Time to break free of the winter doldrums.
Let’s put aside today’s headlines and instead travel the world. We’ll spend a few days in rural India, pay a quick visit to Singapore, cross the plains and mountains of the American West by rail and on sleds driven by sails, and beat our way across the Atlantic on a steam-driven ship. Along the way we’ll rescue a damsel in distress and face bandits, storms, and other dangers, all the while pursued by an intrepid detective for a crime we didn’t commit and surviving by means of our wits and grit to win a wager.
And here’s the good news: We can achieve all these ambitions without leaving the comfort of home. We can sit on the sofa in the living room with a mug of steaming tea and plenty of opportunities to take a break from such escapades—make a phone call, fix a sandwich, take a stroll around the neighborhood—if we wish to do so.
All we have to do is settle ourselves and break open Jules Verne’s classic novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
The year is 1872, and Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman, has just made a wager with some members of the Reform Club that he can circumscribe the globe in 80 days. Fogg sets out with a servant hired that very morning, Jean Passepartout, a Parisian who boasts such talents as a former gymnast, circus rider, and tightrope walker, as well as serving as a gentleman’s gentleman. Passepartout hopes to find “a tranquil life” in Mr. Fogg’s employ, yet off they go, dispatched by Mr. Fogg’s bet on a global trip that will sweep them and their readers through a torrent of trials and adventures.
The Grandfather of Travel Books
Danger, risk, and the possibility of death are a continual part of this race against the clock. In India, assisted by a British officer and their Parsee guide, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a young widow, Aouda, from suttee, or being burned alive on a pyre with her dead, elderly husband. In Hong Kong, Passepartout falls victim to the schemes of Mr. Fix, the detective who is pursuing Mr. Fogg in the belief that he is a bank robber. Left behind in an opium den, Passepartout eventually rejoins his master, and the four of them, including Fix at times, face other ordeals, including an attack by Sioux warriors on the American plains and a wild and desperate voyage across the Atlantic.
In the Afterword to my edition of “Around the World in Eighty Days” (Penguin Group, 1991, revised and updated translation by Jacqueline Rogers), critic Thurston Clarke mentions some of the novel’s faults, but then adds that it “is one of the most influential works of travel literature ever written, setting standards and establishing patterns and themes that are still followed. It decreed that any journey worthy of description had to involve some challenge, some stunt or goal.”
Clarke then cites such travel classics as Paul Theroux’s “The Old Patagonian Express,” Graham Greene’s “Journey Without Maps,” and Jonathan Raban’s “Old Glory: An American Voyage” as derivatives of Verne’s novel. “After Verne,” Clarke writes, “it was not enough to simply to visit the remote and exotic, a writer had to return with adventures.”
A Quintessential Englishman
Passepartout, the beautiful Aouda, and a dozen other characters in Verne’s novel are all vividly drawn. We take delight in the antics and thoughts of Passepartout, applauding his ingenuity and courage, and admire Aouda not only for her beauty but also for the abundant gratitude and fierce loyalty she shows to her rescuers. Even the ever-present bulldog of a detective, Mr. Fix, intrigues us by his single-minded, though wrongheaded, devotion to his duty.
But it is the enigmatic Mr. Fogg who truly captures our attention. While the others stay awake worrying in the face of some catastrophe, Fogg sleeps unperturbed through the night. When some enemy or danger confronts them, Fogg weighs the facts and circumstances, looks for solutions, and once his mind is made up as to a course of action, he never wavers in carrying out his plan. No disaster fazes him. Again and again, Verne uses “cool” and “coolly” to describe Fogg’s behavior when confronted by adversity.
Keeping a “stiff upper lip,” which of course means demonstrating restraint of emotions and keeping one’s head in dire situations, was an attribute especially prized by Victorian England. Rudyard Kipling, for example, celebrated this manly virtue in some of his short stories, and his poem “If” might serve as an instruction manual for learning this brand of stoicism. The principles advocated by this verse fit Mr. Fogg to a T.
“Around the World in Eighty Days” immediately became a bestseller. It’s amusing to think that a story told by a French novelist may have helped enhance that “stiff upper lip” image so valued by the English, a perception that endured until the 1960s.
The Englishman Gives Away His Heart
Despite Fogg’s unreadable face and often chilly personality, readers eventually realize that the lovely Aouda is falling in love with this man who saved her life and who always first considers her comfort and safety in the strange adventures that come their way. Passepartout wishes his master would recognize the lady’s affections as he himself does, and yet we have only an inkling here and there of Fogg’s feelings toward her.
There’s no spoiler alert needed by noting that at the novel’s end Fogg and Aouda become engaged. Even a casual reader would likely guess that outcome. What we fail to suspect, however, is that it is Aouda who proposes to Fogg. Here is the scene in which this occurs, as fine a piece of romance as written anywhere. Facing an enormous personal financial catastrophe, Fogg confesses that he can rely on neither friends nor relatives for help. Aouda then replies:
“I pity you, then, Mr. Fogg, for solitude is a sad thing, with no heart to which to confide your griefs. They say, though, that misery itself, shared by two sympathetic souls, may be borne with patience.”
“They say so, madam.”
“Mr. Fogg,” said Aouda, rising, and seizing his hand, “do you wish at once a kinswoman and a friend? Will you have me for your wife?”
Mr. Fogg, at this, rose in his turn. There was an unusual light in his eyes, and a slight trembling of his lips. Mrs. Aouda looked into his face. The sincerity, rectitude, firmness, and sweetness of this soft glance of a noble woman, who could dare all to save him to whom she owed all, at first astonished, then penetrated him. He shut his eyes for an instant, as if to avoid her look. When he opened them again, “I love you!” he said, simply. “Yes, by all that is holiest, I love you, and I am entirely yours.”
“Ah!” cried Mrs. Aouda, pressing her hand to her heart.
A Hidden Message
Some moderns believe that such romance is dead. Others may read “Around the World in Eighty Days” and lament that the world no longer offers such chance for adventure and the exotic, that our air travel and electronic communications have shrunk the globe, leaving little room for discovery, daring, or great deeds. Like Miniver Cheevy in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem by the same name, these moderns dream “of Thebes and Camelot, and Priam’s neighbors,” and curse what they consider the gray, staid age in which they were born.
But are these Minivers correct?
Born in 1828 and dying at age 77, Verne didn’t write “Around the World in Eighty Days” as some nostalgic trip into the past. The places, means of travel, and events he described were contemporary to his time. Fogg sets his wager in 1872; “Around the World in Eighty Days” was published the following year.
If we keep that idea in mind, here in 2022, we might see “Around the World in Eighty Days” in a different light. Verne’s tale may be interpreted as a call to action. It is a reminder that we can choose to view our life as a grand and exciting excursion, a journey from birth to death meant to be experienced to the hilt. Here the challenge is not a race against time around the globe, but to comprehend and revel in the mysteries and possibilities of that world, including those in our own backyard, and to see each day as a gift to be unwrapped and explored.
By regarding life as an adventure, as do the characters in Verne’s story, we can make it so.