Sunday, November 05, 2017

Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island


Opening Passage:

“Are we rising again?” “No. On the contrary.” “Are we descending?” “Worse than that, captain! we are falling!” “For Heaven’s sake heave out the ballast!” “There! the last sack is empty!” “Does the balloon rise?” “No!” “I hear a noise like the dashing of waves. The sea is below the car! It cannot be more than 500 feet from us!” “Overboard with every weight! ... everything!”

Such were the loud and startling words which resounded through the air, above the vast watery desert of the Pacific, about four o’clock in the evening of the 23rd of March, 1865.

Summary: Captured by the Confederacy, a group of prisoners make a daring escape in a balloon during a hurricane. They are blown to the Pacific and land on an uncharted island. Together they build civilization until they are at last forced to leave by the island's awakening volcano. The prisoners represent the best that humanity has to offer (the names used in English translations often differ from Verne's own):

Captain Cyrus Harding (Cyrus Smith in the original), an engineer for the Union army;

Gideon Spilett (Gédéon Spilett in the original), a daring reporter with a wide experience of the world;

Nebuchadnezzar, known as Neb (Nabuchodonosor or Nab in the original), a slave who had been freed by Harding and who risks his life to try to rescue Harding from Richmond;

Bonadventure Pencroft (Bonadventure Pencroff in the original), a sailor who is trapped in Richmond during the siege, and like all sailors of long experience is something of a jack of all trades;

Herbert (Harbert Brown in the original), Pencroft's teenaged ward, the orphan of a former captain and an enthusiast for natural history.

Robinsonades can be fairly generous or fairly stingy with what they provide their stranded travelers; Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is somewhat middling, while The Swiss Family Robinson is very generous. Verne falls on the less generous side, but he still provides his escapees with a match, two watches, a balloon, a seed, some writing materials, and so forth. This might seem like cheating (particularly the grain of corn) but Verne is not writing a survival book; he is not, contrary to what people seem to expect from a robinsonade, exploring the ability of the human mind to triumph over nature. Verne is less interested in the ability to surive than in the ability to build civilization, and the point is that the mind of man can take a little drop of civilization and turn it into a steady stream. As he says at one point:

So is man’s heart. The desire to perform a work which will endure, which will survive him, is the origin of his superiority over all other living creatures here below. It is this which has established his dominion, and this it is which justifies it, over all the world.

The same can be said for the edge they have in knowledge. Isaac Asimov has an afterword in which he notes that, despite having training as a chemist, he would expect that if he tried to make nitroglycerine from scratch the way Cyrus Harding does, he would blow himself to bits; and it's remarkable that Herbert is not just good at natural history but a walking encyclopedia. But the point is not that these are supposed to be ordinary people; they represent the whole human race insofar as we are capable of building works that endure.

It is therefore not remotely a matter of chance that Verne picked people from the Union, or had them name their island after Abraham Lincoln; it is not an accident of story that one of Verne's heroes is a freed slave; it is entirely consistent with the theme that the heroes are often called upon to exercise compassion on others, and that this book, which is a sequel to both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Children of Captain Grant sees the redemption of two apparently unredeemable characters from those books. Freedom, and particularly the kind of freedom by which people work together for common good, plays a central role in Verne's conception of what civilization is. It ties in with the redemption arcs, too; it is the fact that the heroes are Union abolitionists that sparks compassion in the proud and misanthropic Indian prince, turned bitter from the failure of his people to win their liberty from the British. (I watched The Mysterious Island movie, and listened to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater episode. The former was just awful, and the latter not bad, but neither grasped, I think, this essential element, that Verne's interest is civilization, which requires both freedom and compassion.) Likewise, I think it is not an accident that religion plays a fairly prominent role in this work, compared to some of Verne's other works. It is not an accident that the prisoners have nothing to do but trust divine providence in coming to the island, and it is not an accident that they are left in the same state when leaving.

I don't think I ever read this one as a teenager; I would have loved it -- it's a story full of adventure that is nonetheless not afraid to stop and tell you how to make guncotton or batteries or a telegraph system.

Favorite Passage:

Everything was finished, and the settlers had only to descend Mount Franklin to return to the Chimneys, when Pencroft cried out,—

“Well! we are preciously stupid!”

“Why?” asked Gideon Spilett, who had closed his notebook and risen to depart.

“Why! our island! we have forgotten to christen it!”

Herbert was going to propose to give it the engineer’s name and all his companions would have applauded him, when Cyrus Harding said simply,—

“Let us give it the name of a great citizen, my friend; of him who now struggles to defend the unity of the American Republic! Let us call it Lincoln Island!”

The engineer’s proposal was replied to by three hurrahs.

And that evening, before sleeping, the new colonists talked of their absent country; they spoke of the terrible war which stained it with blood; they could not doubt that the South would soon be subdued, and that the cause of the North, the cause of justice, would triumph, thanks to Grant, thanks to Lincoln!

Now this happened the 30th of March, 1865. They little knew that sixteen days afterwards a frightful crime would be committed in Washington, and that on Good Friday Abraham Lincoln would fall by the hand of a fanatic.

Recommendation: Not the strongest of Verne's works, I think, but still Highly Recommended.

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