The Begum's Fortune by Jules Verne

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In spite of all their futuristic and Utopian qualities, Verne's writings are strongly influenced by nineteenth century issues: nationalism, the American dream, and the possibilities of science. Jules Verne is famous for his powers to anticipate the future, intended to invoke in the reader awe and wonder at the possibilities of science. The Begum's Fortune, however, also explores its darker aspects. One of the most terrifying is probably the first attempt in literature of describing an artificial attack satellite. Even though Verne made several erroneous technical assumptions, it is a grim forecast of mega-military destruction through science. Generally, Verne saw science in a positive light. To a son of the late nineteenth century, a century which had seen wonderful and tremendous technical advances, technology could be a very beneficial force. Yet he was also a realist, and The Begum's Fortune was a product of his later years, when he became increasingly pessimistic, and aware of the dark side of progress. It is more than poetic justice when Schultz becomes prey of his own wicked deeds. He is killed by the same poisonous gas that he planned to use against his innocent neighbors. While science is neither good nor bad, it can be both in people's hands.

The American Dream, or perhaps better called the American Mirage, is another theme that appears in this novel, as well as in some of his other works. When Verne cast Americans in later novels, they did not exactly compliment their country's image. Frequently, they are exaggerated eccentric millionaires. But he did have an eye for the seemingly limitless possibilities of the continent. In his essay on Poe, he expressed his admiration for the eminently practical character of the American, but in De la Terre a la Lune (1864-1865), this admiration took on much more satirical overtones: "Now then, when an American has an idea, he looks for a second American who shares it. If there are three of them, they elect a president and two secretaries." Just as in the case of science in general, the possibilities of the New World are undoubtedly there. It is not an accident, that both Herr Schultz and Dr. Sarrasin select the remote Oregon Coast, a little known part of a huge continent, for their projects. Yet the unlimited possibilities offered by the country turn into a huge financial bubble when Herr Schultz's empire collapses, threatening to destroy the entire American economy. "All they (the creditors) could do was to unite in a general body, and agree to address a request to the Congress to ask it to take their case in hand, espouse the interests of its nationals, pronounce the annexation of Stahlstadt to American territory, and thus bring this monstrous creation under the general laws of civilization. Several members of the Congress were personally interested in the business, the request was tempting to the American character, and there was reason to believe that it would be crowned with complete success." The possibilities have been misused by the selfish interests of the...

(The entire section is 759 words.)