I read Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days in part because I love the adventure of travel, having been abroad more than a dozen times. With the possible exception of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, the Verne novel is probably the most famous travel-adventure book ever.
It's a story virtually everyone knows, at least in outline. Given that, is the book worth reading?
Phileas Fogg, a reticent and wealthy member of one of elite London's business clubs, bets his well-to-do chums that he could circumnavigate the globe in a little more than 11 weeks, which was light speed in the 1870s. He bets a sum comparable to about $2 million USD in today's money, and off he goes with his French valet Jean Passepartout. After crossing the Mediterranean, they go through the Suez Canal and parts of India, China, Japan and North America, touching three oceans along the way. A detective, Fix, follows the duo virtually their entire journey because he mistakes Fogg for a crook whose appearance is similar to that of the adventurer's. While in India, Fogg and Passepartout save Auoda, a young woman, who is to be burned in a suttee. Along the way, the party is subjected to a false arrest in India, drugged in a Chinese opium den and attacked by Native Americans, among other adventures.
The characterization of Phileas Fogg is a riddle. He struck me as narrow and dull, as he betrays almost no interest in the color, culture and human pageantry he experiences on his travels. Even if one takes into consideration that Fogg is in race against time, with the globe as his stage, the gentleman is a bit parochial.
Fogg's narrowness, however, might serve a dramatic purpose. He comes out of his shell as he experiences love for Auoda.
The narrator mirrors Fogg in showing a parochial nature. And like Fogg, something brings the narrator out of his shell: Japan. If one equates the narrating voice with Verne, the author must have visited Japan and loved the country. He breaks in rhapsodies in his description of Japan.
Despite his Fogg's phlegmatic nature, I took him at face value when it came to his noble nature. Others may find Fogg's English virtues (stoicism, honor, courage, reserve) to be grand stereotypes. For me his reserve squares with his dignified nature. He rescues Aouda from death, and her comfort on every leg of the journey is his first consideration.
I liked the multiple conveyances employed to whisk the Fogg party along, including steamers, trains, elephants, sledges and steamboats at successive points along the journey. It was refreshing to this prisoner of the 21st century that automobiles were nowhere in sight in the 19th century.
There are plenty of caricatures and cultural biases in the book, beginning with Passepartout, the French servant. He's excitable, easy to manipulate and loquacious, but Jules Verne was French himself. In addition, European sections of Indian cities are described as pleasant, safe, clean and much superior to non-European areas. Chinese are shown in opium dens. Native Americans attack Fogg's train. Non-native Americans are cowards. There are doubtless other characterizations some will find objectionable.
Readers will have to wrestle with the question of whether the book is fundamentally racist or take it in the context of its time. Some will see it as insensitive or containing offensive scenes and characterizations and point to the long history of imperialism and colonialism. Others will choose to keep the prejudice of Verne's era in context.
With those thoughts in mind, Around the World in Eighty Days is fast-paced, fun and a genial romp. And it should make you want to book a trip to Calcutta, Hong Kong and Yokohama.