In one sense, Around the World in Eighty Days is merely a superbly well-written romance of travel adventure. The form is what has been called traditional: chronological time and a single third-person narrator throughout. Though there is some dialogue, the focus throughout is on the action. Though some delineation of customs is evident, it is so limited that it hardly interrupts the rapid flow of the narrative. There are glimpses of religious customs in India and Utah, for example, and of American political procedures, but they are not developed.
The plot has affinities to two earlier works: It is a combination of an odyssey and a quixotic quest. The journey is arduous, with many hardships, many adversaries, many obstacles, overcome only by almost superhuman feats. The quixotic element is seen especially in the fact that the journey need not have been taken at all: It results from a whim and a wager. As Quixote at the end of book 1 is safe at home, so is Fogg, both having arrived under ignominious circumstances. Neither has actually profited from the original purpose of his journey: Fogg has not gained monetarily; Quixote has not bettered the people or society he has set out to serve; in several instances, both have brought hardship on not only on themselves but also those they have befriended. Quixote has his sanity back, but his further quests are suggested in the closing passage; Jules Verne’s closing passage tells of Fogg’s prize, his wife.
The wager that Phileas Fogg makes with the Reform Club of London is based on beating time: he must travel around the world in eighty days. There is a constant calculating of time gained and lost during the journey, for literally in this case, time is money—20,000 pounds, to be exact. Fogg is obsessed with time and measurement. He must have his shaving water at 84 degrees and go to his club from noon till midnight every day. Fogg even initiates Passepartout into his service with a ceremony of synchronizing their watches: “Now from this moment, twenty-six minutes after eleven, A.M., this Wednesday, 2nd October, you are in my service” (Chapter 1, p. 15).
After each leg of the journey, Fogg takes notes in his journal of times of arrival, departure, and gain or loss of time. When in India, he decides he can rescue the Princess from the funeral pyre because he has “yet twelve hours to spare” (Chapter 12, p. 64). Time is a quantity, like money, that he can spend. Sir Francis Cromarty sees Fogg as a “product of the exact sciences” (Chapter 11, p. 51) and wonders if he has a heart. When he praises Fogg for having heart after saving Aouda, he replies, “when I have the time” (Chapter 12, p. 64).
Fogg’s whole life is run like a clock. Passepartout notices that there are identical electric clocks in his bedroom and in Fogg’s. There is an itemized list of the exact times for each activity of the day: “Everything was regulated and foreseen that was to be done from half past eleven AM till midnight” (Chapter 2, p. 18). In his calculations of time, Fogg frequently mentions that “I have constantly foreseen the likelihood of certain obstacles” (Chapter 11, p. 52).
The irony is that he has not foreseen the very nature of time, on which his whole quest depends. Hints are given all along by Fix, and by Sir Francis, about how time is measured differently in different places on the earth. This information does not reach Fogg. He is so busy measuring the quantity, like a fixed amount, that he does not take into account that everything is moving. The sun is moving, the earth is moving, and they are moving. Verne, whose fictions revolve around scientific phenomena, reveals the relative nature of time in this story, though it was a known fact that as Sir Francis says to Passepartout, “”since he was constantly going eastward, that is in the face of the sun. . . the days were shorter by four minutes for each degree gone over” (Chapter 11, p. 54). This information is delivered to the stubborn Passepartout who has not the wit to understand the implications. In fact, when they reach the antipodes of London, he is overjoyed to find that the ship’s clock once again matches his watch, thinking “I was sure that the sun would some day regulate itself by my watch” (Chapter 24, p. 130). The narrator at this point tips us off that it is an exact 12 hour difference from London. It is Passepartout, however, who discovers that they have gained a day when they return, and thus, have won the bet. The narrator spends a whole paragraph explaining this in the last chapter: “Fogg, going eastward, saw the sun pass the meridian eighty times, his friends in London only saw it pass the meridian seventy-nine times” (Chapter 37, p. 199) We are familiar with the concept of time as relative and seeming to become faster and faster, but this was a new experience in Verne’s day.
The whole journey around the world in eighty days was showcasing for Verne’s audience the latest technological advances of civilization that were shrinking the world. Steam engines used on land and sea allowed people to shorten distances through greater speed. The notice in the Daily Telegraph in Chapter 3 calculates the distance and time around the world by rail and steamboat, and a club member remarks, “The world has grown smaller, since a man can now go round it ten times more quickly than a hundred years ago” (Chapter 3, p. 22).
Like Fogg who does not pay much attention to where he is or what the scenery looks like, the narrative spends a lot of time on details of the speed and power of each vessel rather than the wonders of place. The steamer Mongolia, for instance, which Fogg takes to Suez and Bombay, belongs to “the Peninsular and Oriental Company, built of iron, of two thousand eight hundred tons burden, and five hundred horsepower” (Chapter 6, p. 31). The ship is allowed 138 hours to cross1310 miles, and despite roughness on the Red Sea, the ship rolls a bit but arrives ahead of time. Though passing by the ruins of Mocha that enchant Passepartout, the narrative notes that they stop at a place called Steamer Point to take in coal: “This matter of fuelling steamers is a serious one at such distances from the coal mines; it costs the Peninsular Company some eight hundred thousand pounds a year” (Chapter 9, p. 45). Always the scientific and commercial go hand in hand.
Even passing through the valley of the Ganges becomes “like a flash” in which they see towns, ruins, and villages whizzing by: “the train passed on at full speed, in the midst of the roaring of the tigers, bears, and wolves which fled before the locomotive” (Chapter 14, p. 75). Fogg’s conquest of time is also a conquest of nature through science. Tigers, bears, and wolves are threats to primitive people, but the iron machine makes them seem tiny and insignificant.
A great amount of description is lavished on the American Transcontinental Railroad for the engineering feat it was, enabling one to cross an entire continent in days instead of months. The contrast between the luxury cars of the train and the wild country through which they pass underscores the triumph over nature. The train has dining cars, saloons, turns into a sleeping car at night. When attacked by Indians, the rail cars are like “moving forts” (Chapter 29, p. 161).
Though Verne presents these scientific advances in a positive and optimistic light, he does not avoid pointing out certain ironies as well. The supposed glory of the Indian Transcontinental Railway is missing a key section of track, and the travelers have to switch to an elephant. The luxurious American train is attacked by Indians, causing dangerous and life-threatening delays. When the Henrietta runs out of coal crossing the Atlantic, they have to break up all the wood on board to feed the furnace. On the whole, however, Fogg represents the scientific mind; even when technology fails, his problem-solving ability is able to find a way to take care of any obstacle. He thus represents the hope the nineteenth century had for the future: “nothing is unforeseen” or impossible to solve.
Almost every land Fogg sets foot on is either a British colony (India, Hong Kong), a former British colony (America), or heavily influenced by British trade, inventions, and merchants. Passepartout thinks, “Hong Kong seemed to him not unlike Bombay, Calcutta, and Singapore, since, like them, it betrayed everywhere the evidence of English supremacy” (Chapter 19, p. 95). Since Verne is French, and the English a rival nation, he makes some satirical remarks about the all-pervasive British presence, but on the whole, presents Britain as a civilizing force in the world, with its scientific and modern culture. Even time is reckoned from Greenwich, England, and Passepartout will not change his watch from London time, because to him that is the real time, the time that the sun itself must catch up with.
The Suez Canal is seen from a British perspective with the British Consul watching English ships crossing the Egyptian desert that had to go around the tip of Africa before. The Suez was built by French engineers, and although the English became a major shareholder in the Canal, the French retained control. British troops later protected the Canal as it was essential to British trade and colonization. There is understated rivalry here, but on the other hand, the modern European nations are shown co-operating on scientific and economic enterprises.
The steamer Mongolia is full of military officers and rich Englishmen on their way to India. The narrator mentions that “The British Crown exercises a real and despotic dominion over the larger portion of this vast country [India]” (Chapter 10, p.46. He explains exactly how much money the officers make for exploiting the country. The steamer is like Fogg’s London club with good food and whist, so he never really has to leave England or bother about other points of view. Again the criticism is only hinted at that the English go to India for their commercial gain. On the other hand, with Sir Francis Cromarty as a guide on their trip inland, they discover the wild nature of the uncivilized natives who practice widow-burning. This scene makes the British intervention seem somewhat humane, for they have outlawed the practice of suttee.
The Princess Aouda turns out to be worth rescuing because she has had an English education. “She speaks English with great purity” (Chapter 14, p. 73) and even knows how to play whist. Too cultivated for her savage people, “She would only be safe by quitting India forever” (Chapter 14, p. 71). She is only too happy to return with Fogg to London.
Even while observing the most exotic sights of India from the fast moving train, Passepartout sees manufacturing towns like Monghir, “a more than European town, for it is as English as Manchester or Birmingham, with its iron foundries, edgetool factories, and high chimneys puffing clouds of black smoke heavenward” (Chapter 14, p. 75). Is India being ruined or delivered from its primitive state?
This question is raised again in the colony of Hong Kong where Passepartout is taken to a tavern and drugged with opium by Fix to separate him from Fogg. The narrator describes the tavern as “haunted by those wretched, cadaverous, idiotic creatures” addicted to opium through English merchants (Chapter 19, p. 97). The Chinese government cannot control this evil trade.
On the way to Hong Kong, the Rangoon passes the Andaman Islands, and the narrator remarks that “the savage Papuans” are “in the lowest scale of humanity” (Chapter 16, p. 83). This colonial prejudice towards various ethnic groups that Fogg and Passepartout encounter—the Papuans, the Indians, the Native Americans—is evidence of a nineteenth century point of view that saw colonialism as the civilizing force of the world, with science as its tool. Science then as now becomes the measure of political power. Passepartout sees in wonder the cisterns at Aden “where the English engineers were still at work, two thousand years after the engineers of Solomon” (Chapter 9, p. 45). This implies the British Empire is as powerful as Solomon’s Biblical empire. The analogy links the two periods of history into one grand human design and march of progress.