Critical Context

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A Journey to the Centre of the Earth is the second of Jules Verne’s “voyages extraordinaires,” a vast project entailing nearly a score of novels about adventures on, beneath, and above the earth and seas. He virtually invented the modern school of science fiction, influencing authors as diverse as H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke. By combining diligent research into scientific fact and hypothesis with his natural bent as a storyteller, he molded a popular form of narrative which appealed to his nineteenth century audience’s appetite for tales of wonder. Often erroneously thought of as a juvenilist (such as his contemporaries R.M. Ballantyne, G.A. Henty, and W.H.G. Kingston), his work surpasses theirs in its appeal to adult readers as well, and in terms of credibility of detail, atmosphere, and subtlety of characterization. Unfortunately, Verne has not always been served well by translators, and the full extent of his remarkable accomplishment is only now beginning to be appreciated.

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It should also be noted that Verne wrote his books when the revolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell were reshaping man’s knowledge of the physical history and processes of the natural world, and when new mechanical inventions and technologies were transforming every aspect of social and economic life. Initially, he welcomed these changes and held optimistically to the view that knowledge was good in and for itself, and that man was ennobled in his attempts to search out new experiences. Gradually, his books show, he came to share some of his heroes’ distrust about the capacity of mankind, generally, to live in harmony with these advances. In a paradoxical fashion, then, he anticipated both the hope and the skepticism of the nuclear age concerning man’s very survival.

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