• Navigating Chance: Statistics, Empire, and Agency in R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island

    Matthew John Phillips (see profile)
    English literature, Nineteenth century, Science, History, British territories and possessions, Narration (Rhetoric), Criticism and interpretation, Character
    Item Type:
    Victorian literature, History of science, British empire, Narrative criticism
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    By connecting Treasure Island’s fascination with quantity to the problem of responsibility, I argue that the novel elaborates a model of accountability that is particularly salient in light of the divorce of the particular from the general that both statistics and imperial expansion enabled. Central to the overlap of these terms is the question of intentionality, or the capacity of the individual to will the actions for which they are held responsible. As the tension between numbers and individual characters in Treasure Island indicates, structures and patterns do not absolve the individual of responsibility but make it necessary to articulate models of responsibility that are not beholden to strictly causal determinations of will or intention. Drawing on Stevenson’s defense of the “typical” in his essay “A Humble Remonstrance,” I argue that Treasure Island addresses this conundrum most vividly in its characterization of Jim, whose many acts of bravery and recklessness suggest the need to re-evaluate to what end agency is being championed in the novel. “Navigating chance,” in the words of my title and in the context of the novel, means operating in the absence of a deterministic universe. But, it also means that individual actions were no longer a reliable model for the order and patterns of collective behavior.
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    5 years ago
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