Most of Jules Verne’s novels, including the ones for which he is best known, are imaginary travelogues whose initial appeal to readers is that they will provide access to the remote regions of the world and allow readers to participate in adventures that could take place only there. In the first ten years of his career, Verne’s imaginary travels took him to all the most inaccessible corners of the globe: Captain Hatteras went to the North Pole; the children of Captain Grant circumnavigated the Southern Hemisphere; and the protagonists of Five Weeks in a Balloon and Meridiana crossed darkest Africa at a time when “darkest” still meant obscure and unknown. Other characters undertook still bolder voyages: Axel and Professor Lidenbrock never did reach the center of the earth, but they did get under its skin, and though Barbicane and his companions failed to land on the moon (mercifully, as they had no means of return), they did get a trip around it.
We know today that all these stories are unrealistic, but Verne’s audience could not know that, and they were compelled to be impressed by the elaborate methods Verne used to create an atmosphere of verisimilitude. His attention to detail, particularly the detail of scientific instrumentation and measurement, gives his travelers a vital sense of purpose. They are researchers, collecting information with the same intellectual curiosity and dedication that guided Verne’s collecting of research materials. It may well be that the scientifically minded heroes have less serious companions who are along for the ride (and who usually provide comic relief), but there is no doubt as to where the real value of the works is located.
A Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The best of the early works is A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, because it is at once the most painstaking, the most imaginative, and the most elegantly plotted. The notion of an enclosed world inhabited by primeval monsters is one that has been copied many times since, and though it is the kind of wild invention of which Verne rather disapproved (he never did anything similar again), it seems perfectly appropriate to this particular literary exercise. Significantly, however, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth was not the most popular of the early works, and it does not enjoy the highest reputation—that distinction goes to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
There are many reasons for the popularity of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The undersea world that it displays is bound to seem meager, and sometimes laughable, to modern readers who have seen and become familiar with films made by Jacques Cousteau. The contemporary reader knows what a strange and wonderful world it is, and how many bizarre inhabitants it has. In 1870, however, there was no underwater photography, the first skin-diving equipment had not yet been designed, and the undersea world was as alien as the planet Mars. The mysterious menace of the sea was legendary and had been spectacularly recalled to the public attention in 1861, when the French naval vessel Alecton encountered a so-called giant octopus (actually a giant squid), which the crew nearly succeeded in harpooning and hauling aboard.
In fact, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the least reliable of all Verne’s novels as far as its informational content is concerned. Almost every invention in it, no matter how modest, missed the mark. Although the illustrations imply that the diving suits in the novel are rather like the pressurized suits that later became widespread, in reality the ones Verne describes would be lethal. Despite the credit given to Verne for “inventing” the modern submarine, the Nautilus is rather an absurd vessel, in terms of its scientific plausibility. All of this, of course, would not have affected the contemporary reader, who could quite easily swallow the whole story, hook, line, and sinker.
Quite apart from these considerations, however, the book offers powerful attractions. Captain Nemo and the Nautilus may not be particularly realistic, but they are most certainly charismatic. They are only disguised as rational creations; in fact, they are myth figures whose significance reveals a good deal about the spirit of Verne’s work.
Barthes, in Mythologies, claims that what Verne’s characters are always seeking is seclusion and that the many vessels employed in Verne’s stories are to be seen not so much as the means of reaching faraway destinations but as microcosmic private worlds where “claustrophilic” heroes can live in comfort, safe from the chaotic and confusing world that flows by outside the windows. In this respect, the Nautilus is by far the best of the Verne ships. It has every possible comfort—Nemo not only has the best of everything, but his best also reaches a standard unknown to the aesthetes of Paris. It is also sealed tight; Aronnax is so completely enclosed that he is a helpless prisoner—even the power of self-determination has been taken away from him, so that he can relax utterly and completely into a security greater than anything he has undergone since the womb.
This desire for seclusion and the retreat into a private microcosm is by no means all there is to Verne—it is often the case that his characters cannot seclude themselves and are forced to fight a dogged battle for survival—but it is something that shows up strongly in his romantic and most personal stories. The fantasy of being held prisoner by a benevolent captor, maintained in luxury, and removed from the hurly-burly of the actual world is a common one, and in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it finds almost perfect expression. The wonders and dangers of the undersea world are most important here as a kind of emphatic counterpoint, standing in for the uncertainties of life. Nemo’s obsessive crusade against the world’s shipping is basically a strategy of rejection and retreat that, though it can be admired, envied, and temporarily shared, must ultimately be refused as a viable mode of conduct. The real world, after all, does have to be faced; one cannot help but deal with it even if one’s dealings constitute a facade and one’s heart is elsewhere.
The Mysterious Island
It is significant that Captain Nemo makes his reappearance in Verne’s own favorite among his novels—the long and languid The Mysterious Island. This was the first and best of Verne’s several robinsonades, in which the island on which the protagonists are cast away becomes an ideal microcosm where (with a little help from an unknown friend) they carefully reconstruct a world of middle-class comfort. Significantly, it is an all-male world strongly reminiscent of a gentlemen’s club. The discovery, late in the novel, that the Nautilus is hidden deep in the bowels of the island is a magnificently naïve emphasis of the fact that, in terms of Verne’s private mythology, the island and the submarine are really the same in terms of their function.
The Mysterious Island belongs to the second decade of Verne’s career, a decade in some ways very different from the first. It...
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