Around the World in Eighty Days: Essay Q&A

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Essay Q&A

1. What was Jules Verne’s contribution to science fiction?

Although tales of fantastic travel can be found in ancient literature, the beginning of the modern genre of science fiction is generally credited to Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Edgar Allen Poe also gets credit, especially as Verne’s inspiration. Science fiction as we know it is associated with the scientific revolution, and the discoveries in the physical sciences, in astronomy, physics and mathematics and their applications to human inventions.

Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) highlight technology that was either existing or reasonably forecast for the future. These stories satisfied the public desire for the scientific and fed an optimism about science making a better world. Wells's stories (The Time Machine,1895; The War of the Worlds,1898), on the other hand, use science to make criticisms of society. He was a socialist more interested in ideas than precise depiction of technology.

Edgar Allen Poe’s fiction combines an interest in science and the boundaries of the rational. Verne was influenced by ideas in such Poe stories as “Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaal” (1835), The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1838), “Three Sundays in a Week” (1841), and “The Gold Bug” (1843). Verne, left to his own designs, might have imitated Poe’s darker fantasies, but his publisher, Jules Hetzel, outlined the formula he was to follow for success for the rest of his career. Hetzel told Verne to “summarize all the knowledge—geographical, geological, physical, astronomical—amassed by modern science, and to retrace, in the attractive and picturesque form . . . the history of the universe” (qtd in Andrew Martin, The Mask of the Prophet, Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 2). This mandate launched the series of 54 novels known as the Voyages extraordinaires..

Hetzel insisted that Verne be positive and upbeat in his tone. His stories were written for young people, though they appealed to all ages. He wrote two or three novels a year, but Around the World in 80 Days (1873) was the all-time favorite and the one that made him rich. “Novel situations, out-of-the-way facts, machines, cryptograms, and heroes’ strange personalities are at the core of Verne’s works also, whether they appear on floating islands, on the moon, or inside a volcano” (Lawrence Lynch, Jules Verne, Twayne, 1992, p. 24). Verne’s legacy is immeasurable—he inspired authors like Ray Bradbury, and actual explorers like astronaut Yuri Gagarin and South Pole explorer, Admiral Richard Byrd.

2. What were the major scientific discoveries and inventions in Verne’s time and which were ones that he predicted for the future?

The explosion of scientific knowledge and inventions in Verne’s lifetime fuelled his fiction. For instance, James Prescott Joule had discovered the law of conservation of energy in 1843. Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, sparking controversy about the evolution of species. Verne discusses Darwin in Voyage to the Center of the Earth. Mendel’s laws of inheritance were advanced in 1863 and James Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light came out in 1869, as well as Mendeleev’s chart of the elements.

The nineteenth century also saw one invention after another by American and European engineers, such as gas lighting, the use of electricity, the making of steel and petroleum products, machines with interchangeable parts, steam engines for ships, the steam locomotive and railway systems, the submarine, photography, the sewing machine, the typewriter, the mechanical reaper, the telegraph, the bicycle, dynamite, the torpedo and propeller. Towards the end of Verne’s life, it was also the century that saw the discovery of radioactivity, the radio, the combustion engine, manned flight, and moving pictures.

Mention is made in Around the World in Eighty Days of steamships, railways, the telegraph, the Pullman sleeping car, the Colt revolver, gas lighting, electric clocks, and the Suez Canal, which had opened only a few years before, a major engineering wonder that made world trade and travel possible as never before. 

The Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean and Red Sea, was a major factor in Fogg’s being able to go around the world in 80 days. Napoleon and French mapmakers had found traces of an ancient canal there, and Ferdinand de Lesseps with the Austrian engineer Negrelli in the 1850s designed a channel that would be open to all nations. The older trade route around the tip of Africa to the east took many more months and was dangerous. The Canal opened in 1869, a few years before the story takes place, and it serves as a major scene in the book.

In his various books, Verne not only talked about what had been invented or engineered but predicted things that were coming, such as electrically powered submarines, the use of magnets in batteries, heavier than air flying machines such as the helicopter, guided missiles, solar energy, videotelephones, submarine tubes like the Channel Tunnel, air travel as fast as the Concorde jet, fast food, germ warfare, human clones, skyscrapers, rockets, searchlights, and hydroplanes.

Verne shows the engineering feats of the Europeans all over the world that were rapidly making the world unified by technology. In Verne’s day, however, nature was still a wild and beautiful force that can challenge human endeavors, and Verne notes in Around the World the strength of wind, water, mountain, and weather; and, on the other hand, the counterbalance of how heavy the iron ship is and how much it costs to fuel it. The coal for the Mongolia costs 800,000 pounds a year! The narrator similarly likes to paint a huge expanse of time or distance in order to show how human ingenuity can conquer these obstacles.

3. How does Phileas Fogg fit into the gallery of Verne’s scientific geniuses?

Arthur Evans in Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel (Greenwood, 1988) divides Verne’s scientific characters into four categories: “1) the laudable scientist; 2) the heroic-comic scientist; c) the narrow-minded and fastidious scientist; and d) the mad scientist” (qtd. in Lynch, Jules Verne, p. 38).  Phileas Fogg fits the first two categories.

Fogg is mysterious; not much is known about him. We never get his inner thoughts from the narrator, as we get the other characters’ feelings. Fogg was possibly named for William Perry Fogg, an American world traveler from 1869-1871. Fogg’s portrait is given in the second chapter. He is “calm and phlegmatic” but “‘repose in action’” “perfectly well balanced” and “exactitude personified” (p.16). Though speed is the object of his journey, “he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical” (p.16). The outcome of the story is suspenseful but no surprise since Fogg is “the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment” (p.16). There are people with mathematical minds, but it is made clear that Fogg not only thinks mathematically, he moves mathematically. He is constantly calculating and thus frequently announces that “The unforeseen does not exist” (Chapter 3, p.23). It is also thought he is “gifted with a sort of second sight, so often did events justify his predictions” (Chapter 1, p.12). This lifts Fogg above the ordinary man, with a magnetic appeal that makes the other characters willing to follow him.

For instance, he inspires a mutiny on the Henrietta; all hands would rather follow Fogg than Captain Speedy. Fogg has only to command and open his bag of money, and everyone gives way. The villager sells his elephant, Speedy sells his boat, Sir Francis helps to rescue Aouda, and Passepartout swings on the chains underneath a moving train, all to help Fogg’s mission. His servant and future wife believe him to be noble because he is not interested in money, only scientific knowledge. His great calm is not even disturbed by landing in jail.

Fogg’s only suspected lack is heart. This is corrected with his connections to Passepartout and his future wife, Aouda. The last chapter reveals that Fogg gained “nothing” from his trip around the world, no major transformation of character, except for happiness. Are we meant to admire him? He is an eccentric genius, and the narrator concludes, “there is something good in eccentricity” (Chapter 1, p.14).

Fogg is one of Verne’s endearing scientists, unlike the strange Captain Nemo of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo has separated himself from the human race and prefers to stay on his submarine. Nemo is another magnetic and superior being but a renegade who is angry and uses his scientific knowledge to attack a British ship. He turns out to be an Indian prince seeking revenge, using sunken treasure to support wars of political independence. Nemo, though sympathetic is a type of the mad scientist, along with Thomas Roch, a French scientist who perfects a deadly missile (Facing the Flag, 1896). The Faustian scientist is a theme explored in science fiction to illustrate that whether science is used for good or ill depends upon who is practicing it.

4. What is the purpose of Detective Fix in the story?

Fix’s name suggests his role. He is fixated on Fogg as an arch criminal. He has the delusion that if he arrests Fogg for robbery of the Bank of England, he will get a reward and gain fame. Like Moriarity to Sherlock Holmes, he is an antagonist who shadows his prey and will stop at nothing to disrupt his progress. This adds dynamism to what could be a static storyline of a man traveling from one country to another in a straight line. Fix’s quest provides a parallel plot, which adds complication. Passepartout is the common element in Fix’s plot line and Fogg’s.

Fix is described as smart but “nervous” with twitching eyebrows. While Fogg is tall and muscular, Fix is small and slight. Fogg is stoic, and Fix is “impatient” (Chapter 6, p. 31) This is perhaps why he jumps to conclusions, assuming the description of the robber fits Fogg. The British Consul at Suez refuses to stop Fogg, pointing out that the description is general and it resembles “an honest man” (Chapter 6, p. 32). Fix prides himself on understanding the criminal mind and believes he recognizes in Fogg a clever rogue. He says, “You must have a scent for them. . . . great robbers always resemble honest folks” (Chapter 6, p. 32).

Fix’s mistake is comic in part, yet the narrator does leave room for the reader to wonder. It has never been explained where Fogg’s money comes from; he carries around a carpetbag of new banknotes; and he leaves London in a hurry right after the robbery. Fix decides that Fogg is so clever, he goes in the opposite direction—to India first, then on to his goal, America—to escape detection. When Passepartout tells him they are going around the world because of the bet, Fix thinks this is a cover story.

Fix is forced into following Fogg because of his assumptions. Fix’s interference finally becomes nasty in Hong Kong when he tempts Passepartout to be disloyal, then drugs him and leaves him. He continues throwing obstacles in the way, such as having the party arrested for defiling a temple. None of this slows or stops Fogg.

Once they reach America, Fix is forced into an opposite role for the second half of the journey. Now he must help Fogg win so he can get him back on British soil. Fogg is oblivious to Fix’s plot against him. Fix is beneath his notice. On the other hand, the narrative goes back and forth between Fogg’s journey and Fix’s deluded thoughts and anguished position as Fogg’s unwilling accomplice. He is humiliated when he has to accept Fogg’s generous offer to pay his passage to Japan. He has not the power to refuse Fogg’s request that he stay to protect Aouda from the Indians. He is even forced into playing whist with Fogg.  Somehow he becomes Fogg’s satellite, as if, Fix thinks, he is attached to him by an invisible thread. Ironically, Fogg never pays much attention to Fix except at the end, when he knocks him down for putting him in jail. Fix is his own worst enemy by projecting his own scenario onto Fogg. 

5. How does Jules Verne explore social ideas in his novels?

There is a utopian strain in Verne’s writing that explores the desire for a perfect society. Verne’s historical heroes were freedom fighters like Kosciusko of Poland, Daniel O’Connell of Ireland and Abraham Lincoln; and explorers such as Marco Polo, Magellan, Captain James Cook, and William Edward Parry. He saw in these heroes the ability to forego personal comfort for the sake of advancing human knowledge and freedom. Many of his novels explore ideal societies and their opposite, evil dictatorships. Andrew Martin asserts that Verne’s narratives play out the “perpetual conflict between empire and revolt” (The Mask of the Prophet, p. 199). This pattern has generally been accepted in science fiction (Star Wars; Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy)

Verne depicts the restless scientific mind searching for the order and justice of the laws of nature. Like Fogg, Verne had two sides: the adventurous and the orderly. In Around the world in Eighty Days this plays out as “the opposition between fixity and clarity” as Martin says (The Mask of the Prophet, p. 203). Fix vs. Fogg is the dynamism between a fixed and known order, and a desire to push against the natural boundaries towards what is not known or has not been tried. The pioneer is not understood by the law enforcer, yet Fogg’s understanding of “law” is of a superior order.

Sometimes the scientist is seen as an anti-social rebel (Captain Nemo) and sometimes as a positive leader (Fogg), but ultimately, Verne tries to find a way to sustain order with freedom in his envisioned utopias, such as Lincoln Island in The Mysterious Island (1874-75). Cyrus Smith, an American engineer, along with four others, transforms Lincoln Island in the South Pacific into a paradise, creating everything from scratch, like Swiss Family Robinson. A volcano destroys the island, but Captain Nemo’s last act is to give Smith the money to recreate this utopia in Iowa. Doctor Sarrasin’s hygienic utopian society, France-Ville, in The Begum’s  Millions (1879), is situated in Oregon. This novel also introduces a dystopia, Stahlstad, a nightmare factory town. The rivalry of utopia-dystopia is also a theme explored in other science fiction writers, such as Ursula Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut.

Two French writers who probably influenced Verne’s ideas are Charles Fourier (1772-1837), who believed in small harmonious groups (phalansteries) working together for a common good, and Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) who advocated collective work.

In Around the World in Eighty Days, Fogg makes his own utopian community of sympathetic friends and well wishers as he travels (Passepartout, Aouda, Sir Francis, the crew of the Henrietta) Fogg is able to bring everyone together, even Fix, to work for a common scientific goal. Fogg creates order and utopia around him.