Essay Draft, University Level 1
In the opening of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins states that he will hold nothing back except for the location of the Island. He then states that he is writing in "our year of grace 17__". The fact that the year Treasure Island is written in is censored may seem baffling to modern readers, but in 1883, it was normal for books to censor details such as the year to add realism.
Other novels published in this time had censored elements. In Black Beauty, published in 1877, features characters known as the Earl of W__, Mr. B__, and a place called R__ Street. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, published in 1818, censors the years in its letters, and Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Le Misérables refers to the town of M__-sur-M__, or M__-on-M__.
The technique of censoring names, locations, or years has no formal title, so I will be calling it the "censorship dash"*. This technique became prominent in the 19th century, though works such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Samuel Johnson’s To Miss __. Both of these were published in the 18th century. In these cases, the censorship dash was used as a method to protect identities of well-known figures in a community, so that only people inside a community would know who the person being referenced was.
Why would a fiction writer do this? Robert Lewis Stevenson could have written something to the effect of “in my youth” instead of “in the year of grace 17__”. Consider the sentence right before, where Hawkins notes, “Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island,
from the beginning to the end … I pick up my pen…” The use of the present tense indicates that Hawkins is intending for this story to have an informative purpose to a possible audience. The fact he is leaving out the location of the island because they have to go get the rest of the treasure implies that if there were no treasure to be found, he would tell his audience where the island was located. Taken together, these facts indicate that Stevenson intends to make Hawkins’s narrative sound like it could really happen in our world.
The censored year makes the sound more realistic by making it appear the story is so large that people might be driven to do something such as find the treasure or attempt to track down a member of the Hispaniola’s crew. This effect could not have been achieved if Stevenson had used an actual year.
* Some people call the censorship dash the "Dostoevsky Dash", a term coined by a blogger solely known as The Reading Ape. As the blogger has no verifiable academic credentials, I have chosen not to use this name.
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