21 December or 12/21: ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ Day

The novels of Jules Verne have suffered neglect in the UK and US because of their hurried and unfortunate translations into English, worse translations on to the silver screen, and the persistent misunderstanding, due to his space travel and submariner adventures, that he is a science fiction genre writer. Reading Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days with my son Timothy, the new translation by William Butcher, I was delighted to find, though not a formulaic ring composition, that this adventure story was composed as a circumnavigation of the globe written as a ‘there and back again’ mirror reflection. Everything from the modes of travel to the critical date of Phileas Fogg’s return to London — today’s date, 21 December — testify to a playful and careful obsession with story parallelism.

The marks of a ring composition as explained and explored by anthropologist Mary Douglas are a beginning and end that reflect one another, a story turn at its center which resonates with the meeting point of beginning-end, and parallel constructions in the chapters from beginning to center and from end to center. Such a story, then, can be represented linearly as a chiasmus A – B – C – D (A*) – C’ – B’ – A.’

The opening and finish of Around the World Match up with four chapters in the United Kingdom on each end and with an especially poignant portrait of how changed Fogg is from his adventure, especially in his relationship with Mrs. Aouda. The trick finish of the critical day gained by circumnavigation, too, is wonderfully anticipated in inversion at the half-way point, Chapter 18, in which the travelers arrive in Hong Kong a day late to make their connection to Yokohama but are ‘on time’ nonetheless because of a happy providence. Just as the trio are brought together at story’s end by Aouda’s proposal, so they are separated in Hong Kong for the only time they must travel by different conveyance.

The novel is not a strict ring composition, however, because it lacks an easily tracked chapter-to-chapter correspondence in the chapters heading out to the story center and those returning. The natural organization, for example, of a circumnavigation that is a ring would be to have Fogg and company reach the Antipodes at the story turn, a point they do cross at the 40 day mark (unnoted in text) but which arrives only in chapter 24.

If one shakes off a need for an exacting precision in parallels, however, Verne’s mapping his heroes’ adventure as a trip to and fro Hong Kong as a chiasmus shows itself. Every means of travel that Fogg, Passportout, and Aouda use from the Pacific Rim (Yokohama) back to London is in exact reverse order of the modes of travel they used getting there. As the chart below shows in 11 points, the ‘there and back again’ travel choices are mirror reflections, with the separation of the party into two exactly at the half way point.

1. Train: London to Dover

2. (Ship: Crossing English Channel)

3. (Train: Crossing France)

4. Ship: ‘Mongolia’ (France to) Suez to Bombay

5. Train: Bombay to Khoulbi

6. Elephant: Khoulbi short-cut to Allahabad

7. Train: Allahabad to Banares

8. Train: Banares to Calcutta

9. Ship: ‘Rangoon’ Calcutta to Singapore

10. Ship: ‘Rangoon’ Singapore to Hong Kong

11. Ship/Ship: Carnatia to Yokohama (Passepartout),

Tankedere to Shanghai (Fogg, Aouda, Fix)

10. (Ship: General Grant Shanghai to Yokohama)

9. Ship: General Grant Yokohama to San Francisco

8. Train: San Francisco to Utah

7. Train: Ogden to Ft Kearnay

6. Sledge: Ft Keanay short-cut to Omaha

5. Train: Omaha to NYC

4. Ship: ‘Henrietta’ to Queenspoint

3. (Train: Across Ireland)

2. (Ship: Ireland to Liverpool)

1. Train: Liverpool to London

As noted, these reflections do not ‘line up’ chapter to chapter and those travel points in parentheses on the chart are only alluded to rather experienced in text. Even allowing for those discrepancies, the parallels between the major events of the front and back sides of the story, namely, their crossing India on the way out by train and by elephant with a rescue made with an attack on India Brahmins and their transcontinental chase across America featuring a Native American or ‘Indian’ attack on their party. The many direct and inverted parallels are laid out in the second chart below. Otherwise bizarre or inexplicable asides in the story line, say, the lengthy digression of Fogg’s meeting the Latter-day Saint Elder William Hitch and his discourse on polygamy, make sense in relation to the parallel stories. Hitch is escaping his wives and the bizarre religious practice of polgamy; Aouda in the front half escapes her husband’s caste murderous observance of suttee.

Echoes of India Adventures in American Travels

Parallel/Inversion India America
Wild Animal Elephant Buffalo
(inversion) In lieu of train Stopping train
Train Stoppage Line not finished Bridge Not Safe
(inversion) Train stopped Train continues
Exotic Religion Caste Hinduism Mormonism
Gov’t Repressed Practice Suttee Polygamy
(escaped victim) Aouda LDS Husband
Attack On Indians By ‘Indians’
Savior Passepartout Aouda from Pyre Passepartout Stopping Train
Crazy Nat’l Practice Suttee American Election
(inverse) English sane / Aouda Saved English insane / Aouda Protecting
Fogg Saves PPT Shoe Trial From Indians
Bizarre Travel Parsee Elephant Mudge Sledge

Verne’s French, forgive me for assuming, must have been more engaging or eloquent than this accurate though flat English translation. The story does not fail, however, because of the card board quality of the language. The idea of the piece, a circumnavigation bet against the clock made on impulse by the least impulsive and most compulsive of men which was winner-take-all, makes up for any deficiencies in the verbage – and the archetypal characters of rational English mind, emotive French body, and loving Eastern spirit or ‘heart,’ draw the reader into what is a more fantastic series of events than any set of science fiction technological miracles could offer.

I’d suggest, though, too, that Verne’s success with World is at least in part due to his parallel structures, which if not an exact ring composition, generates the effect of resolution and arrival at the story origin or mythic ‘center.’ What I learned from reading Verne is that an adventure piece should be light, funny, and invisibly structured as a ring.

Parthian shot? The date that Fogg returns to London to win the bet is December 21, expressed as either 12/21 or 21/12 depending on your location in America or Europe. In this number we see the two becoming one in mirror reflection across halves. A nice touch! Happy ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ Day, friends; please consider making a ‘There and Back Again journey this afternoon to mark the mirrored occasion.

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