Jules Verne, Travel around the World in 80 Days
Published by Diogenes, 1987
The adventure novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1873) is one of these books, which everyone thinks they know without ever reading them. But actually, it is truly worth picking up this popular work by the French author Jules Verne and reading it yourself. After all, it is far more than just a novel about a race around the world.
The story takes place in London at the beginning of the 1870s. Phileas Fogg, a rich gentleman, makes a bet against his friends at the Reform Club that he will be able to go around the world in eighty days. The wager is half his fortune: 20,000 pounds sterling, which would roughly amount to two million pounds sterling today. He starts his journey on the same evening, accompanied by his servant Passepartout. Their trip leads them through the Suez Canal, to India and then to China and Japan via ship.
Soon however, complications start to arise. Fogg and Passepartout are followed by an English detective named Mr. Fix. Because of a mistaken identity, he thinks that Fogg has robbed a bank in London. In India, the two men also get a female travel companion named Aouda. They have to rescue her from a ritual sacrifice. The second part of their journey after crossing over to America, where they go by train, is also filled with adventures and unexpected events. Eventually, there is next to no chance that they will arrive in London on time.
Nowadays, Jules Verne (1828-1905) is often called the “Father of Science Fiction”. But in the case of “Around the World in Eighty Days” he did not actually have to come up with any new inventions or scenarios. The novel was written at a time where circumnavigating the world had become easier than ever before, due to the completion of the Suez Canal and an improved railway system through America, called the First Transcontinental Railroad. Numerous articles and travel reports of people, who had travelled around the world, were published around 1870. Jules Verne thus used stories he had read in news papers and turned them into one of the most popular adventure novels of all time.
From today’s perspective, Phileas Fogg’s journey around the world is so fascinating because it is symbolic for a specific West and Central European mindset. Fogg does not travel to India, China or America in order to get to know the countries or to deal with their cultures. Instead, he is merely set on getting to the other end of the world and back as quickly as possible. It is really nothing more than a bet – it’s about money. That way, the attitude of the rich British colonist becomes apparent. Verne knowingly or unknowingly uses his characters to describe his contemporaries’ view on the rest of the world.
It is thus all the more interesting to read “Around the World in Eighty Days” today. The novel is still one of the most gripping adventure stories ever written. But it also has the potential to remind its readers of their own position in the world and make them think. What is our personal relation to poorer countries? What exactly are we looking for when we board planes for ridiculously low prices and fly around half the world in just a few hours? And finally: Could it be that an astonishing number of stereotypes of superiority to other parts of the world have survived way into the 21st century, after all?