The Mysterious Island

by Jules Verne

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

The Mysterious Island is, in a sense, a sequel to Jules Verne’s famous Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), for in this work, Verne describes the death of Captain Nemo. Primarily, however, it is a story of survival and a celebration of the adaptability and ingenuity of intelligent, hardworking people. Verne shows the great satisfaction that can be derived from personal accomplishment. The wealth of detail and description and the valid explanations of mysterious happenings create a sense of realism. At the urging of his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne turned an early, rather unpromising manuscript into The Mysterious Island by adding scientific data, mystery, dramatic complications, and a startling, original conclusion.

Apart from its interest as a story, The Mysterious Island is significant for its technological detail. Unlike many tales of the shipwreck variety, unlike even many science-fiction stories of the twentieth century, the novel includes not merely the trappings of science; it also includes scientific substance. Verne goes into detailed accounts of the ways in which tools, chemicals, and communications equipment can be manufactured from elementary materials. All of this description, which may appear to be unrelated to the plot, is significant because it reflects the optimism of nineteenth century European society and especially the widespread confidence placed in technology. Although in some stories, Verne suggests the danger of this new power, for the most part, he embraces industrialism and especially the revolutionary technology that gives birth to it. Industrialization and technology, however, were also massively abused during this period, largely for reasons of profit; so Verne’s celebration was generally placed either in the future or in some imaginary place, as in The Mysterious Island. The novel’s technological descriptions show, in effect, technical history from the most primitive beginnings to a reasonably advanced state; these descriptions may be said to recapitulate, in capsule form, the progress of humanity. Thus it is significant that the heroes are from the United States, because it was seen, at the time, as a rising, dynamic industrial power, leading the world into a new age.

Although Verne’s ideas, and his enthusiasm for his ideas, are a pleasure in the novel, there are serious literary flaws in the work. The most damaging of these is probably Verne’s shallow characterizations; although his characters are generally adequate, they are never wholly successful or convincing. Nebuchadnezzar, for example, is little more than a stereotype. Verne is not interested in exploring the depths of people’s characters, although he is vitally interested in their achievements.

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Critical Context