Around the World in Eighty Days is one of those unique books where there is nothing else like it, at least that I have found. Jack Sullivan, in his afterwards to my Reader’s Digest edition of the book, described it as “part travelogue, part suspense story, part social satire, and part rumination on geography and probability, it is also, at various points, an American Western, a jungle adventure, and a tongue-in-cheek detective yarn.”
The main character, Phileas Fogg is a man of such precision that he is described as a machine, but he is a machine with a social conscience and a large degree of fatalistic gallantry…which makes for an interesting blend of personality. Even his bet with his whist partners at the Reform Club is oddly quixotic, or at least, would seem quixotic if he were any less assured that since it is mathematically possible to traverse the world in eighty days it is also mathematically assured. He has been living by the same schedule for years (and has no known past) until he spontaneously decides to bet that he can travel around the world in eighty days. For such a spontaneous trip, however, he seems to know a lot about the route he would take, which makes one wonder if it is so spontaneous as it seems.
It’s a compact book for such an incredible journey, mirroring what a whirlwind trip Fogg takes. He may be going around the world, but at breakneck speed, without pausing even to see the sights. In fact. Fogg never sees the sights. Only his valet, Passepartout, sees anything new while they travel.
Passepartout was a wanderer in his youth, who seems to have done many things throughout his wandering life, especially gymnastics, and he is seeking quiet when he comes to work for Fogg, only to find himself rushing around the world and encountering more adventure than he’d ever encountered before. And he takes it all in remarkably good stride. One suspects that most valets would simply resign in a huff, but not Passepartout. Although not as majestically unmoved by circumstances as Fogg, he is fairly adaptable and willing to take what comes and deal with it, always optimistic, good natured, and open to life. He comments that at least his tour is one way to see something of new experiences and people.
The other great character is Detective Fix. I love how Fix, all in the name of duty (though it borders on obsession – an obsession to catch Phileas Fogg, who, he believes, is a bank robber) gets caught up in the journey. He is waiting for Fogg in Suez, but he has no warrant to arrest Fogg and so, he keeps following him to different locations of the British Empire where the warrant is supposed to be waiting for him, only to end up making a totally impromptu tour of the world in company with Fogg and Passepartout. I always wondered who paid for the trip. Presumably the government. I always thought it will make some story for him to tell his grandchildren, though.
Fix, like Passepartout, does not initially believe that Fogg is really going to go all the way around the world, but as Fogg keeps progressing, he gradually comes to believe him, surmising that Fogg is merely trying to shake the police off his tail. Passepartout does not reason why; he simply accepts it and throws himself wholeheartedly into its success.
And the final person to join Fogg’s journey is Aouda, a beautiful Indian woman who is rescued by Phileas Fogg and Passepartout from being thrown onto the fire that is burning her dead husband. She has very little to do in the story other than be profoundly grateful, brave and an added irony to Fogg’s journey. He set out to travel light, but now he is escorting a woman, complete with all the luggage he bought her.
In fact, there is surprisingly heavy irony throughout the book, something I had not noticed on previous readings. I owe my first hint of it from Jack Sullivan’s afterwards to the book, where he talks about how the book is really a race against time and how ironic it is that Phileas Fogg sets out to prove that “the unforeseen does not exist” and nothing but unforeseen events occur. Unforeseen storms, delays, rescues, people.
And a further irony is in the nature of Phileas Fogg himself. Jules Verne admires him, but he is poking some fun at him, too. He is an enigma. We know nothing of what he is thinking or feeling. Sullivan compared his serenity to that of a Buddha. Everything that occurs, he always says, is part of his program. He even tells Aouda that her rescue and the purchase of her clothes were part of his program (when he is not assuring her that everything will be “mathematically” arranged for her). When he gives Fix a ride on his boat, that too, is part of his program. But, of course, none of it is. In that respect, he is almost a philosophical stoic; everything that occurs is what happens and therefore his plan.
And for all his calm assurance that everything is part of his program, it seems doubtful to me that he could have made it without the assistance of such people as Passepartout and Fix, who both impede his journey at certain points, but also aid him in moments of crisis. He is like the extreme example of the classic British gentleman in literature: phlegmatic, calm, upright, uninterested in the various cultures around him, stoical about doing his duty, whilst risking his life to save Aouda and Passepartout at various points in their journey.
And despite his willingness to save Aouda himself, and to save the train in America that is being attacked by Native Americans, it is Passepartout who actually gets to save the day, through bold strokes and audacity…and dexterous gymnastics. If there is action to be done, it is almost always Passepartout who does the actual deed; Fogg is usually sitting in his room playing whist.
Despite being French and poking fun at the British, Verne is still pretty supportive of the whole British Empire and makes several rather racist comments about certain groups of people as a whole, characterizing people as a group instead of as individuals. He is also very approving of how much the British have put their own stamp of civilization on the various countries they occupy, commenting that in some cities, with the trains and other modern conveniences, you could hardly tell that you weren’t in London. And Fogg symbolizes this since he, just like the British Empire, is not interested in being changed by his surroundings, but imposing his own order upon it.
This book does show, however, the ubiquitous presence of the British around the whole world. The fact that Detective Fix could get halfway around the world and still expect to be able to arrest Fogg on British ground is telling.
In the end, Fogg gains nothing. He spent as much as he earned in the bet. He made his point, but what point was that? He doesn’t write a book, doesn’t learn anything about the world, doesn’t become a celebrity and will probably be forgotten soon by everyone who had been betting on him; and he doesn’t learn anything about himself (Sullivan also points out how he travels around the world and comes back exactly the same), and doesn’t enrich anyone else by knowledge or money. He simply was “describing a circumference,” in the words of Verne.
But he has gained something. As he tells Passepartout, if he had not gone around the world, he never would have rescued Aouda, and they never would have been married and he never would have been so happy. It’s the final irony.
A side note: Verne takes a little time to describe the Suez Canal, which Fogg travels through, and it was interesting to note that the canal was opened in 1869, only four years before the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days. In many ways, it was a very current book, with Fogg taking advantage of the latest modes of travel along the very latest routes. He travels by rail, steamer, wind-powered snow sledge, elephant, and carriage (but no balloon). The rail was really his most significant means of travel, however; an invention that truly unified the world in a way nothing else had done before.