Although at first glance a seemingly incongruous element in novels geared toward adventure and scientific discovery, the persistent presence of the library in these texts must first be understood as an emblem of their overall pedagogical intent. Each such library serves as a recurrent “mise-en-abyme” reminder of the original social function of this series. The expressed goal of the collection, as outlined by Verne’s publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, was to “résumer toutes les connaissances géographiques, géologiques, physiques, et astronomiques amassées par la science moderne, et de refaire, sous [une] forme attrayante et pittoresque [...], l’histoire de l’univers.”1 Perhaps overly ambitious, these words nevertheless clearly identify the two-fold nature of Verne’s literary project: to be pragmatically educational on the one hand, fictionally entertaining on the other. Or, as Hetzel later goes on to say, “l’instruction qui amuse, l’amusement qui instruit...” (ii).
While it was Jules Verne who had originally conceived of this new type of
narrative which he called a “Roman de la Science”—a novel where the
discoveries and innovations of modern science would act as the mainspring
to the plot—it was Pierre-Jules Hetzel who insisted that Verne’s
narratives maintain a high level of didacticism: i.e., that they be
oriented toward the instruction of science as well as its
fictional applications. A fervent positivist, political activist, and
firm believer in the Republican ideals of 1848, Hetzel viewed his society
as severely lacking in the rudiments of scientific knowledge—a lacuna he
saw as the direct
As early as 1850, Hetzel began consistently to shift his publishing efforts toward literary works which would address this specific social need. In late 1862, he reviewed a newly completed manuscript entitled Cinq semaines en ballon by a certain Jules Verne and concluded that a series of such works could be a very effective fictional vehicle for supplementing the French public’s scientific awareness. Verne agreed to Hetzel’s close supervision and collaboration (some would say censorship) in this project, and a long-term contract was signed for two additional “utile et dulce” works of the same type each year—to be collectively called the Voyages extraordinaires. Appearing first in feuilleton format in Hetzel’s bi-monthly family journal the Magasin d’Education et de Récréation and then published separately as individual novels, Verne’s scientific-adventure “travel” narratives enjoyed an immediate and continuing success.
Viewed from this pedagogical perspective, Verne’s entire collection of “romans scientifiques” might reasonably be defined as a kind of fictionalized library to Science, a literary “monument” to the late 19th-century ideals of positivism. For the positivists, the physical and (even non-physical) universe resembled a vast but uncatalogued library: i.e., an ordered and taxonomically reducible assemblage of phenomena—unchanging in its essence, rational in its composition, quantifiable in its scope, hierarchical in its structure, and codifiable into a circumscribed and systematized body of human knowledge. Such is the ideological presupposition upon which a majority of the Voyages extraordinaires were constructed.2 And such is the implicit metonymic message of the great number of libraries, museums, and other repositories of encyclopedic learning so prevalent in each of Verne’s narratives. These self-contained inventories of knowledge, proud symbols of the universal order, incarnated the bourgeois ideal of unlimited acquisition and possession (of learning—ultimately of nature itself). And they served as a concrete textual reminder of humanity’s continuing “Progress” toward totalizing both its intellectual and its physical “grasp” of that universe. As an ideological artifact, Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires are an unusually faithful testament to this epistemological fixation of the Second Empire and the Troisième République.
But there is an additional sociological dimension to the omnipresence of
such libraries in Verne’s texts—one which corresponds to certain
The private library is far more than an architectural device. It concentrates a very complicated spectrum of social and psychological values.... In visual and tactile terms, it favours particular formats or genres over others, etc. The spiritual cannot be divorced from the physical fact. A man sitting alone in his personal library reading is at once the product and begetter of a particular social and moral order. It is a bourgeois order founded on certain hierarchies of literacy, of purchasing power, of leisure, of caste.4The many libraries evoked throughout Verne’s novels constitute an important textual locus of these historical realities—a visible “idéologème” of late l9th-century thought. I say “evoked” because such libraries can assume a variety of forms in Verne’s texts. Some are quite explicit: e.g., Captain Nemo’s impressive collection aboard the Nautilus (one of the numerous ambulatory libraries depicted in the Voyages extraordinaires, reminiscent of Verne’s own which he brought aboard his yacht) or that contained in Prof. Lidenbrock’s study in Voyage au centre de la terre—which served, rather revealingly, as young Axel’s schoolroom. But some, and they are by far the most interesting, are more implicit: e.g., the ubiquitous hero-scientist-pedagogue in most of Verne’s earlier narratives, such as Paganel in Les Enfants du capitaine Grant or Dr. Clawbonney in Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras. Each is portrayed as a veritable walking data-bank, a flesh and blood “library” capable of reeling off from memory page after page of detailed information on virtually any subject (and modestly so). And, on occasion, the comparison is overtly acknowledged. Consider, for example, the
Cyrus Smith instruisait ses compagnons en toutes choses, et il leur expliquait principalement les applications pratiques de la science. Les colons n’avaient point de bibliothèque à leur disposition; mais l’ingénieur était un livre toujours prêt, toujours ouvert à la page dont chacun avait besoin, un livre qui leur résolvait toutes les questions et qu’ils feuilletaient souvent.5
— parlez comme un livre, Paganel, répondit Glenarvan.The early Vernian scientist is frequently cast as a human encyclopedia, an organic dictionary, a sentient storehouse of accumulated knowledge ready to be perused. Narratologically, such “living libraries” offer certain advantages: each is highly compact and “portable,” allowing the Vernian travellers to consult instantly their reference books at any time during their journeys, whether to identify indigenous flora and fauna, to unravel a mystery, or (quite often) to escape impending doom. Such individuals are structurally essential to many of the Voyages extraordinaires. They serve not only as the Hetzel-mandated “porte-paroles” for the transmission of scientific didacticism, but also as a means whereby the practical usefulness of such knowledge may be dramatically underscored. And both tasks are accomplished within the fiction itself, without recourse to the sometimes awkward intervention of a narrator. But it is important to note that these uncommonly erudite hero-scientists are only representative microcosms of a larger system. The ultimate Vernian library, the “supreme matrix” within which these protagonists and others are continually cross-referenced, is a purely imaginary one: that highly-ordered and ever-expanding collection known as science itself.
— j’en suis un, répliqua Paganel. Libre à vous de me feuilleter tant qu’il vous plaira.6
Proportional to the degree that Verne’s works sought to proselytize
science, the principles and assumptions of science substantially affected
the narratological structure of Verne’s texts—often leaving an indelible
imprint on their basic hermeneutic design. To begin with, much like the
social function of a public library, the prime raison d’être of
the fictional voyage itself is exploration, i.e., the need to identify,
record, and preserve knowledge. Learning (both as a noun and as a
verb) is the ultimate object of the Vernian quest, whether it be by
unveiling the mysteries of the ocean’s deeps as in Vingt mille lieues
sous les mers, by penetrating the
Hence, Verne’s works, despite their reputation of being primitive variants of modern science fiction, are in fact much less extrapolative than they are purely documentational. In Verne’s own words, the purpose of this series was to “peindre la terre et même un peu l’au-delà, sous la forme du roman.”7 In order to provide his protagonists (and the reader) physical access to these realms of learning, Verne found it necessary to devise a number of extraordinary transportational vehicles; vehicles for which posterity has so vividly remembered him, but vehicles which were almost always theoretically feasible at the time of his writing. The real thrust of Verne’s texts was not centered on these futuristic technological devices—memorable as they are—but rather on the knowledge from which they sprang and, more important, on the knowledge that they could generate by allowing his heroes (and readers) to go “where no man had gone before,” as one contemporary narrator has put it. In somewhat the same fashion as computerization in today’s libraries facilitates the instant retrieval of humanity’s accumulated learning, the real purpose of the Vernian machine was to facilitate the pedagogical transmission of such learning by recreating, for the reader, an exciting first-hand experience of its discovery.
It is on this phatic level that the didactic discourse of the Voyages extraordinaires functions most convincingly. If the image of the library is one of Verne’s most preferred (and self-referential) paradigms for representing/personifying knowledge, and if encyclopedic scientific learning is continually valorized as necessary for one’s access to such knowledge (and to its benefits), reader emulation is at the hermeneutic heart of Verne’s fictional recipe for attaining this goal. The (presumably young) “implied reader” of these texts predetermined to a large degree their pedagogical structure and patterns of verisimilitude.
Predictably, the objects of emulation are the text’s fictional
protagonists, the majority of whom are continually cast in the role of
Excepting the ostrich, these “model” students are always portrayed as bright, hard-working, and very “désireux de s’instruire” (Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, p. 410). And their teachers are similarly portrayed as experts in their discipline(s), patient, good-humored, and possessors of a “prodigieuse et humaine sagacité.”8 “Unprofitable” idleness is repeatedly denounced as a cardinal sin which can be best expiated through serious instruction—especially with the aid of a library:
Savait-on ce que durerait le séjour sur cette île? Si l’on parvenait à la quitter, quelle satisfaction ce serait d’avoir mis le temps à profit! Avec les quelques livres fournis par la bibliothèque du schooner, les grands ne pouvaient-ils accroître la somme de leurs connaissances, tout en se consacrant à l’instruction des plus jeunes? Excellente besogne, qui occuperait utilement et agréablement les longues heures de l’hiver!9
Causerie pendant que l’on travaillait, lecture quand les mains restaient oisives, et le temps s’écoulait avec profit pour tout le monde. (Ile mystérieuse, p. 457)From a narratological standpoint, it is also interesting to note where a great deal of the anti-idleness pedagogy takes place in these texts and how it dovetails with the “action-packed” plot structures of the Voyages extraordinaires. In general, such moments of didacticism fill the “holes” in the narrative—those moments when the heroes are not actively exploring, fighting for their lives, conducting experiments, or rescuing those in peril. For example, if the narrative format is basically that of a “robinsonnade” (Ile mystérieuse, Deux ans de vacances, Hector Servadac), mimesis dictates that during periods of inclement weather the protagonists remain in their cave or other shelter. And it is at these moments, in order to avoid “oisiveté” and “ennui,” that they (and the reader) are educated via instructive readings from their library—human or otherwise. If the narrative format requires a long ocean cruise (e.g., Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, Un capitaine de 15 ans), mimesis dictates that—at least for those “land-
Hoping to further maximize reader identification and emulation, Verne’s narratives also consistently swathe the potentially alienating scientific lessons-to-be-learned with a host of “de-alienating” buffer devices. As a rule, the new is always embedded in the old, the strange is always anchored in the traditional, and the extraordinary is always firmly rooted in the ordinary. In every Vernian “voyage,” all movement is duly measured and all phenomena classified for later recall. Each begins with a concrete reference to time and place; characterization is stereotypical; and overall plot development is foreseeable. Good always conquers evil; machines are always anthropomorphized; chronology is always respected; good-natured humor always lightens the seriousness of tone; and maps and predecessors always indicate the right path. There are no time-warps, space-warps, or mind-warps. All is mimetic or rendered mimetic in short order. Thus, for the scientifically untutored reader, the structural simplicity and fictional predictability of this series largely compensates for the continual “otherness” of its pedagogical subject-matter.
But there is one seemingly omnipresent “buffer” in these texts that is of special note—particularly when considering the library as a privileged location for quiet study. It is subliminal in nature but nevertheless quite palpable in the majority of the Voyages extraordinaires, providing a kind of “comforting” emotional security to the voyageur/reader. Roland Barthes was among the first to call attention to it in a 1957 essay in Mythologies entitled “Nautilus et Bateau Ivre”:
Verne a construit une sorte de cosmogonie fermée sur elle-même, qui a ses catégories propres, son temps, son espace, sa plénitude, et même son principe existentiel.The construction and/or habitation of enclosed and “safe” spaces is a constantly recurring theme throughout Verne’s works—simultaneously offering the protagonist/reader a privileged observational vantage point and the text a means to initiate its pedagogy. Such spaces include the many “ambulatory homes” of the Voyages extraordinaires: the Nautilus of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, the Steam-House and “Géant d’acier” of La Maison à vapeur, the artificial island of L’Ile à hélice, and the high-flying Albatros of Robur-le-conquérant, among others. The “arm-chair voyage” character of these novels is quite literally that, for the protagonist as well as the reader. Each fictional vehicle doubles as a real chez soi—complete with plush Victorian furniture, art works, library, and dining-room as well as such “necessary” items as devoted servants and nearly inexhaustible provisions for the comfort of the passengers. These mobile mansions portray the ultimate bourgeois dream of taking along all of one’s possessions when travelling. And, as might be expected, such modes of transportation are repeatedly extolled as “le dernier mot du progrès en matière de voyage!”11—the term “progrès” being defined, of course, principally in terms of the bourgeois “will to possess” epistemè discussed above.
Ce principe me paraît être le geste continu de l’enfermement. L’imagination du voyage correspond chez Verne à une exploration de la clôture, et l’accord de Verne et de l’enfance ne vient pas d’une mystique banale de l’aventure, mais au contraire d’un bonheur commun du fini, que l’on retrouve dans la passion enfantine des cabanes et des tentes: s’enclore et
page 82s’installer, tel est le rêve existentiel de l’enfance et de Verne. [...]
Verne a été un maniaque de la plenitude: it ne cessait de finir le monde et de le meubler, de le faire plein à la façon d’un oeuf [...] Verne ne cherchait nullement à élargir le monde selon des voies romantiques d’évasion ou des plans mystiques d’infini: il cherchait sans cesse à le rétracter, à le peupler, à le réduire à un espace connu et clos, que l’homme pourrait ensuite habiter confortablement [...]10
Further, each vehicle inevitably features some form of window to allow
the heroes—“from the comfort of their own home”—to take in the movie-like
spectacle of the outside world. Quite often, such windows (in the
Nautilus, in Barbicane’s space-bullet, etc.) also function to safeguard
the inhabitants from the dangers of the exterior environment, while
providing an excellent “milieu transparent”12 for its first-hand study. In all cases, such
windows serve to designate the boundary between the “us” and the “them”;
they represent the tangible point of contact between the reassuringly
insular world of “owned” and “filled” space and that exterior, “empty”
space yet to be possessed. Finally, these comfortably enclosed “windows
on the world” in Verne’s fictions might be viewed as the perfect
architectural synecdoche for that institution which, in so many ways,
exemplifies the character of the Voyages extraordinaires
themselves: the library.
There are many other parallels between the function of libraries as tools of learning and that of Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires. As a scientific reference book, each novel in this series parallels those mechanisms intrinsic to the operation of a library (i.e., collection, taxonomic classification, topical retrieval, etc.). And each does so both internally, in the protagonists’ continual deciphering of the mysteries of nature, and externally, in the reader’s deciphering of the text itself—a brand of text that is structured in a very linear, accumulative fashion but which continually oscillates between recognizable fictional topoi (love triangles, Romantic sunsets, in-the-nick-of-time rescues, etc.) and cryptic scientific jargon that is often understandable to the reader only through recourse to additional reference texts.
Another library-like narrative feature in these novels is the incessant use of footnotes—over 700 of them throughout this series, each providing additional documentation pertaining to a scientific fact, a scientist, or a particular scientific theory. The prevalence of such extra-textual references makes the entirety of the Voyages extraordinaires seem like a gigantic “fichier,” a huge card-catalogue of 19th-century scientific knowledge. But this impression is quite deceiving. For a substantial number of such references are not only erroneous, but totally imaginary—invented by Verne himself to bolster the internal verisimilitude of his fictional narrative and/or to maintain the narrator’s authority as pedagogue. Many are unabashedly self-referential and serve as a kind of intertextual device recalling the events or personages from other novels of the Voyages extraordinaires and presenting them as historically real. For example, when the hero-narrator of Le Sphinx des glaces passes near to—but is unable to approach—the South Pole, a footnote on that page explains:
Vingt-huit ans plus tard, ce que M. Jeorling n’avait pu même entrevoir, un autre l’avait vu, un autre avait pris pied sur ce point du globe, le 21 mars 1886 [...] il prenait possession de ce continent en son nom personnel et deployait un pavillon à l’étamine brodée d’un “N” d’or. Au large flottait un bateau sous-marin qui s’appelait Nautilus et dont le capitaine s’appelait le capitaine Nemo.13Clearly this type of footnote usage is quite different from the purely documentational variety. Here the deliberately pedagogical becomes entwined with narratological mechanisms of verisimilitude, as the inherent “authority” of the footnoting procedure itself is redirected toward fictional ends rather than didactic ones. A somewhat hyperbolic case of
Other such imaginary references presented as historical fact abound in the Voyages extraordinaires. Sometimes actual textbooks are named and attributed to the fictional protagonists. For example, the narrator of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, the professor Pierre Aronnax, is said to have published a tome entitled Les Mystères des grands fonds sousmarins (a work which figures in the otherwise quite realistic library of literary and scientific masterpieces aboard the Nautilus, earning its author words of praise from captain Nemo). The rather “original” professor Lidenbrock of Voyage au centre de la terre, we are told, published in 1853 a work entitled Traité de Cristallographie transcendante, intriguingly described as a “grand in-folio avec planches.”15 And following his subterranean adventures, Lidenbrock once again is said to have published an account of his experiences in a text called Voyage au centre de la terre—a work of such tremendous import that it was “imprimé et traduit dans toutes les langues” and “fit une énorme sensation dans le monde”! (Voyage au centre de la terre, pp. 370-71). Paganel of Les Enfants du capitaine Grant supposedly authored a great number of articles appearing in the respected professional journals of the Société de Géographie de Paris, the Institut Royal Géographique et Ethnographique, and other scientific organizations. And the list continues... One purpose of such wholly imaginary references is to increase the scientific as well as fictional believability of those scientists who are designed to function as the prime mediators of scientific pedagogy throughout these texts. But it is nevertheless supremely ironic that it is via imaginary publications that these fictional protagonists gain a greater amount of textual authority as spokesmen of scientific truths.
Thus, the constant mixing of the real and the imaginary in the Vernian library—the citing of wholly fictitious authors and works alongside famous and/or canonical texts, and even the inclusion of several titles from the Voyages extraordinaires themselves—is more than just novelistic playfulness on the author’s part. It is a practical and effective narrative strategy. The latter variant, in particular, provides Verne with a
But those purely fictitious references found in Verne’s scientific libraries—those invented by the author or those titles from his own collection—are nonetheless rather problematic pedagogically. They tend to blur the reader’s perception of the text’s overall referentiality, short-circuiting the capacity to distinguish between what is an “effet de réel” and what is pure novelistic invention. Subversive by nature, this narrative trait has the ultimate (albeit ironic) effect of seriously undermining the library’s intended ideological and didactic function throughout the Voyages extraordinaires. It is, consequently, an important textual marker of the inherently conflictual two-fold nature (one is tempted to say the latent schizophrenia) of Verne’s “roman scientifique” as a genre: a kind of writing which seeks simultaneously to be an educative instrument but also a fictional narrative, a vehicle of documentational fact but also of novelistic fantasy, science but also literature. Perplexingly oxymoronic at times, the “extraordinary” libraries of Jules Verne thus epitomize the narratological tension that exists between two very different types of discourse16 which are continually (and one might say necessarily) juxtaposed in this brand of text: the predominantly denotative and paradigmatically “pure” referent of scientific commentary versus that highly connotative and continuously self-reflective realm of language itself—which we have come to call “écriture.”