This classic 1873 novel by Jules Verne was an utter delight! I am somewhat ashamed to admit that this is the first Jules Verne novel I’ve read and that I really knew nothing at all about it when I picked it up. Turns out, that worked to my advantage, as I was on the edge of my seat, eagerly turning each page to see whether Phileas Fogg would win his wager to travel around the world in 80 days. This book is part travelogue and part chase, a description of various exotic parts of the world and a comical story involving both a resolute, imperturbable traveler and a detective in dogged pursuit of his suspect.
Phileas Fogg just might be the most interesting man in the world. Although wealthy, he does not make a show of his wealth. He is fastidious and a creature of habit, a “man of the world” who more or less keeps to his residence on Saville Row and his gentlemen’s club known as the Reform Club. He reads his paper and plays whist, and while he frequently wins he plays for the sake of playing, not winning. Fogg is a man of few words, but those few words are to the point. He is both enigmatic and respected. As the story opens on October 2, 1872, Phileas Fogg has just released his servant for providing him with shaving water of the wrong temperature. The replacement, Jean Passepartout, is a Frenchman with a colorful past. Passepartout has heard that Fogg is a man of regular habits, practically a robot, and this suits him just fine. He looks forward to a quiet and predictable life with his master.
Immediately upon hiring a new man, Fogg leaves for his club. While Fogg plays whist with other club members, the gentlemen discuss the recent bank robbery that resulted in the theft of 55,000 pounds and the escape of the robber. The discussion of whether the thief will get away with his crime leads to a discussion of travel and how quickly one could get away or be caught. It is in the course of this conversation that Fogg declares that one could travel around the world in 80 days, and the Daily Telegraph had shown mathematically how it could be done. Fogg’s whist partners balk at this, pointing out that weather, accidents and all manner of obstacles would make an 80 day trip unlikely. Yet Fogg insists that it can be done in 80 days with all such obstacles included. He wagers 20,000 pounds, half his fortune, against them and departs that very night on his quest, accompanied by a surprised Passepartout and carrying only a carpet bag with the bare essentials and a large wad of cash.
After Fogg has departed, the press and public go wild with his story. And shortly thereafter, Detective Fix telegraphs Scotland Yard that they have a suspect for the London bank robbery — none other than Phileas Fogg! As Fogg’s itinerary takes him eastward into the far reaches of the British Empire, Fix follows, hoping that an arrest warrant will make it into his grasp before Fogg crosses the ocean to the United States.
Fogg, meanwhile, is oblivious to this development. His only concern is circumnavigating the globe in 80 days, and despite the obstacles that arise, Fogg always maintains his equanimity. Verne’s descriptions of places like India, Shanghai and San Francisco are quite vivid and detailed, sure to pique the interest of his readers who might never make it to such exotic locales. While Fogg is focused on his forward progress and shuns site seeing, Passepartout is a curious traveller who revels in all he sees. When he realizes the nature of the bet Fogg has made, Passepartout dedicates himself to helping Fogg succeed. Passepartout is like many of us when we travel, I think. I love that he worries he has left the gas on at home. Storms and other obstacles that arise feel like personal affronts to him, and he worries terribly about falling behind schedule and making up lost time. While he occasionally and unintentionally causes problems for Fogg, he also is a devoted servant who is quite brave and clever under duress.
And there is plenty of stress and duress for the travelers! Certainly, there are the obstacles one expects to arise, such as storms and ships running behind schedule. Verne, however, dreams up some quite thrilling obstacles for his characters, such as when the railroad line unexpectedly runs out in India and they must engage an elephant and guide through the jungle. This leads to the discovery of a young Parsee woman who is about to be sacrificed and whom they endeavor to save. Or when their train in the American West is attacked by armed Sioux. And of course, there is the unexpected obstacle of Detective Fix, who assumes a false identity and uses Passepartout to keep track of Fogg and his plans. It’s all quite thrilling for the reader. Will Fogg win his bet? Will the detective stop him? I was on edge to the very last pages of the story and found it highly entertaining.
The only negatives are the colonialism and racism, common for the time, that sometimes arise. This is especially evident in the parts of the story involving India, Japan and the Sioux. Stereotypes of the savage natives and their primitive and violent ways are taken for granted. This is a blemish on an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and engaging story