Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
Like the greater number of Verne’s works, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a novelistic description of scientific phenomena. This third of Verne’s works is geological and paleontological. The different geological strata of the earth, its minerals, the formation of the planet, and the different hypotheses concerning its core are reviewed. At the same time, the structure of the work calls upon the archetypal descent of the hero into the underworld.
Verne’s characters are conscious that their scientific goals echo those of humanity. Mister Fridriksson, their Icelandic host, who converses with the hero Harry in Latin, bids them farewell with “this verse that Virgil seems to have written for us: ’Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna, sequamur’” (“And whichsoever way thou goest, may fortune follow”). Verne knew that others had written of the descent into the underworld, usually as a pretext to criticize society on the surface of the planet, without any scientific pretensions. His motivation is otherwise: to explore scientific data and imagine an adventure story.
The story is told by one of its protagonists, the student Harry, a lover of geology. Verne seems to voice his opinion when the narrator proclaims the scientific validity of the expedition:No mineralogists had ever found themselves placed in such a marvelous position to study nature in all her real and naked beauty. The sounding rod, a mere machine, could not bring to the surface of the earth the objects of value for the study of its internal structure, which we were about to see with our own eyes, to touch with our own hands.
The characters of the novel are limited to the three of the expedition. Harry’s cousin and fiancé, Gretchen, is reduced to the figure of the knight’s lady who sends him off on his mission and welcomes him home, a hero, at the conclusion of the adventure. Harry’s youthful imagination, his concern with practical details such as eating and sleeping, contrast sharply with the stereotype of the universal scientist represented by his fanatical uncle, who is unable to imagine danger and is motivated only by scientific curiosity. The third member of the crew, the Icelandic guide Hans, never speaks. He represents instinct, has no interest in the discoveries and, apparently, no fear in the face of dangers. He finds water, constructs a raft, and repeatedly saves the scientists’ lives, all for three dollars a week.
A precise date is given at the beginning of the work situating the story in the reader’s near past, and at one point the use of the journal or log kept by Harry during the crossing of an interior sea allows the story to be told in the present tense. All of this contributes to the realism of the narration. The cause of realism is served by the didactic side of the work as well: Lists of equipment and scientific instruments for the venture are given; the trip is a lesson in geology and paleontology. Once the expedition reaches the interior sea, however, geological references become rare. Now the voyage seems to allow the explorers to discover humanity’s past. Verne’s heroes are fascinated by the mystery of humanity’s origins. The eternal question of the source of life was accentuated in the nineteenth century by the controversy that followed publication of the theories of naturalists Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Once on the interior sea, Harry’s scientific hypotheses blend with symbolism. The fantastic appeal of electricity at the time explains Verne’s use of it to illumine the Central Sea:The illuminating power in this subterraneous region, from its trembling and flickering character, its clear...
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dry whiteness, the very slight elevation of its temperature, its great superiority to that of the moon, was evidently electric; something in the nature of the aurora borealis, only that its phenomena were constant, and able to light up the whole of the ocean cavern.
More and more, Harry reveals his impressions of being “imprisoned,” of the “awful grandeur” of the scene: “Imagination, not description, can give an idea of the splendor and vastness of the cave.” The discovery, first of fossils, then of bones, then of living prehistoric creatures, and finally of a humanoid giant allow for many narrow escapes: “The fact was that my journey into the interior of the earth was rapidly changing all preconceived notions, and day by day preparing me for the marvelous.”
When at last their way seems blocked, the travelers do not hesitate to open the earth with explosives. In doing so, they provoke a volcanic eruption that rather miraculously restores them to the surface of the earth, not in Iceland, whence they began their journey, but in an island of the Mediterranean.