Jules Verne’s paradoxes of progress

  • Themes: Culture, Technology

Jules Verne's exhilarating blend of science, adventure and fantasy proved a winning formula, but the prolific author was also a complex thinker, who skewed towards a deistic view of the natural world.

Illustration from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.
Illustration from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

No prizes for guessing who the world’s most-translated author is – Agatha Christie. The runner-up is more surprising – Jules Verne. In the UK and the US he is most famous for Hollywood blockbusters designed for children, but in France his reputation as a literary author stands so high his name adorns a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

Extraordinarily prolific, Verne wrote influential plays, poetry and works of non-fiction as well as the adventure novels that consolidated his reputation. Yet until around the end of the twentieth century, versions available in English had mostly been abridged and even altered. Without the full power of his narrative and linguistic work available, his most obvious impact was on science fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. In contrast, in French literature he provided an important source for the symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, while members of the 1920s avant-garde – including Jean Cocteau and Eugène Ionesco – repeatedly paid tribute to Verne as a precursor of the surrealist movement.

Film buffs celebrate Verne as the main inspiration behind Le Voyage dans la Lune [A Trip to the Moon] of 1902, a ten-minute sequence directed by Georges Méliès, now recognised as the first science fiction movie. Almost 50 years earlier, Verne’s original story had seemed so realistic that he was inundated with letters asking to join his next lunar expedition. Méliès’s adaptation, now available online both in black-and-white and as a later hand-coloured print, includes one of cinema’s most celebrated images – the man-carrying rocket blasted skyward from planet Earth that has penetrated the Moon’s eye. In this parable of imperial ambition, the male travellers return safely home, but at the cost of violating the female planet.

Born in 1828 and brought up on an island in the Loire, Verne was – as evidenced by his writing – fascinated by water and travel. He was only eleven when he embarked on a thwarted bid to sail for the West Indies, but later crossed the Atlantic and visited Niagara Falls. A great fan of Edgar Allan Poe, his favourite reading was Robinson Crusoe, the most obvious influence on his repeated themes of self-sufficiency and individual survival against the odds. Verne’s personal life was bumpy: he antagonised his domineering father by refusing to follow him into a legal career, suffered chronic ill health, despatched his son to a reform school and acquired a permanent limp after being shot by his nephew. Even so, working in close collaboration with his publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne generated words and ideas at an extraordinary rate, producing over 50 serialised novels as well as fifteen plays and many other shorter pieces. Locked into a flat-fee contract with Hetzel, Verne struggled financially until spin-offs began to appear relatively late in his career.

Although his imagined journeys specialise in nail-biting entertainment, Verne was also fired by a didactic charge. A meticulous researcher, he packed his Voyages Extraordinaires with facts, measurements and calculations, seizing every opportunity for informative digressions. While these educational tales verge on the edge of scientific feasibility, they are also laced with moral messages. For Verne, progress is paradoxical: desirable to achieve, it inevitably incurs damaging side-effects. Originally a Catholic, Verne veered towards a deistic view, pronouncing that knowledge of the natural world should be sought slowly and under the guidance of providence: divine mysteries deserve to be cautiously unravelled, not abruptly split open. Reason will ultimately triumph, but humanity will stumble along the way – or in the words of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth’s dogmatic Professor Lidenbrock, ‘Science, great, mighty and in the end unerring… has fallen into many errors – errors which have been fortunate and useful rather than otherwise, for they have been the steppingstones to truth.’

Professor Lidenbrock leads the expedition described in Verne’s first major success. Published in 1864 and as an expanded version three years later, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth set the tone for future works, which often deployed similar literary strategies. Male readers could identify with the narrator, a young man alternating between despair and enthusiasm as his obstinate, erudite uncle refuses to be deterred from his mission to explore the hellishly hot regions lying deep below the Earth’s crust. The plot zips along in a relentless succession of crises – loss of provisions, electrical storms, malevolent beasts – that are all eventually resolved, allowing the saga to continue until the terrified travellers are spat out of a live volcano. As if he had survived a series of initiation rites, the youthful novice emerges a hero, fit to marry the bride awaiting him at home.

Verne never lets his audience forget the primacy of science, repeatedly stressing the importance of a collaborative quest for accurate knowledge and technological achievement. As the explorers dive downwards, they simultaneously travel backwards in time, slicing through accumulated layers of fossils to discover increasingly primitive forms of life. Verne ingeniously makes this fantastic venture almost credible by weaving in real-life scientists – including the English electro-chemist Humphry Davy – and skilfully condensing 400 pages of the latest French tome on palaeontology into 600 words. Yet almost imperceptibly, Verne slides into compelling dream-like fantasies of prehistoric animals alive and flourishing in the bowels of the Earth.

‘What a style!’ exclaimed the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Nothing but nouns!’ Although not all the critics shared his admiration, Verne’s blend of science, adventure and fantasy proved a winning formula. His aim, he wrote later, was ‘to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe.’ Novel followed novel at the rate of a couple a year, mostly structured episodically as his intrepid heroes lurched from one dilemma to the next.

The greatest success during his lifetime was Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), a two-man journey led by the obsessive English eccentric Phineas Fogg as he evades arrest by dogged Inspector Fix. The dramatic tension is enhanced by the pressure of time. Fogg’s fortune depends on meeting a deadline for his return to London – and thanks to the wonders of recent scientific innovations, the pair just manage to squeak home and save Fogg from financial ruin. Characteristically, Verne does not award all the glory to technology: triumph also depends on accommodating the implacable laws of nature. Since no international date line had yet been agreed, the watch of a voyager moving eastwards continually gained in time, an anomaly that had been intriguing Verne for several years. In a concluding twist, Fogg has a spare day to cash in. Ironically, Verne died in 1905, the same year Albert Einstein introduced relativity theory and so resolved the difficulties of synchronising clocks around the globe: technological advances spurred scientists to revise the fundamental theories of physics.

Two years before introducing Phineas Fogg to the world, Verne had published the final instalment of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870), his most sophisticated presentation of the tensions between the natural, human and technological worlds. The story opens with an expedition to confront a giant monster that has been attacking ships in the Pacific – but this supposedly living enemy turns out to be a man-made behemoth, the Nautilus, a futuristic submarine only eventually defeated by the power of a naturally occurring oceanic maelstrom. Its commander is the enigmatic Captain Nemo, named after the Greek wanderer Odysseus who lived in exile for ten years. Riven by internal conflict, Nemo is castigated as ‘a veritable archangel of hatred,’ but he perpetually wavers between compassion and revenge. Professing to be the victim of a tyrannical regime – diplomatically left unnamed after Hetzel insisted Verne remove references to recent Russian offensives against Poles – Nemo acts as a champion of the poor and oppressed, a saviour who finances a popular rebellion and pours riches on an impoverished pearl diver whom he rescues from a shark attack. Yet a far darker flipside seethes within him: this defender of liberty rules despotically over the inhabitants of his underwater capsule, refusing to let them escape. The overlord of his crew, he is enslaved by the contradictory passions that torment him.

Thanks largely to the award- winning Walt Disney film of 1954, Nemo has acquired a quasi-reality shared by singular fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes. In an ending that differs from Verne’s original, Nemo’s final act is to steer the Nautilus and its passengers down to destruction. His concluding words might be those of Verne himself: ‘But there is hope for the future. When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God’s good time.’


Patricia Fara