Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Jim discovers the coracle—the small boat that Ben Gunn has constructed out of wood and goatskin—at the end of Chapter XXII. In the chapters that follow, Jim uses the coracle to sail out to the Hispaniola, cut it adrift, ruin the pirates’ chances of escape, and climb aboard to kill Israel Hands. The irony of a small boy using a small boat to overpower a large man in a large ship points to a David-and-Goliath symbolism in Jim’s adventure. Indeed, Jim ultimately proves a victorious underdog.
However, the coracle, which belongs to a former pirate, also symbolizes Jim’s desertion of Captain Smollett. In leaving his superior to go hunt for the boat, Jim becomes a bit like a pirate himself. His heroism is not unequivocally good in a moral sense, which may be why the captain does not wish Jim to accompany him on any more voyages. Despite Jim’s disloyalty, his adventurous spirit leads him eventually to save many lives and stop the pirates from escaping. The coracle therefore also represents the boy’s moral ambiguity and his pirate apprenticeship.
Though the treasure map appears in the novel’s first chapter, when Jim and his mother ransack Billy Bones’s sea chest, it retains its fascinating and mysterious aura nearly to the end of the novel. The map functions as a sort of magic talisman that draws people into the adventure story. Jim’s possession of the map transforms him from an ordinary innkeeper’s son to a sailor and a hero, and changes the stodgy squire and doctor into freewheeling maritime adventurers.
In addition to symbolizing adventure, however, the map also symbolizes desire—and the vanity of desire. Everyone wants the map and seems willing to go to unbelievable ends to attain it. Ironically, however, Stevenson ultimately shows us that the map has been useless throughout the whole novel, as Ben Gunn has already excavated the treasure and moved it elsewhere. The map directs Silver, its possessor, not to a final happiness but to a significant letdown: the empty hole where the treasure should be. In this sense, the map symbolizes the futility of hunting for material satisfaction.
Rum reappears throughout the novel as a powerful symbol of the pirates’ recklessness, violence, and uncontrolled behavior. In Stevenson’s time, people considered rum a crude form of alcohol, the opposite of the refined and elegant wine that the captain’s men occasionally drink. The pirates do not engage in light social drinking—when they indulge in rum, their drunkenness is destructive, as reflected in the pirate song lyric about the “dead man’s chest.” The first sailor to drink himself to death is Billy, who keeps drinking though Livesey warns him it will kill him. Later, Mr. Arrow, the first mate aboard the Hispaniola, is constantly tipsy until he falls overboard, presumably to his death. When Jim climbs on board the ship, he finds that in their rum-induced drunkenness the two watchmen have lost control of the ship and that one of them has killed the other. Jim is able to defeat his adult attacker largely because Jim is sober and Israel Hands is drunk. Rum therefore symbolizes an inability to control or manage what is one’s own: one’s property, one’s mission, and one’s very self.