Have you ever embarked upon a journey that brought you to some distant or unfamiliar place? Have you ever set out with a bold and cheerful heart, knowing that you were glad of the adventure, but doubting whether any far-off sights could equal the grand images of your dreams? Have you ever endeavored to achieve a certain object, and straightaway met an untimely obstacle, and having once overcome it, found yet another, and another—only at last to learn that these obstacles were the best part of your quest, and your quest greater than any project you could have imagined or designed?
Questions such as these, and other themes of courageous discovery and invention, lie at the heart of many stories produced by the nineteenth-century French author, Jules Verne. A man of notable literary talents, and an even more exquisite imagination, Verne is still celebrated by English-speaking readers for his thrilling science-fiction novelettes, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But of all the fifty or sixty books which he produced throughout an impressive career, there is none, I think, quite as enjoyable as the tale of Phileas Fogg, the dauntless Englishman who accepted a wager and began a race around the world.
Appearing in 1872 as Le Tour du Monde en quatre-vingts Jours, and translated into English the following year as Around the World in Eighty Days, this story was to become one of Verne’s most profitable creations. As many will know, its plot follows an eccentric expedition to circumnavigate the globe using every advantage and convenience of nineteenth-century locomotion. Accompanied by his brave, but gullible, French servant, Mr. Fogg must circle the continents in the space of eighty days, facing countless variables and not a little mischance, including pursuit by a tenacious Scotland Yard detective who has mistaken him for an infamous thief.
True to form, Verne imbues the ensuing contest with unparalleled creativity and excitement—we are treated to travels by sea and rail, to a precarious overland journey by elephant in India, to a brawl in San Francisco, to a winter sleigh-ride powered by sails, and to a few tense moments precipitated by the commandeering of a steamship. But such sights are modest compared with the amusing and sympathetic array of companions who share in the travails.
Naturally, there is something quixotically endearing about the tale’s primary hero—the stern and unforgiving gentleman who regulates his monotonous days with the utmost precision, but who will hazard the whole of his fortune, and all of his comfortable habits, on a strangely fragile adventure. Fogg shall always stand as one of Verne’s greatest characters, rivaled only by the similarly puzzling Captain Nemo of deep-sea fame. Yet the author’s profound sense of humor remains on display throughout much of the novel, supplying a host of associates drawn from a lively international scene. To name but a few, we recognize the stolid candor of Brigadier Sir Francis Cromarty; we smile at the comical legalism of Judge Obadiah; we are enamored of the calm beauty of Aouda; and we know well the fiery American brashness of Colonel Stamp Proctor.
While Verne, a native-born Frenchman, might have enjoyed lampooning a few foreign stereotypes—not the least being the accentuated stoicism and exactness of the novel’s English hero—he also plainly admired some of the more idealistic qualities he depicted. Needless to say, the persistently Victorian atmosphere of Around the World in Eighty Days is as evident in the modes and manners of its characters, as it is in the means of transport which carry them around the globe. Consider the mores of Fogg’s Reform Club colleagues, who disavow any need for the adventurer to provide evidence, such as a stamped passport, to validate his complete circuit of the world. “Oh, that would be quite unnecessary,” are his compatriots’ polite assurances, “we will trust your word, as a gentleman of honor.” Imagine, dear reader, how that conversation would proceed in modern terms! Today we would demand the testimony of no fewer than three impeccable witnesses, with the addition of evidence from a GPS tracking device—and only then, after much haggling and public display, would we nullify the wager on some legal technicality!
But there is another passage in the book—a little more serious in tone—which should press upon any man’s notion of courage. When the train that is carrying Fogg and his companions through the American Great Plains is attacked by a Sioux raid, and several of their number are abducted, the hero is forced to confront a cavalry officer who is loathe to perform his duty. “Can I risk the lives of fifty men to save three?” argues the indecisive captain. To such useless casuistry Fogg coldly replies, “I don’t know whether you can, sir; but you ought to do so.” And when the commander balks yet further, the exasperated Englishman rebukes, “I will go alone!” For although he is in a race which commands the fate of his whole fortune, at that moment both time and wealth are as nothing to Phileas Fogg—he knows that in life, as opposed to a game, there is rarely a medal or prize for doing the right thing. Thus does a little light fiction acknowledge a rather more permanent rule.
Whether or not Mr. Fogg eventually accomplishes his intended feat must not be spoiled; the novel’s outcome is for the prospective reader to discover. But I am unashamed to relate that my favorite quotation from this story comes in its closing pages, when our hero learns that he might have easily quickened his pace by navigating around the subcontinent of India. His reply on this occasion displays a quiet willingness—a patience that has overcome cunning and vainglory—to admit the role of Providence in human affairs. That is to say, when told of this more efficient route, Fogg simply and affectionately protests: “But if I had not crossed India, I should not have saved Aouda; and she would not have been my wife.”
We might similarly speak of the many coincidences that have introduced us to the people and places we dearly love, and the lasting joys from which we would not be parted. How very often do our own purest hopes, trials, and adventures reveal links to a reason behind reason, like an order that was etched before the foundation of the world! And therefore what begins in the novel as an English gentleman’s scientific boast— “the unforeseen does not exist”—emerges, at least from Heaven’s vantage, as a truism of Christian philosophy.
With fine variety and style, Around the World in Eighty Days offers charming proof of G. K. Chesterton’s famous lesson, that the best sort of journey is the one that concludes in the pleasant familiarity of home. As children we marveled how Jules Verne’s books led us across oceans and deserts, to the center of the earth or beyond the stars, to give us an imaginative tour of unknown things. But it is equally true that such stories remind us of the places whence we have come, and the future towards which we are going. And, just perhaps, what matters most is not whether we complete that race in eighty days, or even in eighty years. What matters is that each of us should attain the final good for which we labor: that most perfect goal and completion which all of us should desire, and towards which we ultimately tend.