Phileas Fogg – the Modern Man

No book has captivated me more than Jules Verne’s Le Tour de Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours. It was published in English as Around the World in Eighty Days – which is of course how I read it, since I do not read French. I read George Makepeace Towle’s translation which appeared in 1873 and has been the main translation reprinted ever since.

It is not exaggeration when I tell you that since discovering this book as a young teen – probably about thirteen – I have read it at least two dozen times. It was the first book I ever kept by my bed (other than a Bible) and I own a couple of copies, although the original paperback still sits on my shelf at home.

I am currently reading it again, this time on my Nook, and I have been reflecting on what it is about this book that keeps drawing me back. There is something about the way Verne crafted his main characters that I cannot resist. They have become my constant companions through life.

Phileas Fogg

Verne came upon the idea while serving in the coastguard during the Franco-Prussian War. He was sitting at a cafe, reading a newspaper when it occurred to him just how small the world was. Someone with considerable means could, with precision, make the journey around the world in eighty days.

But who would make this circumnavigation? Not a Frenchman, not an American. It must be a British gentleman, and he must be the pinnacle of all that Verne saw as British precision. He must have the cold, detached strength of logic and absolute reliance on reason. He must be, in short, a Victorian superman.

And so, Verne created a marvelous character named Phileas Fogg. Oddly enough, Phileas comes from the Greek word for love. It is the root of the words philosophy and philadelphia. The root of the name Fogg should be obvious. What exactly the author meant to evoke with these names is hard to say, but certainly Phileas Fogg is a man of mystery and a man of deep intellectual passion.

Passepartout

Of course his protagonist must be accompanied by a Frenchman, someone who would be the fire to the Englishman’s ice. Someone with the devotion and skills to do the physical things that a true English gentleman would never descend to.And so, Verne created Phileas Fogg and his French servant – Jean Passepartout.

If Fogg represents all that is imperial and cold about Victorian England, Passepartout represents all that is beautiful and slightly askew in the rest of the world. he spends the entire book in awe of the places he is going and in absolute admiration of the people he meets. But along the way, he becomes his master’s savior on more than one occasion.

Passepartout is a former fireman, acrobat and all around good guy. Although only in Fogg’s service for a few hours at the beginning of the adventure, he becomes the real hero of the story. He is constantly in dire straits and yet he manages to overcome them and pull off the wildest things Fogg proposes.

At every major moment, it is Passepartout who comes up with the solutions to their major problems. And although he falters several times, he faithfully returns to Fogg at just the right time and practically carries him at some moments.

My Interpretation

Verne was living in a crucial time in Europe. The Franco-Prussian War tore the continent apart and laid the foundations of what would become the World Wars. He was living at the height of imperial Europe, when Britain reigned over an empire upon which the sun never set. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the world was getting smaller. The sense of superiority was in the air.

Phileas Fogg represents the cold, superior British empire. He is powered by technology, and Verne often uses the metaphor of a clockwork to describe him. He is quite literally a living machine.

But the machine cannot survive without the heart. Without the passionate, fallible Passepartout, Fogg would not succeed at his task. And when the beautiful Indian princess Aouda is introduced, Fogg develops an abiding love for her. When he believes he has failed at his project, he believes himself a broken man and reveals his feelings for her.

After reading Verne’s constant references to Fogg as a precise machine, like a watch, you cannot help but be struck by the irony that it is Passepartout’s watch that wins the wager for them and allows Fogg to become the first man to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days.

Verne’s message is, I think, that machines are meant to be precise but human beings are creatures of the heart. Fogg’s adventure is saved by his somewhat chaotic servant’s watch, but his humanity is saved by Aouda’s love and Passepartout’s passion and schwa da vie.

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