[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
For years I have had false memories of reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. How did this happen? I think I must have seen so many movie versions that they got translated into my head as if I’d read it. Now that problem is resolved, because I have read it. It was a surprise.
Really, there were a few surprises. My first surprise was how short the book is, about 160 pages. The second surprise was that a book that flowed from the mind of Jules Verne had no fantastical or futuristic modes of travel. There is a sledge with sails that our travelers use to cross the plains of the American Midwest, which does seem fantastical, but similar vehicles were used in Arctic expeditions, notably by Sir Francis L McClintock, in 1851 (although they did not use the sails the entire time).
The final surprise, although it wasn’t much of one, was how much I liked the book, even if the characters were distant — in the case of Phileas Fogg, very distant indeed, if not downright passive. Aouda the love interest barely speaks a word until the end of the book. Without Passepartout, Fogg’s exuberant French servant, I might have lost interest, but he more than makes up for the reserve of the others.
Most of us know the story but here is a quick review. Phileas Fogg is an English gentleman (or perhaps, a parody of one) who spends most of his day at his club. He is a rational man who delights in whist and mathematics. One day, a conversation at his club leads to a bet: Fogg wagers twenty thousand pounds that he can traverse the globe in 80 days or less. To make his point, and build suspense, Fogg says he will return to the club no later than quarter to nine in exactly 80 days, December 21. This starts the clock that ticks for the rest of the book.
Fogg makes for the train terminal with the bewildered Passepartout, their passports, three shirts, underwear, and a Gladstone bag carrying twenty thousand pounds. The bag becomes very important as the story progresses. Originally, Fogg uses traditional means of transportation such as steamboats and trains, but in India he is derailed. Actually, the railroad ends. Fogg purchases an elephant for an exorbitant sum and they continue, stopping on the way to rescue Aouda, who is about to be burned alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. Aouda, who is beautiful, has an English education, so she has all the decorum of an English lady with the exotic beauty of an Indian princess.
Fogg needs more of an obstacle than just the vagaries of the road, the weather, and methods of transportation, and Detective Fix provides that. Just before Fogg left, the Bank of England had been robbed by someone described as “a gentleman,” who made off with twenty thousand pounds. Detective Fix stumbles across Fogg and decides he must be the robber. Therefore, Fix first schemes to delay Fogg on English soil while he gets a warrant, and when that fails, decides to help Fogg return to England where Fix plans to arrest him.
Phileas Fogg never evinces any emotion, even when he challenges a boorish American to a duel. Verne manages to suggest that he is man of passion, powerfully self-controlled, always subject to the cold equations of rationality. When the travelers stumble across Aouda in her predicament, it is Fogg who suggests saving her.
Mr. Fogg stopped him, and turning to Sir Francis Cromarty, said, ‘Suppose we save this woman.’
‘Save the woman, Mr. Fogg!’
‘I have yet twelve hours to spare; I can devote them to that.’
‘Why, you are a man of heart!’
‘Sometimes,’ replied Phileas Fogg, quietly. ‘When I have the time.’
When Passeportout and others are carried off by the Sioux warriors in Kansas, though, Fogg leads his group after them, even though it will put him hours behind.
Verne’s work is not the subject of much literary or scholarly work, and that is a shame. It’s clear to me that he is being as subversive as all get-out in this book about an English adventurer. It is Passepartout who rescues Aouda from the fiery pyre; Passepartout who uncouples the runaway steam engine from the train in Kansas, saving all the passengers; and, ultimately, Passepartout’s actions that drive the ending of the book. Fogg has the luxury of money. He is ingenious, but his solutions always involve paying someone. When action is needed, it is Passepartout who comes to the fore. Fogg, who counts on itineraries, schedules and mathematics, makes an arithmetic error at the end of the book, with nearly catastrophic consequences. Perhaps the world is a little different than Mr. Fogg realized.
It is the emotional Frenchman who steps in to make things right, but Passepartout also knows his place. He is a clever, brave and loyal servant, but servant he is:
It need not be said that the marriage took place forty-eight hours after, and that Passepartout, glowing and dazzling, gave the bride away. Had he not saved her, and was he not entitled to this honor?
Yes, he is. He is indeed.