And so my quest to read the world’s classics continues! This time, it was the famously slim volume from Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days.
This time, I think I can skim over the summary part of the review. I mean, we all know the story, right? Phileas Fogg, the inscrutable Englishman with the iron schedule, takes on the bet of a lifetime: to traverse the world in 80 days. Spurred on by his codgy English friends, Fogg sets out to prove that with iron-clad efficiency and a deep wallet, the world can be conquered in less than three months. Fogg is accompanied by his goofy French servant, Passepartout, and along the way encounters elephants in India, rescues a damsel in distress and fights off a band of attacking Injuns in the American West. For all those 19th century monsieurs, this was surely a rip-roaring adventure you didn’t want to miss.
Unfortunately, despite their popularity, Verne’s works have acquired the black eye of the “science fiction” genre. This isn’t to say that science fiction is bad, but the genre rarely receives the scholarly respect it deserves, thus Around the World in Eighty Days has received fairly little commentary over the years. It was Verne’s most popular work in the English-speaking world (Verne being a Frenchman, of course), and is his most well-known book next to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Unlike that book, however, Around the World in Eighty Days is not science fiction, being rather an adventure-comedy that took its 19th century readers far beyond the limits of their imagination: circumnavigating the globe.
That being said, it’s clear that many of the “fantastic” scenes Verne describes would appeal much more to a 19th century readership. At least, that is, in the shock and awe category. For modern readers, Verne’s descriptions are a lesson in English attitudes during the age when “the sun never set on the British empire.” Readers are constantly reminded of the English influence wherever Fogg travels (from India to China), and more often than not, the travelers find themselves in the more “civilized” English towns, rather than intermingling with the natives. It’s a lesson in Western imperialism, and while Passepartout is genuinely in awe of the cities they visit, Fogg is usually absent—holed up on the ship playing whist, instead of experiencing the world.
But considering the time in which it was written and its intended audience, one can hardly hold that against Around the World in Eighty Days. All in all, it was an enjoyable read: definitely a classic anyone could handle. It’s short, and once you get past the stodgy, Victorian-ese, easy to read. Though outdated, the adventures are actually pretty fun, and while Fogg remained as inscrutable a character throughout, one can’t help but love the ridiculous Passepartout.
In the end, I only had one complaint: several covers of Around the World in Eighty Days feature Fogg riding a hot air balloon. When Michael Palin went around the world in 80 days in 1989, I could swear he rode in a hot air balloon, and so I thought Phileas Fogg would take to the air as well. But what false advertising! Besides a quick aside about the potential of taking a hot air balloon, never do Fogg and his companions lift off into the sky. How disappointing!