp also employs a scholarly approach, drawing on biographical sources, literary criticism, and Stevenson’s own writings to provide a thoughtful and insightful analysis of his work.

Tone:

  • Appreciative and Respectful: Japp’s tone is deeply appreciative of Stevenson’s talents and character. He expresses admiration for Stevenson’s warmth, humor, and courage, while also acknowledging his flaws and complexities.
  • Analytical and Critical: The author also employs a critical and analytical tone, examining the strengths and weaknesses of Stevenson’s work and seeking to understand the underlying motivations and influences that shaped his writing.

Life Choices:

  • Pursuit of Adventure: Stevenson made a conscious choice to embrace a life of travel and exploration, constantly seeking new experiences and challenging conventional norms. This adventurous spirit influenced his writing, which often focused on themes of escape, exploration, and the pursuit of freedom.
  • Dedication to Writing: Stevenson made a clear commitment to writing, despite the challenges of ill health and personal struggles. He dedicated himself to his craft, striving to achieve excellence in his work and using his art as a means of expressing himself and connecting with others.
  • Life in Samoa: Stevenson’s choice to settle in Samoa was both a response to his illness and a reflection of his desire for a simpler, more authentic way of life. He embraced the culture and people of Samoa, becoming an active participant in local politics and advocating for the rights of the Samoan people.

Lessons:

  • Embrace Life’s Pleasures: Stevenson’s philosophy of embracing life’s pleasures while maintaining a strong moral compass serves as a valuable lesson for the reader. He encourages us to find joy in the simple things, to be generous with others, and to make the most of every moment.
  • The Importance of Kindness: The text emphasizes the importance of kindness, generosity, and compassion as fundamental values. Stevenson’s deep compassion for others, despite his own suffering, serves as a powerful example of the transformative power of empathy.
  • The Power of Perseverance: Stevenson’s relentless pursuit of his artistic vision, despite the challenges of ill health and personal struggles, provides a powerful example of the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.

Characters:

  • Robert Louis Stevenson: A brilliant writer, a complex individual, and a passionate adventurer. He was driven by a desire for adventure, a strong moral compass, and a deep love for life.
  • Thomas Stevenson: Stevenson’s father, a devout Calvinist and a gifted engineer. He was a strict disciplinarian who struggled to understand his son’s unorthodox views and unconventional lifestyle.
  • Alison Cunningham: Stevenson’s nurse, who became a beloved “second mother” to him and a major influence on his early life. She instilled in him a strong moral code and a love for storytelling.
  • Fanny Van der Griff Stevenson: Stevenson’s wife, a strong and supportive partner who helped him through his health challenges and encouraged his writing.
  • Lloyd Osbourne: Stevenson’s stepson, a talented artist and writer who became a close companion and collaborator.

Themes:

  • The Nature of Good and Evil: Stevenson’s work often explored the complexities of human nature, challenging conventional morality and questioning the clear-cut distinction between good and evil. He was fascinated by the darker side of human behavior and the potential for both good and evil to reside within a single individual.
  • The Importance of Kindness and Compassion: Throughout his life and writing, Stevenson emphasized the importance of kindness, compassion, and generosity as essential virtues. He believed that these qualities held the key to human happiness and fulfillment.
  • The Power of the Human Spirit: Stevenson’s life and work exemplify the power of the human spirit to persevere in the face of adversity. Despite his ill health and personal challenges, he dedicated himself to his art and embraced life with passion and determination.
  • The Search for Identity: Stevenson’s travels and his search for a home in Samoa reflect his ongoing quest for self-discovery and understanding. His works often explore the themes of identity, belonging, and the struggle to find one’s place in the world.

Principles:

  • Moral Integrity: Stevenson believed in the importance of moral integrity and living by a strong ethical code. He often explored the consequences of moral choices, both personal and societal, in his writing.
  • The Pursuit of Joy: Stevenson championed a philosophy of embracing life’s pleasures and seeking joy in all aspects of existence. He believed that happiness was not a passive state but an active pursuit, requiring effort and engagement with the world.
  • The Value of Art: Stevenson saw art as a vital means of expression, a powerful force for good, and a means of connecting with others. He believed that art had the potential to illuminate human truths, inspire change, and offer solace and understanding.

Intentions of the Characters or the Reader:

  • Stevenson’s Intentions: He aimed to explore the complexities of human nature, to challenge conventional morality, to celebrate the beauty of life, and to inspire his readers with tales of adventure, courage, and compassion.
  • Reader’s Intentions: Readers might seek to learn about Stevenson’s life and work, to explore his philosophical views, to enjoy his evocative writing style, or to escape into his richly imagined worlds.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • “Wolverine”: Stevenson used this term to describe his illness, highlighting its persistent and destructive nature.
  • “Shorter Catechist”: This term reflects Stevenson’s early religious upbringing and the enduring influence of Calvinistic theology on his thought and writing.
  • “Tail-foremost Morality”: Stevenson used this term to describe his inclination towards questioning and challenging conventional morality, often exploring the darker and more ambiguous sides of human behavior.

Anecdotes:

  • The Devil and the Innkeeper: This fable illustrates Stevenson’s playful approach to morality and his tendency to subvert conventional wisdom.
  • The Road of the Loving Heart: This anecdote highlights Stevenson’s deep compassion for the Samoan people and his commitment to helping them.
  • Stevenson and the Photographer: This story reveals Stevenson’s genuine warmth and generosity, demonstrating his ability to connect with people from all walks of life.

Ideas:

  • The Power of Storytelling: The text underscores the power of storytelling to illuminate human truths, to inspire empathy, and to offer a window into the human condition.
  • The Importance of Personal Experience: Stevenson’s work emphasizes the importance of personal experience in shaping our understanding of the world and ourselves. His own travels and encounters with diverse cultures enriched his writing and deepened his understanding of human nature.
  • The Search for Meaning and Purpose: Stevenson’s work often grapples with the search for meaning and purpose in life, exploring themes of identity, mortality, and the ongoing quest for understanding.

Facts and Findings:

  • Stevenson’s Illness: The book provides details about Stevenson’s illness, including its origins, its impact on his life, and his efforts to manage it.
  • Stevenson’s Relationship with his Father: The text examines the complex relationship between Stevenson and his father, highlighting their differing philosophical and religious views.
  • Stevenson’s Life in Samoa: Japp provides factual details about Stevenson’s life in Samoa, including his involvement in local politics, his relationship with the Samoan people, and his efforts to advocate for their rights.

Statistics:

  • Stevenson’s Literary Output: The book notes that Stevenson produced more than twenty books in a relatively short period, highlighting his prolific nature and his dedication to his craft.

Points of View:

  • The Author’s Personal Perspective: Japp’s close relationship with Stevenson allows him to provide a unique and intimate perspective on the writer’s life and work, offering insights and interpretations that might not be available from other sources.

Perspective:

  • A Nuanced and Complicated Portrait: The text paints a nuanced and complicated portrait of Stevenson, acknowledging his strengths and weaknesses, his complexities and contradictions. It encourages the reader to consider Stevenson’s life and work within the context of his time, his cultural influences, and his personal struggles.

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