“A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about
so serious a thing as a wager.”
―Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
I have just finished reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and recommend it highly for light reading. The main surprise I found was how funny and engaging it is. Stepping away from his usual father-of-science fiction mode, Verne presented instead “Look what can be done now (1872) if you really put your mind to it.” Who would want to travel around the world with speed his only concern? Only a comically imperturbable Englishman bent on winning a bet. Accompanying him are his French valet and the dogged English policeman who suspects the gentleman of grand theft. Originally published as a newspaper serial in 1872, the story was instantly popular. The winning tale depends not on the stereotyped characters but on plot to keep the story rolling. As editor James Hynes says, “Like the best writers in any era, [Verne] knew how to take a simple, striking idea and dramatize the hell out of it, with a headlong plot full of trains, ships, elephants, and wind sledges, not to mention human sacrifice, duels and Indian attacks.”
This is not a travelogue or an appreciation of the variety of human cultures in the world. The depictions of most non-European cultures are quaint and strike 21st century sensibilities as understandable but colonial and insular. Verne wrote from guidebooks and adventurers’ tales, not from experience. The story is of a mission to accomplish.
The challenge begins over a discussion of the report in the Daily Telegraph (with itemization) that it is now possible to travel around the world in eighty days. A wager ensues. (Cannot! Can so!) Phileas Fogg holds that it can be done and is willing to set off that very evening to prove it – after he finishes his game of whist! Fogg travels with an impassivity which no development can ripple. (Emotional reactions are left to his valet, Passepartout.) Soon the reader is swept up in the challenge: will Fogg be able to make it all work? The story is a cliffhanger to the end.
As a travel agent of the 21st century I have to add a few side comments, answering questions which occurred to me as I read.
I have not worked out how quickly a person could travel around the world on the surface with current transportation. The train trip across the US which Fogg expected to make in seven days can now be done on Amtrak in three and a half days. In 1872 the Atlantic crossing took nine days. The Queen Mary 2 now routinely does that in seven days. Other stretches are harder to compare since cruise ships now take the scenic route with many days in port rather than the “get there as soon as you can” route which Fogg needed.
A person with Fogg’s considerable financial resources would be able to charter or even buy a plane to fly the globe today. It makes an impressive story to have him pave his way with bank notes! If the wager were to require using scheduled airline flights, he could make the trip now using three flights in forty-two hours. It would cost about $35,000 per person in Fogg’s preferred first class.
Movie versions and even book covers for Around the World often feature a hot air balloon. There are no balloons in the story; they would be the last thing an exacting traveler wants. They cannot be guided, hurried or predicted. Fogg used desperate means at times — but never a balloon.
If you are inclined to relive the tale I heartily encourage listening to the recording by Jim Dale, narrator of the seven Harry Potter recordings. He is a master of his art.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
3 April 2014