Read an Excerpt
Jules Verne never took a trip to the moon, never journeyed to the center of the earth, never traveled twenty thousand leagues under the sea—and he never went around the world at all, let alone in eighty days. And yet, in his imagination, he made all these journeys and many more. Although he is widely considered to be the father of science fiction, Verne did not write sci-fi as we know it today—he didn't write about aliens or galactic empires or time travel or even (with a few exceptions) the future—but rather like Michael Crichton in our own time, he wrote adventure stories about epic journeys set in the present day that were right at the edge of what was technologically possible during his lifetime. The most lighthearted of these epic journeys, Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of a single-minded, freakishly decisive Londoner named Phileas Fogg who, on a moment's notice one day in 1872, takes off round the world as fast as he can with his newly hired French manservant and a valise full of cash, for no better reason than to win a bet.
Verne's own life was adventurous only in his imagination. Born the son of an attorney in the French port city of Nantes in 1828, he wrote in later life that he grew up fascinated by the clipper ships and schooners he saw along the docks, but apart from some amateur boating with his brother Paul along the Loire River, he was never so fascinated that he ever attempted to run away to sea. Instead, to please his father, he dutifully followed the career track of an ordinary bourgeois Frenchman, studying law in Paris and working as a stockbroker. The young Verne's aspiration to be something more than a businessman expressed itself as literary ambition rather than wanderlust, and from the age of twenty he began to publish plays and short stories, at first to little acclaim. It was not until he teamed up with the publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel in 1862 that he found success with his first novel-length adventure story, Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was an instant best seller. Hetzel declined to publish Verne's next novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century—one of his few truly futuristic tales and one that was not published until after his death—but nonetheless the two men entered into one of the most fruitful relationships in literary history between an author and a publisher. Shrewdly packaged by Hetzel as a series under the title “Extraordinary Voyages in the Known and Unknown Worlds,” the books for which Verne remains best known were written between 1864 and 1874, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and The Mysterious Island (1874). Verne's mutually successful relationship with his publisher continued even after Hetzel's death in 1886, when Pierre-Jules' son, Louis-Jules, took over the company. Apart from one trip to America (where he never got further west than Niagara Falls), a visit to London, and some travels around the Mediterranean and other places in Europe, Verne never did see much of the world he wrote about so vividly, He was content instead to live the comfortable life of a successful author in the provincial French city of Amiens. Maybe this was because he simply could not spare the time away from his desk—by the end of his life in 1905, he had published more than sixty books—but for a man who had been to the moon, at the earth's core, and around the world in his imagination, perhaps the real world did not hold that much interest.
Published originally as a newspaper serial in 1872 and released as a book the following year, Around the World in Eighty Days was an immediate success. It was the best selling of Verne's books during his lifetime—108,000 copies, according to his publisher, compared to only 50,000 for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—and it remains one of his most popular books today. Some of that continued interest comes from the fact that this is one of Verne's deliberately comic books, written as much to amuse as to awe the reader. The set-up itself is inherently comic. The protagonist, Phileas Fogg, is a leisured but taciturn Londoner of such mathematically precise habits that he has fired his servant for bringing him shaving water two degrees too cold. Early in the novel he enters into the sort of argument between idle men which nowadays would likely be started in a bar after two or three beers, but in Verne's mildly parodic version of moneyed Englishmen at play, starts over a game of whist at a gentleman's club. It ends as most such arguments do, with bravado and a foolish bet: Fogg wagers the other card players twenty thousand pounds (a huge sum in 1872) that he can travel around the world in eighty days or less. Then, after coolly playing whist for another twenty-five minutes, he returns home, collects the servant he hired that very morning—the excitable Frenchman Passepartout—and leaves for the train station with Passepartout and a carpetbag full of twenty thousand pounds in cash.
Verne was writing during a great age of European literature, when writers like the Russian Leo Tolstoy, the Englishwoman George Eliot, and Verne's fellow Frenchman Gustave Flaubert were creating the modern novel. In the works of these authors the intimate lives of characters are evoked with great psychological complexity. Jules Verne, however, was an entertainer, and as in the work of popular novelists of our own day, his characters are merely complex enough for his purposes, which is to say they are simply but vividly drawn, sturdy enough to support the plot. Despite their epic scope, Verne's novels often depend on the interactions of a limited number of main characters, and in Around the World in Eighty Days, Verne limits himself to Fogg, Passepartout, and the British detective Fix, as well as, to a limited extent, the Indian princess Aouda. The three male characters conform easily to stereotypes of nationality and class: Fogg is a distilled version of the practical, decisive Englishman, interested only in winning his bet. Except as it makes his journey easier or more difficult, he takes no note of the cultures he is passing through. Passepartout is likewise a stock character, the plucky, devoted, resourceful servant who is also an excitable, voluble Frenchman. The English detective Fix—who trails Fogg because he suspects Fogg has robbed the Bank of England—can be boiled down to the adjectives wily and dogged. The Indian princess Aouda barely registers as a character at all, scarcely speaking throughout the book and serving first as a plot point, when she is rescued from the Indian ritual of suttee by Fogg and Passepartout, and then as a generic love interest for Fogg.
Although these characters scarcely transcend their rudimentary nature, the two main travelers, Fogg and Passepartout, are surprisingly memorable, almost because of their sketchiness. Passepartout is very much the reader's surrogate, the only person in the book who shows any curiosity or wonder about the places they are passing through. His adventure on his own in the streets of Yokohama, Japan, in chapters 22 and 23 is one of the few moments in the book where Verne slows down enough to take in some local color—which he gleaned entirely from other accounts, not from personal experience. And the excitable Frenchmen is also the closest thing in the book to an action hero. Although Fogg gets the credit when Aouda is rescued from her husband's funeral pyre in India in chapter 13, it is Passepartout who actually, physically saves her, at considerable risk to himself. The same is true during an attack by the Sioux on their train as they cross the Nebraska prairie; it is Passepartout who stops the train by crawling under the cars to unhook them from the engine.
As for Fogg, he is memorable chiefly because he is such a blank. If Passepartout is a comic stereotype of an emotional Frenchman, Phileas Fogg is a distilled version of a French author's stereotype of the cool, unflappable English eccentric. He seems to have sprung from nowhere, having no family or friends, and he seems to have a lot of money, though no one knows where it comes from. His behavior and his manner seem to a modern reader to be borderline autistic: as he waits to interview Passepartout in chapter 1, all Fogg does is watch the clock, and indeed, in the next chapter, he is described by Verne as being as exactly regulated as a chronometer. He has no apparent interest in the social, cultural, or political worlds of London, or even in other people, for, as Verne writes, "as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody."
His only pastime, as far as we can see, is playing cards at his gentleman's club, but even that does not seem to give him any pleasure: "Mr. Fogg played not to win, but for the sake of playing. The game was in his eyes a contest, a struggle with a difficulty, yet a motionless, unwearying struggle, congenial to his tastes." His sudden decision to travel around the world in eighty days is undertaken in the same spirit. He is clearly not interested in the money, since over the course of the book he spends as much as he is likely to win, and, as already noted, he shows no more interest in the countries he passes through than he does in his own. Depicted as watching the clock in his own home in chapter 1, he spends the rest of the book racing the clock, taking little note of anything along the way except for train and steamship schedules. Only occasionally does Verne hint that there might be more to Fogg, as when he risks the success of his trip (and his fortune as well) to rescue Aouda from the ceremony of suttee, or when he takes time to rescue Passepartout from the Sioux. Only at the end of the book does he expresses strong emotion, and then only twice—once with a punch and once with a declaration of love.
Fogg's lack of interest in the world as he circles it is almost mirrored by the book's own, at least to begin with. Once the journey is started, it proceeds at a breakneck pace. Verne skips Europe entirely; at the end of chapter 4, Fogg and Passepartout are riding the train out of London, and when we see them next, in chapter 6, they are already in the Egyptian port of Suez. Apart from a couple of adventures in India—a ride on an elephant and the rescue of Aouda from her dead husband's funeral pyre—and from Passepartout's extended interlude in Japan, Asia goes by in a blur, with the descriptions of the geography and history of the countries they pass through reading as if they came out of guidebooks (which they almost certainly did). Even the action sequences, which most novelists would milk for every drop of suspense, are often rushed through, as if Verne were watching the time as carefully as Fogg is. On the other hand, Verne had a lifelong fascination with America, and he slows down in the American section of Fogg's journey to give us several striking scenes in this (to a Frenchman) exotic country: a political riot in San Francisco, a challenge to a duel from a boorish American officer, a potted history of the Mormons, an Indian attack on a train, culminating in a wild ride across the improbably flat Nebraska prairie on a wind-driven sledge. The fact that most of this is secondhand and unrealistic—the Sioux attacking a moving train from horseback in the dead of a Nebraska winter, for example—does not diminish the sequence's sheer narrative drive.
In the end, in fact, the reader's interest in following the story is essentially the same as Fogg's reason for undertaking the trip, and the same as Verne's apparent motive for writing the book, namely a fascination with the sheer physical challenge of circling the globe in an age before air travel. This is perhaps the main reason for the novel's continuing appeal: Around the World in Eighty Days does not depend as much on scientific extrapolation as some of his other novels do. Unlike his novels about journeys that were improbable, as least in his day—going to the moon, riding in a submarine—or even flat out impossible—in reality no one can travel to the center of the earth—Around the World in Eight Days is about a trip that relies chiefly on technology that was already forty years old (the railroad and the steamship) or even older (sailing ships and elephants), and the narrative interest in the book comes not from his depiction of cutting-edge technology or natural spectacle, but from the more ordinary obstacles Verne throws in Phileas Fogg's path. “The unforeseen does not exist,” says Fogg, before he has ever left London, and the fun of the novel results from just how wrong he turns out to be. Verne may have shared the average man's fascination with the technology of his day, but he was a clever enough dramatist to understand that the story works best when the technology breaks down. The promised railway across India peters out in the jungle, forcing Fogg to buy an elephant; having missed his steamship connection in Hong Kong, he bribes a captain to take his sailing ship through a storm; and in the final leg of his trip, he buys a steamship outright and burns the wooden superstructure piece by piece in order to keep the steam up.
Because of the striking simplicity of the story and the uncomplicated vividness of Fogg and Passepartout, Verne's story of a feisty Englishman charging unflappably around the world lives on remarkably well, especially considering that today a man of Fogg's means could simply buy a plane ticket and do the trip in a day or two. Verne himself capitalized on the book's success by turning it into a successful stage spectacular that earned him ten million francs, which is more than most of his books did. In 1889 and 1890, much to Verne's delight, an American woman, the pioneering female journalist Nellie Bly, traveled around the world in seventy-two days, beating Fogg's record. The novel has been filmed several times, most notably in 1956 as a Cinemascope epic starring David Niven as a dapper Fogg and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as Passepartout. More recently it has been made into a television miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan as Fogg and former Monty Python member Eric Idle as Passepartout, and even more recently as a comedy with Steve Coogan as Fogg and the martial arts star Jackie Chan as his servant. Perhaps the most memorable modern adaptation, however, was the work of another former member of Monty Python, the writer and comedian Michael Palin, who in 1989 reenacted Fogg's trip for a nonfiction BBC television series and book, trying to see if he could make it round the world in eighty days without flying.
It is ironic that the author of one of the most archetypical fictional narratives of travel was a mild, middle-class Frenchman who not only hardly ever left France, but who, judging from his astonishing output, scarcely even left his study. Later writers like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene would write with more depth and power about Europeans abroad, and in our own time narratives that cross borders and travel the world are written by writers who would have been considered mere colorful "natives" from the perspective of a European in Verne's day, such as the Indian novelists V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. But the fact that the best of Verne's books are still read and enjoyed is a testament to the power of his imagination and his skill as an entertainer. Like the best popular writers in any era, he knew how to take a simple, striking idea and dramatize the hell out of it, with a headlong plot full of trains, ships, elephants, and wind sledges, not to mention human sacrifice, duels, and Indian attacks. As stripped down as any contemporary techno-thriller, it has aged about as well as any nineteenth-century novel could, especially one that depends so heavily on technologies, like rail and steamship travel, that now seem quaint. In fact, the key to the continued success of Around the World in Eighty Days may very well be its improbable but successful combination of modern speed and period quaintness, making it a delightful, timeless, steam-driven fairy tale.
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Lecturer's Tale, Kings of Infinite Space, and The Wild Colonial Boy, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish.