Book Review “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne

Jules Verne was a prolific French author considered one of the “father’s of science fiction.” His most well known works tend to fall in a series called Voyages Extraordinaires which contain 54 novels (with an additional 8 more published after his death) with the goal-

“to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format … the history of the universe” – Pierre-Jules Hetzel (Jule’s Verne’s editor)

This is not a series that needs to be read in chronological order. Most people, I was one, even realize that it’s a series and adaptations rarely try to string them together. This is the second one within the series that I’ve read and I was not the most enthusiastic at doing so.

The first novel I read was the sixth in the series Vingt mille lieues sous les mers or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which in my opinion is a grand adventure of absolutely nothing. It’s a very dull and boring never ending scientific description of the ocean and everything within it peppered occasionally with something fantastical. I was so tired by the end of reading about lists of fish that even finally meeting the infamous Captain Nemo couldn’t rectify.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the 11th in the series also known as Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours. I was a bit more familiar with the idea of Around the World in Eighty Days, having grown up watching several adaptations. But I still had a lot of misconceptions.

This story follows Mr. Phileas Fogg, a rich man belonging to the elite Reform club in London who follows a very strict schedule throughout his day and requires everything to be absolutely precise. Which is why he’d just fired his last servant.

On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six; and he was awaiting his successor, who was due at the house between eleven and half-past.

The new hire is a Mr. Jean Passepartout, who in a bit of a jack of all trades which he lists in his own introduction to his new master:

 I believe I’m honest, monsieur, but, to be outspoken, I’ve had several trades. I’ve been an itinerant singer, a circus-rider, when I used to vault like Leotard, and dance on a rope like Blondin. Then I got to be a professor of gymnastics, so as to make better use of my talents; and then I was a sergeant fireman at Paris, and assisted at many a big fire. But I quitted France five years ago, and, wishing to taste the sweets of domestic life, took service as a valet here in England.

Mr. Passepartout desires more than anything to have a boring quiet life. He’s excited beyond anything to have a regular schedule to keep and the clockwork life that Mr. Fogg leads is perfect for what he wants. When he’s alone he claims his job for his new master in a way that describes Mr. Fogg’s manner almost perfectly:

“What a domestic and regular gentleman! A real machine; well, I don’t mind serving a machine.”

Now the question then lies on how a regular robot of a man with no interest in change or an adventure could possibly be the main character of a story within the Voyages Extraordinaires series? Well when Mr. Fogg shows up at the Reform Club they are in the midst of talking about a grand heist that had happened a couple days earlier. A thief had escaped with bank notes worth 55 thousand pounds from the Bank of England and was on the run and they were discussing what they think the man will do while playing one of the few games Mr. Fogg’s enjoys, whist.

During the game they talk and someone suggests that there is no where to hide and no where for the thief to go, and yet Mr. Fogg says this has changed and that one can get around the world much easier and faster now, within 80 days to be exact, which includes and calculates any possible misfortune.

Now when I was following this conversation and originally thinking of the story I thought “around the world” meant visiting as many countries as possible. However it means going around the circumference (sort of) of the world as fast as possible. Here is the route estimated within the book by the fictional version of the Daily Telegraph:

 From London to Suez via Mont Cenis and
       Brindisi, by rail and steamboats .................  7 days
     From Suez to Bombay, by steamer .................... 13  "
     From Bombay to Calcutta, by rail ...................  3  "
     From Calcutta to Hong Kong, by steamer ............. 13  "
     From Hong Kong to Yokohama (Japan), by steamer .....  6  "
     From Yokohama to San Francisco, by steamer ......... 22  "
     From San Francisco to New York, by rail ............. 7  "
     From New York to London, by steamer and rail ........ 9  "
                                                          -------
       Total ............................................ 80 days."

The men of the Reform club laugh and say it’s impossible or only feasible in theory but Mr. Fogg pushes that it is truly doable and he even puts his money where his mouth is.

“A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg, solemnly. “I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less; in nineteen hundred and twenty hours, or a hundred and fifteen thousand two hundred minutes. Do you accept?”

The men of the reform club agree and he decides to not delay and determines to leave that very night on the train for Dover. So much for Mr. Jean Passepartout’s dreams of a boring domestic life. And as any traveler or anyone who leaves their house, Mr. Passepartout realizes everyone’s greatest fear:

Just as the train was whirling through Sydenham, Passepartout suddenly uttered a cry of despair.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mr. Fogg.

“Alas! In my hurry—I—I forgot—”

“What?”

“To turn off the gas in my room!”

“Very well, young man,” returned Mr. Fogg, coolly; “it will burn—at your expense.”

The wager Mr. Fogg made becomes the talk of everyone. Will he do it? Will he fail? Has the gentleman lost his marbles? Everyone has an opinion, even a bet. The opinion though that takes off following Mr. Fogg though is that of Mr. Fix, a Detective given the task of finding the gentleman thief who stole from the bank of England. He believes he’s found the culprit in Mr. Fogg and has set off to catch him. As the journey continues with Mr. Fogg stiffly traveling from one point to the next followed by a flustered Mr. Passepartout, Mr. Fix is keenly studying them hoping for an opening and a warrant to arrive wherever all parties meet or that he’ll find some sort of cause to detain Mr. Fogg. He decides to go for the weak point he’s spotted and targets Mr. Passepartout in the hopes of befriending him and getting him to confess his boss is a criminal.

The effect of these replies upon the already suspicious and excited detective may be imagined. The hasty departure from London soon after the robbery; the large sum carried by Mr. Fogg; his eagerness to reach distant countries; the pretext of an eccentric and foolhardy bet—all confirmed Fix in his theory. He continued to pump poor Passepartout, and learned that he really knew little or nothing of his master, who lived a solitary existence in London, was said to be rich, though no one knew whence came his riches, and was mysterious and impenetrable in his affairs and habits. Fix felt sure that Phileas Fogg would not land at Suez, but was really going on to Bombay.

Among their adventures they end up gathering one more travel companion a young Indian woman.

(She) was a celebrated beauty of the Parsee race, and the daughter of a wealthy Bombay merchant. She had received a thoroughly English education in that city, and, from her manners and intelligence, would be thought an European. Her name was Aouda. Left an orphan, she was married against her will to the old rajah of Bundelcund; and, knowing the fate that awaited her, she escaped, was retaken, and devoted by the rajah’s relatives, who had an interest in her death…

They manage to gather more people chasing them on their journey, people upset that Aouda had escaped her sacrifice to be burned with her late husband, as well as people upset for a cultural faux pas Mr. Passepartout unwittingly made. It seems almost everywhere they go they end up chased by someone or something.  But friendships are forged between them all. With Aouda and the men who’ve invited her to join them on their journey, hoping to take her somewhere safer and between Mr. Passepartout and Mr. Fix who keeps popping up to the former delighted but also suspicious surprise.

Some parts of the book surprised me i.e. the travel companion and fondness in which Aouda is written and even the small hints of romance between her, a widow at this point, and Mr. Fogg. I always thought a book from the 1800’s wouldn’t look so kindly on a widow traveling the world let alone a group from different cultural backgrounds all traveling together without anyone turning to stare.

However also due to the age and being written in a different time period some of the ways other cultures were described and written about was a bit jarring from a modern perspective. One big thing, beyond these, that bothered me was when Mr. Fix drops his pretense of just a hapless traveler forever surprised to be going in the same direction as Mr. Fogg and his companions. He takes Mr. Passepartout for drinks in Hong Kong and then gets him out of his mind drunk then tries to get him to turn on his master and when he doesn’t get what he wants he drugs Mr. Passepartout and leaves him behind.

Passepartout felt himself yielding more and more to the effects of the liquor. Fix, seeing that he must, at all hazards, be separated from his master, wished to entirely overcome him. Some pipes full of opium lay upon the table. Fix slipped one into Passepartout’s hand. He took it, put it between his lips, lit it, drew several puffs, and his head, becoming heavy under the influence of the narcotic, fell upon the table.

Even before this point the book mentions how terrible Opium had been in China.

Fix and Passepartout saw that they were in a smoking-house haunted by those wretched, cadaverous, idiotic creatures to whom the English merchants sell every year the miserable drug called opium, to the amount of one million four hundred thousand pounds—thousands devoted to one of the most despicable vices which afflict humanity! The Chinese government has in vain attempted to deal with the evil by stringent laws. It passed gradually from the rich, to whom it was at first exclusively reserved, to the lower classes, and then its ravages could not be arrested. Opium is smoked everywhere, at all times, by men and women, in the Celestial Empire; and, once accustomed to it, the victims cannot dispense with it, except by suffering horrible bodily contortions and agonies. A great smoker can smoke as many as eight pipes a day; but he dies in five years.

And Opium is quite bad. According to the ADF “Opium can be manufactured into heroin and is a prerequisite for heroin production.” So essentially a man of the law got tired of dealing with someone he’d befriended because he wasn’t getting what he wanted from his friend and just straight up makes him take a highly dangerous and addicting drug and then leaves him in the middle of a foreign country without practically any money and the book just never really deals with it again. Like sure that friendship is destroyed but Mr. Fix doesn’t face the consequences of his actions.

In comparison to the last Jules Verne novel I read I did enjoy the chase of Around the World in Eighty Days. I am glad that he tried to balance Mr. Fogg’s uncaring meticulous business only attitude for the adventure with the curious and haphazardness of Mr. Passepartout, however for a book that was essentially a tour of the world I felt it lacked a lot and in those moments gave off a very dry guide book mixed with the coldness of an old out of date museum vibe. The adventure does pick up the pace towards the latter half of the book as the deadline nears and the adventures continue towards the finish line one way or another with the detective on their heels. And I did greatly enjoy that aspect of cat and mouse.

I think though what I’ve learned is that Jules Verne is very meticulous and scientific in his novels. They don’t feel as adventurous now a days. He’s like a teacher, determined to teach you about the world and give you every single fact and possible detail he can and sometimes that’s great, but with the world as it is now it comes off like a dull textbook in points. But again, much better than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 

I also do want to follow this journey. Maybe not as fast. Though it is possible to do a journey around the world much faster now. I would actually like to stop and enjoy the places and see what there is to see, eat the local specialties and smell the flowers.

Have you read Jules Verne? What do you think of his books? What did you think of this one? Would you want to attempt to travel around the world so quickly?

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