Jules Verne’s literary masterpiece ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ is a classic, filled with fast paced adventure, suspense, excitement, and its detailed description of various places and locations. The tale of Phileas Fogg, and his companion Passepartout, and their wager to travel around the world in the exact measure of eighty days, the story is now critically acclaimed worldwide. Reading it as a simple story in itself is certainly a satisfying endeavor, and the exploration of its various themes more so, but if one reads between the lines, it’s possible to ascertain parallels presented within the book, with the history of the world itself; the role of the British Empire, and western attitude towards the Asian and African colonies (Verne, 1956).
All the locations visited by Fogg and Passepartout showed signs of British imperialist influence. The cultures of those respective nations are often presented as barbaric, and backwards, whereas the force of the English influence is shown as a counterpoint - civil, progressive, and advanced. We see from the descriptions of the Indians, Papuans, and Native Americans that they are shown as savages, whose practices encompass all manner of irrational behavior (Getz, Hoffman & Rodriguez, 2009).
During Fogg’s arrival in India, we are exposed to certain disdainful remarks about the rapidness of the British expansion, and the question as to the purity of its motives. The book makes it clear that the vast nation was the hub of British exploitation. Various officers achieve staggering amounts of profit by indulging in such practices. This use only for financial benefit is initially criticized, but when the journey continues, and we see that the Indians practice rituals such as widow burning - leading Aouda in a drugged state to be subjected to forceful suicide at the funeral of her husband - we are presented with an opposing point of view: if the Western presence, parasitical as it may be in commercial terms, comes with the benefit of rooting out such abhorrent practices, does it gain a measure of moral justification? In this case, Verne would answer that it was certainly so.
In Hong Kong again, the protagonists repeatedly encounter the use of Opium; the tavern where they go to is described as reprehensible, and its patrons, degenerative. Considering the values of the time period within which the book is based, indulging in drug consumption was seen as signs of a weak society, and its proponents having lack of character. Considering that the government of Hong Kong had committed publically to root out the menace, its failure to do so is presented as a sign of not only the behavior which those of Eastern societies exhibit, but also the weaknesses of their governments to act properly. British Imperialism and conforming to the ideals of the west is again portrayed as the way to go.
This bias continues on, even unto individual analyses. We see that Princess Aouda is a ‘civilized’ individual, who can communicate in perfect English, and holds progressive ideals, and therefore, sympathize with her immediately. Not only that, but the inference from her readiness to leave with Fogg seems to be that all such people of the time would consider it a boon to leave behind their cultures and identities in favor of the West; that the conformation to its obvious supremacy would be obvious to their intellectual minds (Getz, Hoffman & Rodriguez, 2009).
The Papuans of Andaman Islands and the Native Americans who attack the train are described as being ‘in the lowest scale of humanity’. They are shown as people whose concerns are as base as tigers, wolves, and the other whims of nature, whereas Fogg, as an ambassador of scientific progress, does not have to fear them at all. The steam boats and trains that carry him throughout his journey, elevating him from the concerns of such ‘savages’ - a mark of scientific progress’s victory over the conditions of survival.
In contrast to the conditions of the Native Americans, Indians, and Papuans, we are presented with the sensibilities and co-operation exhibited by countries of the west. In regards to the Suez Canal, we see how even though conflict existed between the British and French in such a period of colonialism, the two civilized entities did co-operate to ensure that the canal remained operational, and free from harm. Even though it was the French who built the Canal, and held control over the majority of it, the British did aid them in its defense multiple times, thus protecting progress. Even Fogg, and Colonel Stamp Proctor, despite the fact that they had both challenged each other to a duel, co-operate and put aside their differences when the Native Americans attack the train.
Even the attitude displayed by Fogg can be described as efficient in the extreme. Where the locals of the colonies are chaotic, prone to fits of barbarism and interfering, Fogg is precise, mechanical, and rarely deviates from his course. He moves through the world in a spate of indifference, moving towards the goal that he has in mind, and rarely ever pausing to notice the effect this his actions have on the world around him, or how others react. The only rare exceptions he exhibits in his actions are those to save his companions, and even then, in the first instance, with Aouda, it’s because his calculations can favor such an action (Getz, Hoffman & Rodriguez, 2009).
This attitude presented by Verne is a direct depiction of the idea held by early 19th Century imperialists. A window into world history itself is the writing style and theme presented by him in the book. During the era of colonization, the firm belief in western superiority was absolute. People believed that the eastern world was there to be saved by their more developed counterparts, and regardless of what price such development came, it was justified. Certainly, another motivation for purporting this ideology was the financial gain that came from tapping into the resources of these countries, as well as obtaining additional manpower to further their causes.
The traditions and culture possessed by the natives was deemed to be inefficient and backwards. And perhaps that is what this book has the most to teach about world history. It provides a window, albeit indirectly, into the mindset behind the actions taken in the name of colonization. It details the benefits and rise of scientific progress, although with brief windows into its criticisms as well. By studying this book, one can imagine its continuum on the larger scale, after the story ends. Development, the world wars, the changes in attitude, and so forth. The book is a picture of its times, and as such, it contains quite a lot of material for contemplation.
Getz, T., Hoffman, R., & Rodriguez, J. (2009). Exchanges. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Verne, J. (1956). Around the world in eighty days. New York: Dodd, Mead.