The Mysterious Island

by Jules Verne

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The Mysterious Island is a science-fiction adventure that glorifies the adaptability and survival instincts of the human body and spirit. Frenchman Jules Verne has made all the characters in the novel Americans, partly to present a social commentary of the United States and of the historical period surrounding the American Civil War. Thus, Verne not only spins a tale of intrigue and adventure but also portrays the traditional American qualities of individualism, courage, and resourcefulness. The colonists are not easily defeated when confronted with adversity. From the beginning, they are willing to escape imprisonment in a balloon during a hurricane. They face certain death but manage to survive against terrible odds. While on the island, which they name after Abraham Lincoln in a patriotic gesture, the colonists come across every conceivable danger and setback, but they prove to be masters of their own destinies and persevere. Although they are helped by a mysterious benefactor, they personify the rugged American spirit.

The figure of Captain Nemo serves as a counterpoint to the other characters. As his past is revealed to the colonists, they realize that he is an anarchist who has abandoned society and its flaws. He considers the human race to be in decline and sees the source of its demise in the technological wonders of the time. Nemo is a genius who has built an extraordinary vessel that travels underwater, but, instead of using his invention for the good of society, he frightens away and destroys ships that pass in the surrounding ocean as revenge for his exile.

Captain Nemo’s submarine is a magnificent vessel created in Verne’s mind. In his time, underwater travel was considered, at best, a topic of research and debate and, at worst, a figment of the imagination. As Verne described the vessel, however, it appeared to be quite feasible. Introduced in Verne’s earlier work Vingt milles lieues sous les mers (1870; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1873), Captain Nemo’s Nautilus became a symbol of how rapidly science and technology advanced during the Industrial Revolution. Although The Mysterious Island is not truly a sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo’s character is revealed and explained more fully in The Mysterious Island, and the reader comes away with a more satisfactory explanation of Nemo’s motivations and inspirations in this book than in the earlier novel.

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Critical Context