Verne was drawn to the sea and the life of adventure from an early age, yet his biography is remarkably prosaic. Aside from a trip to Scandinavia and one to the United States, he spent most of his life in the provincial French town of Amiens. It is true that he owned a sailboat as soon as he could afford to buy one, exchanged it for a larger one, and finally purchased a yacht, but his travels were limited to the Mediterranean coastline. Verne was an adventurer of the mind.
In 1863, when Five Weeks in a Balloon first appeared, Verne was an immediate success and was especially recognized as the creator of a radically new type of novel. Under the name of science fiction, works resembling those of Verne would continue to fascinate readers of all ages. His fertile imagination continued to furnish more ideas for novels than he could complete. His success, however, was not entirely attributable to the novelty of the genre. Verne’s ideas correspond to the ideology of the second half of the twentieth century. Since antiquity, literature had exploited the voyage as a theme, but Verne’s concern for scientific knowledge made his voyages educational as well as exciting. The curiosity that led to exploration and invention during Verne’s lifetime also provided an enthusiastic reading public.
The continuing popularity of the stories and their successful adaptation in motion pictures demonstrate that, beyond the scientific apparatus, which now appears dated, Verne’s novels appeal through their mythological structures. The epic struggle against evil, the voyage as initiation, and the unfathomable mystery of Captain Nemo still fascinate readers.
A Journey to the Centre of the Earth
First published: Voyage au centre de la terre, 1864 (English translation, 1872)
Type of work: Novel
Upon discovering a coded parchment, Harry, his uncle Professor Hardwigg, and their Icelandic guide, Hans, find a volcanic crater that leads them into the bowels of the earth.
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 entire section is 1896 words.)