The Mysterious Island

by Jules Verne
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

The Mysterious Island (French: L'Île mystérieuse) is an 1874 adventure novel written by famed French novelist Jules Verne, who is often considered the father of the adventure novel genre. It was published in the same year it was written in, as a part of Verne’s popular series titled The Extraordinary Voyages, which comprises fifty-four of his novels. It is preceded by the critically acclaimed Around the World in Eighty Days and followed by The Survivors of the Chancellor. The novel is a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways, and it shares a common theme with these two novels: the exploration of new undiscovered territories and the human’s nature to adapt and survive.

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Based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk—a Scottish privateer and Royal Navy officer who spent nearly five years alone on an island in the South Pacific Ocean—the novel describes the adventures of five prisoners of the American Civil War and a dog, as they escape with a hot air balloon and crash on a mysterious, uncharted island.

The five fugitives are as follows: Cyrus Harding (an engineer), Nebuchadnezzar (Harding’s servant), Gideon Spilett (a journalist), Bonadventure Pencroft (a sailor), and Herbert Brown (Pencroft’s protege and the son of his former captain). They all adapt pretty fast and call themselves colonists of the volcanic and vegetative island. They even name it Lincoln Island, in honor of the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and proceed to do the same to several other geographical points on the island as well.

They combine their skills and their knowledge of science and nature to find their exact location and produce shelter, fuel, fire, food, and tools, such as pottery, artillery, some chemical elements, and even an electric telegraph. However, they soon realize that they didn’t manage everything by themselves and had a bit of help from an unknown source.

After they find a mysterious message in a bottle and survive a pirate attack, they discover that the island is, in fact, the famous Captain Nemo’s hideout, who reveals his true identity as the long-lost Indian Prince Dakkar. He was the one who helped them all along, and right before he dies, he warns them that the island’s volcano might erupt and gives them a part of his treasure, which he procured when sailing with his ship Nautilus, as a final helping gift. True to Nemo’s words, the volcano erupts, destroying the island’s rich flora and fauna, but, thanks to Nemo’s final warning, the five colonists manage to save themselves and are even rescued by the ship Duncan. When they return to the United States, they use Nemo’s generous gift to form a real colony in Iowa.

The main themes of the novel are the fight for survival and the power of friendship and companionship. It is noteworthy to mention that, during their eventful, three-year-long stay on the island, the five main characters don’t have a major argument or a disagreement, and they often work well with each other.

Praised for its captivating narrative, rich and picturesque scenery, and Verne’s masterful storytelling, The Mysterious Island received many positive reviews, by both readers and literary critics. It is considered one of Verne’s best works and is often compared to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The novel inspired many other literary works and, later on, films and video games, and it received many adaptations. Even though some readers deem it a slow read, The Mysterious Island remains to be one of the greatest adventure stories ever told, in my opinion.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Finding themselves detained in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War, five Union soldiers and a dog dare to escape in a hot-air balloon during the worst hurricane of the decade. The balloon sails haphazardly through the storm, tosses Captain Cyrus Harding and his dog, Top, into the ocean, and crashes with the rest of its passengers onto the shore of an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean. Fearing that the captain is dead, his servant, Neb, searches the island until he finds Top, who leads him to Harding. This is to be the first of many mysterious occurrences involving the group of men.

They build up a settlement as best they can. The men call themselves “colonists” and name their island Lincoln Island after their great president. They establish a permanent camp in a cave on the side of a cliff and call it Granite House. They plant crops from seedlings that they find and establish a farm with the animals that they capture. They build a boat in order to visit nearby islands and find Ayrton, an exiled sailor who comes to live with the colonists and becomes one of them.

Throughout these adventures, a mysterious force seems to be at work on the island that helps the men in dire times of need. Although Harding is clever and is able to make tools and weapons for the colonists, things they cannot manufacture from the natural resources of the island mysteriously appear as they need them. For example, an intact, waterproof chest of books, clothes, and other items washes onto shore one day, although no ship has been sighted. Another time, the colonists find that wild orangutans had invaded their cave but were scared off by some force before they could do much damage. When fifteen-year-old Herbert is wounded by pirates during an attack, a box of quinine, the only thing that could save him, appears by his bedside one night.

All these mysterious happenings are discovered to be the work of Captain Nemo, the commander of the submarine Nautilus, who has been hiding in seclusion beneath a reef of the island. He has abandoned civilization and has lived near the island for many years. Nemo decided to help the colonists because he recognized the goodness and humanity of these men.

Even with Nemo’s anonymous help, the colonists must deal with many dangers. Marauding pirate ships, wild animals, and the weather are constant threats, but the most fearsome threat is the volcano that created the island. The volcano becomes active, and the colonists know that they have little time to build a seaworthy vessel before the volcano erupts. It does so before they have a chance to sail away, and they survive for nine more days on the small rock formation that remains before being rescued by a passing ship.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606


*Richmond. Virginia capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War at the time this novel is set. Although Verne was fond of the United States, he never visited it. His creation of American places, such as Richmond, is based entirely on his reading and imagination. This adventure starts during the last days of the Civil War. The idea of place as prison is encountered in the novel’s initial location, Richmond, shortly before the South surrendered to the North to end the war. Under siege when the novel opens, Richmond becomes a Confederate “island” inside a Yankee ocean. Within the rebel island are five Northern prisoners who escape to begin their adventure.


Balloon. Hijacked Confederate balloon that the escaping Northern prisoners use to get out of Richmond. The unfamiliar balloon craft becomes as real a prison to the Northerners as Richmond was, for they are caught for five days in the worst hurricane of the century, which carries them across North America and the Pacific Ocean.

Lincoln Island

Lincoln Island. Uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean on which the escaping Northerners’ balloon lands. There, they become castaways on a deserted island and are once again prisoners. Trapped without much hope of rescue, they determine to make the place a “Little America” and transform it through Yankee ingenuity and technology. They christen the island “Lincoln” in honor of Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States through the Civil War. Their choice of names is ironic, as Lincoln was known as the Great Liberator.

Verne, who loved history as much as geography, watches the five castaways transform a wilderness into a near-paradise, replicating in a short period the entire spectrum of human cultural evolution, starting with the domestication of animals, the introduction of agriculture, the invention of pottery, the development of textiles, and invention of stone tools. Eventually, the castaways find iron, pyrite, coal, clay, and lime, and create a “tiny Pittsburgh.” Steel supplements wood and stone for tools and weapons. A steam engine augments the wind and water power and the muscle power of animals and humans. The men build machinery and even install a telegraph line. Comfort and security characterize Granite House, a home in a cave on the side of a steep cliff. Verne suggests that earth, like Lincoln Island, is a place of profound ambiguity—ripe with opportunity and rife with danger.


Nautilus. Submarine under the command of Captain Nemo (previously introduced in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), who rescues the castaways from the island. Some 232 feet long and 26 feet wide, the submarine is a composite product of the world’s highest technology—its keel is from France, its shaft from London, its iron plates from Liverpool, its screws from Glasgow, and its engine from Prussia. This “Anonymous Giant” embodies for Verne both the positive and negative sides of science in its mission to free humanity from physical oppression. The profound ambiguity of Earth and its species is revealed in the self-willed destruction of the Nautilus, in the nature-caused annihilation of the colonists’ own escape ship. The survivors are later rescued by a U.S. naval ship.


*Iowa. Midwestern state in which the castaways settle after returning to the United States. Verne’s fascination with the American West, evident in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), surfaces in his conclusion to this novel. Iowa becomes for the castaways both an escape and an opportunity for a new life in a new land. Symbolically it, like the entire West in the American mythos, is a place of new beginnings—the note on which Verne concludes his novel.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

Angenot, Marc. “Jules Verne: The Last Happy Utopianist.” In Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, edited by Patrick Parrinder. New York: Longmans, 1979. Focuses on a concept of circulation, seen as underlying the mainstays of the author’s narratives: characters, forces of nature, and scientific innovation. Describes Verne as happy in that mobility; views the knowledge that accompanies it as continual and positive.

Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978. A detailed and lucid study of Verne’s life and works. Includes a thoughtful review and commentary of The Mysterious Island’s events and character significance.

Evans, Arthur B. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Scholarly, forthright discussion explores and clarifies myths and misunderstandings about Verne’s literary reputation and achievements. Perceives the author not as the father of science fiction but of scientific fiction and examines its social benefits.

Jules-Verne, Jean. Jules Verne: A Biography. Translated and adapted by Roger Greaves. New York: Taplinger, 1976. Readable volume by Verne’s grandson, with illustrations and quotations adding to intimate flavor. Recounts highlights of the novel and circumstances related to its development.

Lynch, Lawrence. Jules Verne. New York: Twayne, 1992. The first critical assessment of the complete works by the author. Includes generous synopsis of the novel and analysis of major themes, such as the island itself, and its interconnection with themes from other of Verne’s epics. Excellent introductory resource.

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Critical Essays