I chose this book partly because it was free (public domain!) and partly because I feel as though it’s a story everyone has heard of or referenced but few have actually read. Since it was Jules Verne I was expecting science fiction, but there wasn’t anything futuristic about it; it read like what would you get if you crossed a paperback thriller novel with a travel book in the 19th century. It was a fun and easy read that plays on the readers’ taste for adventure and love of travel, so although it wasn’t deep or meaningful, I had a great time with it.
The story follows Phileas Fogg, a rich London man whose precision of daily routine borders on obsession. His wealthy friends at the Reform Club tell him about a news article that claims that, now the railway across India is completed, the globe can be circumnavigated in only 80 days. The friends express their doubts and Phileas enters in a 200,000 pound wager that he can make the journey in precisely 80 days. The stoic and unflappable Phileas and his headstrong and exciteable new servant Passepartout embark on the journey that evening, closely followed by a Scotland Yard detective named Fix who tries to arrest Phileas for a bank robbery.
One thing that turned me off this story was the dismissive tone that the descriptions had of other places and cultures. The superiority complex of the British colonialist was apparent in almost every location and comments referencing “the most terrible aspects of Hindoo culture” or something similar were not uncommon. I found that it was not only mentally jarring but made it more difficult to support the characters. I know the story was written a long time ago and as a result I tried to ignore that feeling and see the story in the context it was written, but I’m not surprised the book is not as popular in today’s globalized world as it must have once been.
That said, I think a lot of the aspects of the story have withstood the test of time and made the story a classic despite its many flaws. Passepartout acts as sort of the face of the everyman (in contrast to Phileas’s confusing, withdrawn character) and a lot of the things he does or comments on were things that I think the reader could relate to. His wonder at the new sights in India and China, his worry over his master’s wager, and his desire that they could spend more time enjoying each location were all things that both made his character more appealing and put the entire story in the perspective of someone we can all understand.
Another thing I thought was important is how nearly everything changes over the course of the 80 day trip. Passepartout begins to trust his master and feel personally involved in the journey, Phileas becomes less heartless and less obsessed with (and apparently adept at) bookkeeping, and they both realize that money and bribery can’t solve every problem. They return to the same location where life is essentially unchanged, but themselves have changed and have gained new perspective and values. It is human nature to grow and change with new experiences, so that aspect of the story, although a bit cheesy, made it still relevant 150 years later.
Good news – our house survived the flood undamaged, after a long power outage we never had to evacuate and the river is (almost) back to normal and I’m (hopefully) booking tickets back to Montreal to pack up my things soon. I’m now in the process of looking for old furniture and stuff for the place in Edmonton – would anyone in the Calgary or Edmonton area happen to have that kind of stuff lying around? Am willing to cook a delicious dinner for anyone in exchange.
Next: The Fault In Our Stars, John Green