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Around the World in Eighty Days | Context

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The Victorian Era

Queen Victoria, also called the Empress of India, ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. During this class-based era encompassing colonization and industrialization, the aristocrats became wealthier while the working class made small gains in earnings and financial independence. There was little competition for jobs in the engineering, transportation, trade, and business sectors. The ethical and moral climate was inflexible and exacting. People were expected to adhere to values that embraced hard work, honesty, frugality, honor, and responsibility. Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg epitomizes most of these principles except for financial frugality—his character takes the opposite attitude toward money. Underneath this layer of rigid morality was the reality of a society that often turned a blind eye to civil rights issues such as gender role stereotypes.

The writing of this era included idealized characters often facing high moral dilemmas. Verne delineates a moral versus immoral conflict evident in much Victorian literature, with ethical Phileas Fogg contrasted by unscrupulous Fix, the police detective. Fogg never diverges from his honorable beliefs, the same traits that reflect the expectations for English gentlemen: he has his passport signed even though it isn't legally necessary, saves a woman about to be sacrificed, and challenges a man who sullies his honor. Detective Fix honors his police duties, but for the wrong reasons: greed and reputation. Together, the two men reveal the societal hypocrisy overshadowing the era. Verne's short but pithy chapters offer insight into the varied aspects of Victorian society with thought-provoking moral and emotional conflicts.

Colonial England's Imperialism

Although England's imperialism began in the 1600s—when it started to open trade routes in India, the Far East, Africa, and the Americas—the zenith of New Imperialism occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. England's economy had grown through trade, as had other European nations that dominated countries they felt would add economic gains and power to their native lands. England spread its rule to many locations spanning the globe; it also expanded its military to protect the new British colonies and the English people who immigrated to these exotic places as government officials, builders, business people, and missionaries.

When Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days, a good part of India was still controlled by various tribes and rajahs (kings), but the British ruled in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, along with some other territories. As the narrator notes in Chapter 10, "The British possessions in India come under the direct authority of the crown."

England's colonial success led to the popular 19th-century phrase "The sun never sets on the British Empire" because its colonies spanned the globe and the sun was always shining on one of them.

Newspapers

Phileas Fogg devours newspapers, and he's inspired by the press to go on the trip around the world in the first place. Verne describes the excitement generated by his planned tour in terms of the reactions of the press: "twenty ... highly respectable newspapers scouted Mr. Fogg's project as madness" while "the Daily Telegraph alone hesitatingly supported him." In addition, the novel itself has the breezy, fast-paced speed of the economical newspaper writing of the era: it's episodic, sometimes engrossing, full of exotic detail, and (perhaps to its detriment?) not terribly informed about the nuances of cultural traditions. (Verne makes some egregious errors throughout the book, which his editor notes.)

Industrial Revolution

Industrialization forced agrarian (farming) cultures to take a back seat to manufacturing communities. Beginning in England and then the United States, industrialization fed the tremendous imperialist machine that developed hand-in-hand with colonization. Advances in transportation spawned networks of roads and canals that were used to ship industrial products. By 1836 England had constructed 22,000 miles of roads and linked its four major rivers with canals. The rivers and canals in particular provided inexpensive means for the transportation of raw materials and goods. These improvements led to Verne's adventure tale and his other science fiction novels. The train and steamship travel in Around the World in Eighty Days portrays the 1872 realities endemic to the period, not fictionalized creations.

The Voyages extraordinaires

Jules Verne's vision of creating a narrative form that combined science and fiction was realized in his Voyages extraordinaires. In 1862 Verne befriended Pierre-Jules Hetzel, a magazine publisher who offered to print Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon as a serial story in his publication Le Magasin d'éducation et de récréation (The Education and Recreation Store). The success of the series eventually led to its publication in book format. Verne and Hetzel developed a long-term contractual relationship, where Verne agreed to continue writing science fiction for the Voyages extraordinaires series. By the end of his 40-year successful partnership with Hetzel, Verne had penned more than 60 works for the Voyages extraordinaires compilation, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1863 and 1867), 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870), and his famous adventure tale Around the World in Eighty Days (1872).

English Gentlemen's Clubs

The phenomenon of the gentlemen's club, although dating back to the 18th century, really took hold as a cultural institution for aristocratic men in the 19th century; not only were women denied membership, but they were strictly denied entry at all times and for any reason. The clubs were bastions of masculinity, where men could meet, dine, smoke, gossip, discuss, gamble, and play card games such as whist, the betting game that features prominently in Phileas Fogg's club. The clubs provided a break from their business lives, their social lives, and most especially their home lives, which (they felt) tended to be dominated by their wives.

While some clubs were open to all men, many catered to a particular group based on profession, political leaning, personal interests (clubs for men interested in science were becoming popular when this novel was written), alma mater, military rank, and so on. A man might belong to more than one: he might belong to one club for graduates of his particular school, to another for bankers, to a third for Whigs, and to a fourth for men who liked to hunt.

Though they reached their apex in the Edwardian period, some gentlemen's clubs still exist today.

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