SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, XXXII:1 #95 (March 2005): 5-17.

Timothy Unwin

Jules Verne: Negotiating Change in the Nineteenth Century

Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires, the vast corpus of novels written over a forty-two year period from 1863 to 1905, are quintessentially a document about a changing world and the new possibilities—social, scientific, or political—opened up by progress.1 As travel and technology move to center stage and become in every sense a “motive force” in the storytelling process, Jules Verne lengthily records the nineteenth century’s fascination with the machine and its miraculous power to shrink the globe, enable communication, facilitate construction, or, in some cases, precipitate destruction. At the same time, while colonial expansion changes the century’s perception of the geo-political map, so too the boundaries of fiction itself are redrawn by Verne in a groundbreaking vision that shifts the novel from local to global concerns. This is partly because, writing to the pedagogic remit assigned to him at the outset by his editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne deliberately aims to instruct and enlighten his adolescent reader through a series of fictional journeys beyond the frontiers of the homeland. His focus—with a few interesting exceptions—is rarely on France itself, already amply covered in the school curriculum. It is significant that, in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), the crossing of France is entirely elided in Phileas Fogg’s outward journey. Nor is there any reference in that novel to the terrible recent events of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, which are no doubt far too close to home for a reading public in need of escape and wishing to be enlightened about more far-flung places.

With its shift to technology, travel, and the international arena, the world that Jules Verne portrays is immediately distinct from that of most “canonical” nineteenth-century novelists, though there are interesting parallels to be found in the work of writers such as Emile Souvestre—whose 1846 novel Le Monde tel qu’il sera (The World As It Shall Be) involves the very Vernian theme of a floating island—or the better-known Albert Robida, author and illustrator of the influential Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1883). Nor should we forget that a host of imitators such as Louis Boussenard, author of Le Tour du monde d’un gamin de Paris(Around the World: The Journey of a Parisian Boy, 1892) pay homage to Verne through their titles and their use of the pedagogical format.2 While Baudelaire, Flaubert, Hugo and others develop a complex poetic concept of travel and its artistic implications, however, Verne concentrates above all on its practicalities, focusing on the technical details of locomotion, communication, and what we nowadays call “lifestyle.” From the submarine to the ocean liner, the train to the motor car, the balloon to the airplane, the phonograph to the telephone, the photograph to the moving image, virtually no aspect of contemporary technological experiment or development remains unmentioned or untouched in his writings. Yet he also opens his reader’s eyes to the political dimensions of exploration and colonization, since he takes a strong

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interest in the issue of nationalities, both in terms of particular national characteristics (the British and the Americans are subjected to especially lively characterization in his novels) and in terms of national uprisings and the oppression of minorities. Nemo, among many other characters in Verne’s work, is famously the champion of an oppressed group.

It is often hastily deduced that, because Jules Verne depicts a changing world, it is also by definition futuristic; but the two notions are far from being synonymous. True, there are a number of stories in the Voyages Extraordinaires that evoke a world at some distance in the future. One notable example is the text entitled In the Year 2889, written in 1889, probably in collaboration with Jules Verne’s son Michel. It describes a brave new world of videoconferencing and helicopter travel in which commerce is king and brightly colored advertisements are projected onto the clouds. But this type of story is the exception, since most of Verne’s novels move explicitly from events in a recent past to a narrative present that coincides with the actual moment of the book’s writing. Where there is speculation in his work about the future possibilities of technology, as in the story just mentioned, it almost always takes the form of an implicitly ironic commentary on the author’s own century. This is also the case with that more recently published text that resulted in the flow of so much ink, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Despite its apparent foretelling of new technologies, this early Jules Verne novel (most probably written in 1863) was conceived very much within the zeitgeist of the mid-nineteenth century. Even the so-called inventions in that story—notably the fax machine—were being developed in the 1860s, and Guillaume Caselli’s “pantelegraph,” which was the acknowledged model for Jules Verne’s device, can today be seen in Paris at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.3 Jules Verne is not quite the father of science fiction that he is so often claimed to be, for when he writes of global travel and technological wizardry, it is firmly in the context of nineteenth-century values and expectations, and almost always with contemporary developments in mind. His space travelers are, to adapt William Golding’s felicitous phrase, “astronauts by gaslight” (Haining 79). They wear top hat and tails, and drink a Côtes de Nuits in the ordinary manner from glasses—without apparently having to contend with weightlessness—once their craft is in space. But despite the obvious elements of fantasy and the many scientific mistakes, Verne’s focus is almost exclusively on what is already known, and his novels are nourished above all by existing scientific, geographical, and historical documents. In a 1903 interview with the American journalist Robert H. Sherard, Verne declared that, while H.G. Wells invented new metals and defied gravity, he himself needed to invent nothing and respected the laws of physics—though he stressed (a little disingenuously, perhaps) that this was less a criticism of H.G. Wells than an affirmation of their difference of approach (“Jules Verne Revisited”).4 What is unknown is by and large avoided in the work of Jules Verne, who used the high-circulation scientific and geographical publications of his day—Le Magasin pittoresque, Le Musée des familles, Le Tour du monde, La Revue illustrée, and others—and the popularizing works of scientists such as Louis Figuier or Camille Flammarion as the documentary basis of his writing. On more than one occasion, Jules Verne pointed to the central

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importance of written sources as a trigger to his own creativity.5 This is perhaps another way in which he is a barometer of the mode and the mentality of the nineteenth century, for his writing is a compendium of its scientific discourses, indeed a patchwork of its different voices, as Daniel Compère has so convincingly and eloquently argued (most notably in his Jules Verne, écrivain). Rather than being truly futuristic, Verne’s work is in many ways about his own century. Marie-Hélène Huet goes so far as to affirm that “Jules Verne’s real originality was not to have imagined the twentieth century, but to have portrayed the realities and the aspirations of the nineteenth” (177).

Some commentators have taken this a stage further and argued that, far from being obsessed with the future, Jules Verne is in reality fixated on the past. His novels have produced rich results when read as texts that celebrate an era of mythical innocence or a return to primitive origins. Simone Vierne observes that “Jules Verne is far from being, as is all too often claimed, the champion of technological progress” (“Introduction” 28). Throughout her work on Verne she demonstrates how ancient myths are reused and recycled by the novelist in a modern framework. The figures of Prometheus, Vulcan, Icarus, Orpheus, Pluto, Janus, and others reappear with all the trappings of modern scientific discourse and the apparel of new technology; and Verne’s machines, far from being well-honed and efficient devices, are more like mythological monsters (Mythe et modernité 77-78). From this it might be easy to draw the conclusion that even as they celebrate change and contemplate advancing technology with that sense of its miraculousness so typical of the century, Jules Verne’s so-called novels of anticipation are in fact a journey back in time. That the past is a fundamental and recurring feature of his world-view is certain, and it is nowhere more explicitly underlined than in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which turns out not to be a departure to a brave new future at all, but a return to prehistory. There, Verne’s travelers go downwards through the earth’s crust and backwards in time, as they discover the evidence of ever more distant animal and mineral eras. If ever there were a story about the return to lost origins, this is it.

Accompanying this valorization of the past is a sense that “science,” as a modern or futuristic instrument, is of dubious value in any case. In a one-off piece on Jules Verne, Michel Foucault once claimed that the best scientists in Verne’s work are the ones who make mistakes and thus reveal their humanity (10-11), rather than those who coldly calculate with unswerving logic. Foucault’s argument carries the clear implication that error and inaccuracy, as a central part of Verne’s system, are a necessary stage in the discovery of knowledge, since knowledge is only relative and can only be a process of gradual correction of previous errors. As Lidenbrock points out to Axel in Journey to the Center of the Earth, “science, my boy, is made up of errors” (213). So science, too, is in some senses a backward-looking discipline in Jules Verne’s work, full of quirks, eccentricities, and downright absurdities. While his astronauts defy gravity, his famous submarine is powered rather over-optimistically by electricity and carries within it a vast library and art collection. Meanwhile, his flying machine in Robur the Conqueror (1886) is an ungainly amalgam of helicopter and hot-air balloon that loudly proclaims its lack of airworthiness to any but the most naive reader.

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Jules Verne gets very few points for accurate prediction of the future. He is quite aware, however, of the imperfections of all science, including his own, and he takes pleasure in reminding us that “the present state of our knowledge” (as Claude Bernard famously referred to it in his Introduction to Experimental Medicine, 1865) is provisional, always subject to revision in the light of new discoveries.

Verne’s precarious and sometimes frankly untenable science has led some commentators, notably Michel Serres, to challenge the technological validity of the Voyages Extraordinaires, and to see the author as someone behind his time rather than truly in tune with contemporary developments. Starting from the position that Jules Verne is not a science-fiction author at all, Serres goes on to draw some interesting conclusions:

Verne’s fictions are, we are told, a form of science fiction. That is quite simply wrong. Not one single rule of mechanics is bypassed, and no natural laws, laws of physics, laws about the resistance of materials, or laws about biology, are extrapolated. Overall, the scientific content is well behind the times. Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet are encyclopedists of a different order—much better informed, much less childish. Far from being novels of anticipation, Verne’s novels are, on that point, not even up to date. Just think of it: they are still celebrating the discovery of steam and electricity! As far as technical wizardry is concerned, they offer a retrospective view while seeming to look ahead. (82)
It is true that the laws of mechanics and physics are by and large (though not always) upheld in Verne, and that his novels are not anticipatory in the way we might expect of some science fiction. Yet it is probably an exaggeration to claim, as Serres does, that Verne is not even up to date scientifically, or that he is scientifically naive. All the evidence of his working methods suggests that he was a man exceptionally well attuned to the developments of his day and curious to record in his fiction all manner of recent information. While steam had been replacing sail since Verne’s childhood in Nantes, electricity, contrary to what Serres curiously claims, was still a novelty in the closing decades of the century (its rise as a new form of energy and technology was triumphantly recorded in the International Electricity Exhibition held in Paris in 1881, and further celebrated in a different form two years later in Robida’s The Twentieth Century). And since Serres makes a comparison with Bouvard and Pécuchet, it should be said that Flaubert’s two drudges, unlike Verne’s scientists, pursue a false quest for the impossible synthesis of knowledge, a search for the philosopher’s stone that will lead them to some kind of absolute. They are constantly shown up as naive and deluded, the hapless victims of a defective scientific method, and menaced by impending, encroaching, omnipresent “bêtise,” or stupidity. Verne’s scientists, on the other hand, deal with specific and well-documented topical problems, all to do with science and exploration, and to that extent they are men of their century. They are invariably at the pinnacle of their discipline, and as they search for a solution to a problem, they pursue whatever means they can to solve it. They are armed with relevant and recent knowledge about their subject, as well as being conversant with its history.
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Typically, these men are geographers, mathematicians, astronomers, or engineers, and sometimes they are comically and entertainingly obsessed with their discipline. After all, Verne was trying to promote the interest of science, and humor was, as Arthur Evans has shown, an important and surprisingly flexible pedagogical aid (Jules Verne Rediscovered 143-47). The most engaging of Verne’s scientists, rather than trying to engineer some brave new world, seek above all to find the answer to a single question. Barring a few exceptions, they are harmless monomaniacs, seen as such by the other characters within the fiction. Their eccentricity is summed up by the figure of Palander in Adventures of Three Russians and Three Englishmen in Southern Africa (1872). A mathematician who disappears at a particularly dangerous and delicate point of the expedition, Palander is discovered a few days later in deep meditation, blissfully unaware that he has been surrounded by a group of deadly crocodiles about to pounce on him. Unaware, too, that he has been saved by his fellow travelers, Palander delightedly exclaims that he has just found an error in the decimal of the 103rd logarithm in the Wolston tables! This is the harmless stuff of which Verne’s scientist-travelers are made. Part of their interest, however, is that they are capable of getting things absurdly out of proportion, both in human and in scientific terms. The case of Palmyrin Rosette, the astronomer-mathematician in Hector Servadac (1877), is also typical. The ultimate eccentric, he pursues his demonstrations and calculations with dizzying and exuberant showmanship, refusing his listeners a moment’s pause. To the suggestion that a breathing space might be a good idea, he retorts: “But, sir, nobody stops for breath when it comes to mathematics!” (80). And despite their huge knowledge and almost magical skills, Verne’s scientists can also make the oddest of mistakes, proving both their own fallibility and the relativity of their science. In The Children of Captain Grant (1866-68), the geographer Paganel sets off on a journey in entirely the wrong direction, while in The Fur Country (1873), the astronomer Thomas Black, in search of an eclipse, rather unwisely advocates the use of a lens to look directly at the sun. The lesson is that even the best science, in human hands, is an imperfect instrument, like the rickety and shaky machines that Verne creates for his traveler-explorers. Technology and science, it seems, will never be better than the imperfect mortals who exploit it.

Yet there are also, as Foucault suggests, more dangerous scientists in Jules Verne’s fiction, those who go so far beyond the pale of normal interaction and who are so obsessed by their technology and knowledge that they can see no better use for it than to manipulate it for personal or political gain (10). This darker side of science, or rather of its uses and abuses, is one of the cornerstones of Verne’s work, and if there is prophecy in his writing, it is not so much in the simple foretelling of new technologies and their functioning as in his focus on the potentially destructive and alienating effects of science. The era of mass conflict, already ushered in by the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, is one of the future turns of history that the Voyages Extraordinaires might be seen to predict more accurately. Where we come across evil scientists in Verne, they are almost always pursuing wealth or power or both in order to promote an evil regime or destroy a good one. Such is the case of Herr Schultze in The Begum’s Millions (1879),

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who, after receiving an implausibly large inheritance, creates the chillingly named city of Stahlstadt (Steel City), devoted to the pursuit of war and destruction. Schultze—who is created in the still highly emotive political climate following France’s humiliation at the hands of the Prussians in 1870-71—manufactures a huge cannon that is directed at the neighboring city of France-Ville, founded by the philanthropist Sarrasin. It is a grim albeit schematic prediction of the clash of opposing ideologies and of the consequences that can result. And in a similar vein, in Facing the Flag (1896), the pirate Ker Karraje, pursuing a series of almost random acts of aggression against merchant ships or nation states, builds weapons of mass destruction that include a missile-carrying submarine. His mission is not ultimately to create, but to destroy, to replace order with anarchy. Scientifically, none of the technology is described in very sophisticated terms, and we are a long way from the more fanciful descriptions of modern science fiction. But there is here the clear foreboding of conflict between nations and of terrorist activity that is the more extreme and negative result of the theories of utopian socialism that had influenced Verne in the aftermath of 1848. It has often been said that Jules Verne becomes increasingly pessimistic about the world as he gets older,6 and these novels show him pursuing social and political speculations to almost nihilistic conclusions. It is true that, whereas in his early works Jules Verne tends to describe the more liberating aspects of travel, as his career progresses he focuses increasingly on the political problems caused by exploration and its technologies, and he comes to some dispiriting conclusions about the progress of humanity. The 1895 novel Propeller Island describes the almost mindlessly petty rivalry and bitterness between two communities aboard a vast floating island—a sort of giant pleasure cruiser equipped with all the technology and comfort that the rich and idle could wish for, including virtual theaters and concert halls. The two communities eventually rip the island apart as they try to propel it in separate directions, the rift down its middle symbolizing that irreversible sundering of different world-views unable to achieve even the most provisional accommodation. If such a vision of humanity is to be read as a prediction of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, then we might be inclined to conclude that it was one area in which Jules Verne’s judgment was more or less right.

So while Jules Verne’s novels clearly document a changing world, and while they give detailed descriptions of the technological changes that are occurring, it seems that they are futuristic only in so far as they foresee an era of conflict, anarchy, terrorism, or mass destruction. There is certainly a deepening of Jules Verne’s social and political vision as he grows older, and a shifting of the focus from the mechanics of travel to more somber political realities as he becomes more critical of the direction in which civilization is moving.7 Frequent, too, in the later novels is the reference to the corrupting power of money, along with the refrain that gold, especially, is the ultimate fool’s currency—a worthless product that produces worthless speculation (see, for example, The Golden Volcano and The Hunt for the Meteor, published posthumously in 1906 and 1908 respectively) rather than the positive economic benefit that can come only from a careful and thoughtful sharing of natural resources. So, too, in his novel-writing Jules Verne

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appears to believe less in the worth of speculation or the value of “futures” than in the importance of solid and well-documented groundwork. His future is less one of whiz-kid gadgets and machines than a less glamorous one in which communities, societies, and nations have trouble managing the inventions that the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath have produced.

But what of the future of the novel itself? What kinds of changes are occurring in the narrative form that Jules Verne is using, and what further changes are heralded or foretold by his own approach? Does Verne’s own obvious interest in technical, industrial, and social change extend to an awareness of change in literature or to the desire to promote a new genre? More especially, what impact does his concept of the novel have on the development of the novel more generally?

The answer to such questions begins with a truism. Jules Verne, working in the realist tradition, believes axiomatically that the writing of fiction requires a process of preliminary documentation. As a result of this approach, the artist’s invented world links up at many different levels with a verifiable reality— factual, scientific, topographical, historical, and so on. We would not need to dwell on this, however, were it not for the fact that the process itself is massively problematized in Verne’s novels, where documentation often becomes so overwhelming that it reshapes the entire storytelling process. Scientific discourses on occasion occupy the whole of the foreground, while the more traditional elements of fiction—character and plot development—recede into the background. This occurs, for example, when the author enters into detailed historical and anthropological information about different peoples in Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), or in the disproportionate descriptions of marine life in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870), or in the extensive calculations of planetary positions in the lunar novels. At this level, extreme realism can mutate into pure scientific or encyclopedic discourse, and that supposedly “neutral” scientific voice to which Foucault drew attention—he describes it as “another, more distant voice which challenges the narrative or shows up its fictional status” (8)—moves to center-stage. The novel’s claim to be “fiction,” a fable invented to entertain or instruct, is in danger of being lost amid the mass of scientific detail. This may not be science fiction in the sense of speculative, futuristic writing, but it is scientific fiction, in other words fiction that is accompanied by, and sometimes overtaken by, science.8 Knowledge of all kinds gets relayed, apparently for its own sake, quite independently of the narrative, sometimes indeed in defiance of all known fictional conventions. Jules Verne himself was not unaware of this contradiction in his style, from which he eventually deduced that the novel, as a genre, was in some danger. In an interview given to a journalist from the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1902, he asserted: “Novels are no longer necessary, and even now their worth and their interest are on the decline.... Journalists have become so adept at giving a colorful account of daily events that, when posterity reads what they have described, it will find in it a more accurate picture than any historical or descriptive novel could give” (Lacassin 383). Yet what is interesting here is that Jules Verne’s affirmation about the novel’s prospects (a spectacularly inaccurate prediction, let it be said) rests on

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the unquestioning belief that the novelist’s primary role is to instruct and to provide knowledge, rather than, say, to offer a dramatic story or insights into the behavior of characters. What Jules Verne does not appear to focus on at all is the fictional quality of the novel, notwithstanding the fact that his own stories can themselves be exaggeratedly self-conscious dramatizations of the fictional process. It seems that his critical view of the novel has, like his novels themselves, got out of proportion. But perhaps we must see this as part of the major shift of the novel to new territory that he himself initiates.

Interestingly, though, Verne’s comments in the Pittsburgh Gazette interview indicate that he considers the instructive content of fiction to be where his true originality lies. It is certainly the case that his approach is characterized by a monumental shift towards science, geography, physics, astronomy, history, or documentary journalism. The preoccupation with technology and learning was, when the Voyages Extraordinaires were launched, still something that it was possible to consider as contrary to art, belonging more to the domain of journalists and pedagogues. Gautier’s celebrated affirmation in the 1836 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, that “nothing beautiful is indispensable in life,” had captured the sense of a fundamental division—relayed and re-echoed by so many writers and poets—between the practical concerns of life and the gratuitous quality of beauty. With Baudelaire, it is true, that had begun to change, as art was seen increasingly to be compatible with the trappings of modernity. But with Jules Verne, the discourses and the technologies of the nineteenth century all at once loom massively in the frame. Verne’s editor, Hetzel, had to his credit seen this novelty and had defined the originality of his protégé’s approach in the famous preface to the 1866 publication of The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras: “Art for art’s sake is no longer sufficient for our era,” he wrote. “The time has come for Science to take its place in the realm of Literature” (7). Here we have a deliberate and conscious shifting of the novelist’s art onto more technological territory, for reasons that are at once both commercial and aesthetic. Hetzel’s lack of embarrassment about turning the novel into a money-making venture is obvious—but then, by the 1860s the French reading public was well accustomed to the popular blockbuster, with Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, and Eugène Sue among the best known trailblazers. But the sense that the modern world is also a fitting and appropriate subject for art is now clearly articulated in Hetzel’s preface, which, doubling as a manifesto on behalf of his protégé, constitutes a defining moment in the history of the novel. Artistic capital, which, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown in Les Règles de l’art (The Rules of Art, 1992), was at one stage a reverse image of the mechanisms of economic and industrial capital, now establishes itself alongside them, the more so since with Hetzel and Verne the novel itself becomes a mass-marketed commodity.

With Verne, the novel moves very conspicuously toward new artistic frontiers, at the very same moment as it depicts within its pages the exploration of remote geographical frontiers. The writing process itself expands outwards and conquers new spaces, imitating at the stylistic level that sense of a quest for new territory that is embodied in so many of Verne’s heroes. Perhaps this helps to explain why Hetzel so summarily rejected in 1863 the manuscript of Paris in the Twentieth Century, in

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which the garret-dwelling hero of the story tries desperately to live in a world of art and poetry for their own sake—for such a view of art and of the modern world was radically opposed to the whole thrust of the Voyages Extraordinaires. Verne’s innovation is to have made the notion of “expansion” into a defining principle of his approach. For the first time, narrative and geographical space are brought together in a unifying structure, which is also a dynamic vision of modernity. There are, it is true, authors such as Zola who dismiss Jules Verne as irrelevant to the literary concerns of the mainstream—an attitude that has pursued Verne right through to the present day—but it is no doubt also the monumental shift that Verne heralds in the French novel that enables writers such as Zola to find their own niche, and which will produce such sustained and serious interest in Verne among the writers and intellectuals of twentieth-century France.9

Although it was Hetzel who did so much to shape this new vision of the literary in Jules Verne, it is also abundantly clear that Verne himself had a real sense of his artistic and stylistic mission. While in the Anglo-Saxon world in particular he is still often seen as a writer of adolescent literature, or distortingly and simplistically viewed as the father of science fiction (despite the many novels in which he represents entirely conventional modes of travel), there remains the sense—both in his utterances about the novel and in the style of his writing—that he is rethinking the frontiers of the genre. This astonishing novelty has perhaps never been expressed so clearly or so powerfully as in the groundbreaking article that Michel Butor wrote on Verne in 1949, which did so much to focus subsequent attention on the deeper undercurrents of the author’s approach. That Verne wanted his work to be considered a mainstream contribution to literature is moreover underlined by the many overt literary references he makes throughout the Voyages Extraordinaires. These have the far from naive function of positioning his work within a literary context, of giving it resonance and identity within a literary tradition.10 Verne’s rewritings of the Robinson Crusoe legend and of the stories of Poe—the latter most notably in the continuation of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in The Sphinx of the Ice (1897)—are just two indications of his extensive literary culture and his highly self-conscious manipulations of it. In fact, there are literary references and echoes everywhere in his work, giving not merely the sense that this author is hobnobbing with the great writers of history and modernity, but also the impression that he is consciously weaving his individual path through the intertexts of literary history and, like his near contemporary Flaubert, making a modernist statement about the collapsing relationship between writing and rewriting.

Just as revealing as the process of situating his own stories in a literary tradition are Jules Verne’s own remarks about his style and about his wish to make a lasting impact on the genre.11 As early as 1864, as he is writing The English at the North Pole, which is to be the first part of Captain Hatteras, he affirms to Hetzel: “What I most aspire to become is a writer, a worthy goal of which I am sure you will fully approve.” Later in the same letter, he adds: “All this is to emphasize to you how much I want to be a stylist, a serious one: it is my life’s aim” (Dumas et al. I:28). It is indeed an ambition that he will retain throughout his writing career—though clearly it is expressed with an awareness of the paradox that it needs to be expressed—and it becomes the source in later years of a regret, as he sees himself

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passed over in his wish to be elected to the Académie Française and senses that proper recognition of his stylistic achievements has yet to come about. In an 1894 interview with the journalist Robert H. Sherard, Verne claims that the great regret of his life was that he had never been considered as taking a serious place in French literature.

That this author who documented all kinds of change in his own century was also a major force for change in the novel is surely beyond doubt at this stage. For all that, Jules Verne continues to be misread and classified as a marginal literary figure. This is partly because he has in the past been so badly served by his translators, partly because his work is so adaptable to other media, but partly too because he directed his writing at the young and encouraged his readers not to think of literature as separate from other pursuits and disciplines. He crosses the boundaries, defies expectations, and blends genres. Yet that porousness and flexibility of the “literary,” which Verne adapts to all manner of purposes and which he makes into such a broad and inclusive category, is surely one of the great points of interest of his work. Like the other canonical novelists of nineteenth-century France, Verne constantly asks through his innovative approach to the novel what “literature” is, whether as a category or label it is of value, and how it can help us to understand or structure our reality. He breaks with fictional convention, disrupts narrative order with scientific or geographical interpolations, and sometimes turns realism inside out by making of it a subject of comic and ludic investigation. In so doing, he always forces us to question the purpose and the meaning of the conventions he departs from and to think self-consciously about the traditions within which he is writing. In this sense, despite George Orwell’s assertion that Verne was “unliterary,” he is the most literary of writers, for he understands implicitly that the language of fiction is itself the ideal laboratory in which to view, experiment with, and negotiate the many changes to which the nineteenth century bears witness.12


  1. The present article was researched and written during a period as a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow. The author gratefully acknowledges the Trust’s generous support for this and for the broader project of which it forms a part. All unattributed translations from the French are my own.
  2. G. Bruno’s Le Tour de la France par deux enfants(Around France: A Journey by Two Children, 1877) was an interesting and hugely influential variation on the “around the world” theme; it brought the focus back to France in a publication that was also an official school manual.
  3. For further discussion of this subject, see Timothy Unwin, “Technology and Progress in Jules Verne, or Anticipation in Reverse.”
  4. Verne returns more lengthily to this subject in an interview the following year, where he says:
    The creations of Mr. Wells ... belong unreservedly to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present, though I will not say entirely beyond the limits of the possible. Not only does he evolve his constructions entirely from the realm of the imagination, but he also evolves the materials of which he builds them. See, for example, his story The First Men in the Moon. You will remember that here he introduces an entirely new anti-gravitational substance, to whose mode of preparation or actual chemical composition we are not given the slightest clue, nor does a reference to our present scientific knowledge
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    enable us for a moment to predict a method by which such a result might be achieved. In The War of the Worlds, again, a work for which I confess I have a great admiration, one is left entirely in the dark as to what kind of creatures the Martians really are, or in what manner they produce the wonderful heat ray with which they work such terrible havoc on their assailants. (Jones 669-70)
    To this it should be added that in 1934 H.G. Wells restated very much the same distinction between himself and Jules Verne (Haining 62-63).
  5. Quoted in the Chicago Evening Postof March 25, 1905, Verne is reported as having stated: “I think that a careful reading of the most carefully documented works on any subject is of more value than practical experience—at least insofar as writing novels is concerned” (Compère et Margot 232).
  6. Marie-Hélène Huet in particular stresses that the earlier phase of characters inspired by utopian socialism and a love, above all, of freedom, gives way to the creation of dangerously anarchic individuals rebelling against the world in general (163-67).
  7. The progress of Verne’s pessimism should not, however, be exaggerated, nor should its presence in some earlier works such as Paris in the Twentieth Centurybe underplayed. Magellania, a recently re-edited novel (1987), interestingly shows a character who, although an anarchist in spirit, does not espouse violence and retains the sense of an ideal. The character is, we are told, that happy exception, proof that the belief in the power of political idealism is not entirely dead, even in this outlaw who is also “a man of generosity, fascinated by the most advanced systems of collectivism, and to whom all means of improving the social state seemed justified” (143).
  8. In a discussion of the similarities and differences between science fiction and scientific fiction, Arthur Evans develops the point that whereas scientific fiction tends to incorporate or to implant science within a fictional discourse, science fiction engages in the fictional exploitation of science (“Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France”). In such a typology, Verne’s pedagogic mode of writing clearly falls into the category of scientific fiction.
  9. Zola writes in Le Figaro Littéraire on December 22, 1878 that Jules Verne is “simply of no importance to the contemporary literary movement” (reprinted in Les Romanciers naturalistes 356-57).
  10. This point is more fully developed by Arthur Evans, who provides an important series of examples showing Verne’s conscious echoing of literary writers (“Literary Intertexts in Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires”).
  11. Jules Verne’s very real sense of his vocation as a writer is expressed as early as January 26, 1851, when in a letter to his mother he speaks of his decision not to pursue a legal career: “Don’t think I am having fun with this: there is a fatality that binds me to it. I can become a good writer, but I would be a poor lawyer since in everything I see only the comic side and the artistic form, and do not sense the serious reality of things” (qtd. in Dumas 285).
  12. Orwell writes: “It seems strange that so unliterary a writer as Verne should have behind him the familiar history of a nineteenth-century Frenchman of letters. But it is all there—the early tragedies in imitation of Racine, the encouragement of Victor Hugo, the romantic starvation in a garret” (qtd. Haining 17).


Bourdieu, Pierre. Les Règles de l’art: genèse et structure du champ. Paris: Seuil, 1992.

Butor, Michel. “Le Point suprême et l’âge d’or à travers quelques œuvres de Jules Verne.” Répertoire I. 1949. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1960. 130-62.

Compère, Daniel. Jules Verne, écrivain. Geneva: Droz, 1991.

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───── and Jean-Michel Margot, Entretiens avec Jules Verne, 1873-1905. Geneva: Slatkine, 1998.

Dumas, Olivier. Jules Verne.Lyon: La Manufacture, 1988.

─────, Piero Gondolo della Riva, and Volker Dehs, eds. Correspondance inédite de Jules Verne et de Pierre-Jules Hetzel (1863-1886). 3 Vols. Geneva: Slatkine, 1999-2002.

Evans, Arthur B. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.

─────. “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné.” SFS 15.1 (March 1988): 1-11.

─────. “Literary Intertexts in Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.” SFS 23.2 (July 1996): 171-87.

Foucault, Michel. “L’Arrière-fable.” L’Arc 29 (1966): 5-12.

Gautier, Théophile. Mademoiselle de Maupin. Paris: Charpentier, 1835. Available online at <>.

Haining, Peter, ed. The Jules Verne Companion. London: Souvenir, 1978.

Hetzel, Pierre-Jules. “Avertissement de l’Éditeur.” Jules Verne, Les Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras. Paris: Hetzel, 1866. 7-8. Rpt. in English in Evans, Jules Verne Rediscovered, 29-30.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. L’Histoire des Voyages Extraordinaires: essai sur l’œuvre de Jules Verne. Paris: Minard, 1973.

Jones, Gordon. “Jules Verne at Home.” Temple Bar129 (June 1904): 664-71. Available online at <>.

Lacassin, Francis, ed. Textes oubliés. Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions (Collection “10/18"), 1979.

Serres, Michel. Jouvences sur Jules Verne. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974.

Sherard, R.H. “Jules Verne at Home: His Own Account of his Life and Work.” McClure’s Magazine(January 1894): 115-24. Available online at <>.

─────. “Jules Verne Revisited.” T.P.’s Weekly(October 9, 1903): 589. Available online at <>.

Unwin, Timothy. “Technology and Progress in Jules Verne, or Anticipation in Reverse.” AUMLA93 (2000): 17-35.

Verne, Jules. De la terre à la lune. 1865. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1978.

─────. En Magellanie. 1987. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

─────. Hector Servadac. Paris: Hetzel, 1877.

─────. Voyage au centre de la terre. 1864. Paris: Presses-Pocket, 1991.

─────. Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras. Paris: Hetzel, 1866.

Vierne, Simone. Jules Verne: mythe et modernité. Paris: PUF, 1989.

─────. “Introduction.” De la terre à la luneby Jules Verne. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1978. 21-42.

Zola, Émile. Les Romanciers naturalistes. Paris: Charpentier, 1881.


Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires are among the finest documents we possess of a nineteenth-century world whose technologies and lifestyles were being transformed. This article highlights two major aspects of Jules Verne’s awareness and negotiation of change in his own century. First, it stresses that if he did “foresee” anything, it was less an era of futuristic inventions than one in which the abuse of technology leads to division and conflict. Second, it emphasizes the impact of Jules Verne’s preoccupation with scientific
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change on his concept of the novel, arguing that he contributes very significantly to the evolution of the form. In Jules Verne’s hands, the novel becomes an instrument with which to look at a new and evolving world, but an instrument that itself is subject to the law of change. The article concludes by affirming that, far from being seen as an unliterary author, Jules Verne redefines the notion of what literature is or can be.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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