Today’s citizen thinks nothing of hopping on a plane and arriving on the other side the world later that day. Though it requires a bit more planning, it’s possible to fly around the world on commercial jets within a period reasonably measured in hours, rather than weeks or months. There is/was (?) even a reality tv show The Amazing Race exploiting modern global transportation for entertainment. But of course, this was not always the case, and as a result we have the dramas of the great explorers—Cook, Tasman, Columbus, Cortez, et al. But with European empires established and transportation infrastructure in place, traveling around the world as a paying tourist became possible in the mid 19 th century. Taking advantage of the possibility, and throwing in a pinch of mystery and a sprinkling of humor, in 1873 Jules Verne penned Around the World in Eight Days, creating one of the world’s great adventure stories—literally.
Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of the rich aristocrat Phileas Fogg, and the test of honor he places upon himself. Spending his days playing cards at the Reform Club in London, a discussion of travel one day brings about a wager for £20,000 that in eighty days he can traverse the circumference of the globe. The bet immediately taken by fellow club members, Fogg does not set out alone. His valet, the Frenchman Passepartout, comes in tow, but with all of the bumbling, it’s uncertain whether he will be a greater help or hinderance toward Fogg winning the bet. The stakes not high enough, a massive robbery has recently taken place in London, and Scotland Yard are on the lookout for anyone carrying large sums of cash—something Fogg indeed has in his baggage. And, as they say, the chase is on.
A superb, capering adventure, Verne revels in the details of the world’s culture and geography—as could be expected with a title such as Around the World in Eighty Days—telling Fogg and Passepartout’s journey. The pair traveling by all manner of transportation, animal to mechanical, and getting themselves into all types of escapades, jungle sacrifices to courtroom dramas, there is no shortage of action. Fogg’s wager threatened at every stop around the globe, the suspense is stretched nicely. The ending perhaps the best part of the story, Verne strings the reader along, deflating their balloon before pumping it full of air, nothing turning out as one might predict.
It would be remiss not to mention the cultural interplay. On one hand, Verne appropriates many Asian cultures in a fashion that would today fall under tight scrutiny. Impossible to defend, the book is indeed a product of its times. On the other hand, Verne plays his England vs. France cards with aplomb. Able to nicely walk the tightrope of teasing and respect, he pokes fun at both countries habits and idiosyncracies while exposing something deeper in the characters which represent the two cultures. Passepartout is the classic buffoon with a heart of gold—something which Verne is “allowed” to do being French himself. (“Besides, he’s a Frenchman, and can’t help talking” he writes at one point.) Fogg, on the other hand, possesses the epitomy of English austerity and pride (“If it’s feasible, the first to do it ought to be an Englishman” he is quoted as saying). But on certain occasions, he exhibits where his heart truly lies, charity work among the indications. But it is perhaps how the two end up at the conclusion that best tightens the bond between the two cultures which have so often had their differences discussed with swords rather than words in history.
Despite the significant advances in transportation and the cultural appropriation, Around the World in Eighty Days remains readable to this day. It is one of the benchmark works of international adventure. A strong dose of humor and romance balancing a suspenseful race around the globe, it’s an exciting, clever, capering rollick that hurts itself only through its view of non-European culture, which, all things being considered, could have been worse. Adapted into numerous films, the story of what becomes of Phileus Fogg’s wager is classic literature for a reason.