L’Animalité dans Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours

‘Le paramètre destiné à légitimer l’action française aux colonies, et qui participe d’une construction méprisante de l’Autre dans la mentalité coloniale, est l’animalité’ (Pascal Blanchard & Sandrine Lemaire). Discuss with reference to Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours.

The fast-pace of Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, both the novel and the event described, results in a rapid navigation through a variety of colonised countries and cultures. Verne’s readers, through Fogg and Passepartout, encounter people and cultures from parts of the world that they could never hope to visit, and about which they know only what is relayed to them through a medium such as this. Verne portrays the indigenous peoples as barbaric, uncivilised and animalistic, and it is this derogatory and ethnocentric construction of the Other that, as Blanchard and Lemaire suggest[1], is used to legitimise the actions of the colonial powers in the eyes of the culturally less-aware reader.

The incident that takes place between Passepartout and the Indian priests is an example of this condescending, ignorant and harmful attitude held towards the Other, here with regard to non-European and unfamiliar religious practices. The Hindu priests are described as having, “le regard plein de fureur” before they, “commencèrent à le rouer de coups, en proférant des cris sauvages”[2]. They are described like wild, brutal animals. The creation of such a fictional narrative, wherein the colonised world is falsely presented as barbaric and dangerous, manipulates the perceptions of the reader who, in this era, may not have known about Hindu culture, for example. This condescension could be seen as an attempt to legitimise the actions of the colonisers in the eyes of a naïve reader who, in the absence of relevant contextual cultural knowledge, may take what he reads to be true. Passepartout, on the other hand, is portrayed as the victim in that he was innocently admiring their place of worship, “Passepartout, entré là, sans penser à mal, comme un simple touriste, admirait, à l’intérieur”[3], before being savagely attacked. His actions are described, without admission of guilt and culpability, as “malencontreuse”[4], yet his lack of respect in ignorantly breaking the religious laws of his host country goes somewhat unacknowledged. This is further evidence of the ethnocentric attitude of the colonisers who, under the pretence of an assumed superiority, do not respect the indigenous culture but instead intend to assimilate a given area to the culture of their own country.

Slightly later in the novel, when Fogg and his entourage are ambushed in the Indian jungle, the religious ceremony held by the natives is shown to be barbaric featuring human sacrifices, a God of death, necklaces made of skulls and the parading of corpses[5]. The image created of the tribe springing from the jungle makes them sound very primitive. “Ces barbares coutumes subsistent encore dans l’Inde, et les Anglais n’ont pu les détruire?”[6]. This quote in particular shows precisely the attitude in question here. The idea of the Other juxtaposed against the norm of European culture, is one based on an ethnocentric idea of the indigenous inferiority and an irrational, created fear. The notion of savageness is prescribed, and its right to exist is openly questioned as Fogg is baffled to find that such practices have not been suppressed by the colonisers. In this respect, it seems that this animalistic Other is created to ensure a consensus amongst the readers advocating the actions of the coloniser’s New Imperialism, or the pursuit of trade, military strength and world dominance which was defended under the pretence of a ‘mission civilatrice’[7] to civilise and assimilate the colonised territory to that of the ethnocentric colonisers’ fatherland[8]. Perhaps more harmful is the novel’s failure to acknowledge these practices as those of a particularly extreme minority to distinguish them from the practices of the overwhelming majority in India. Verne himself believed he had a didactic mission to carry out with regards to the imparting of knowledge about lesser-known cultures, but the novel’s reluctance to divulge such a detail is potentially harmful in that it may warp the perceptions of the contextually unknowledgeable reader so that they believe that Indians more generally practice these barbarous customs. Although Verne had been keen to travel, he often later wrote without visiting his novels’ settings. It could therefore be said that the prejudiced stereotypes displayed in his presentation of the Other are as a result of his naivety and compliance with the beliefs of the day rather than an active attempt to legitimise the actions of the colonisers in these lesser-known parts of the world.

Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours accounts for the Other in a manner which objectifies it, as though it is simply to be looked upon as part of the amusing experience of travelling, but ultimately to be left behind as not befitting of a perceived superior Europe. Perhaps the most interesting instance of this attitude can be found with the novel’s introduction of Mrs. Aouda, « une charmante femme dans toute l’acception européenne du mot […] Cette jeune Parsie avait été transformée par l’éducation »[9]. She is described as “charmante” which is linked to, even a result of, her European appearance and schooling. The feeling created is almost that which suggests the protagonists have ‘unearthed a diamond in the rough’, so to speak, and that this European-looking beauty should not be able to be imprisoned and put to death by these animalistic savages.

“The native inhabitants of distant lands often play a negative role in the narratives, representing a threat to the white explorers and engaged in bloodthirsty rituals like the human sacrifices […] The perpetration of such extreme horrors is […] typical of the kind of argument deployed in the Third Republic to justify military intervention abroad and the colonial project in general”[10].

Her presence during the indigenous people’s ritual serves as a stark contrast to alert the reader to the savageness of these people and their potential danger. Whilst the message may be subtle, the suggestion is that the action taken by the colonisers is not only justified but necessary. Following the ideology described by Chalaye, such advocates would argue that, “il est du devoir de l’Europe de lutter contre la barbarie primitive […] et d’utiliser pour cela la guerre s’il le faut”[11].

Moreover, the narrator, while clearly demonstrating faith in British infrastructure to perform consistently, casts disproportionate and unfounded doubts over the capabilities of those of India and America. “En Europe […] on peut compter sur l’arrivée des trains à heure fixe; mais quand ils emploient trois jours à traverser l’Inde, sept jours à traverser les Etats-Unis, pouvait-on fonder sur leur exactitude?”[12]. This casual chastising of the Other, an as yet relatively unknown yet prejudged entity, is typical of the book, and of the era, and further serves to create a feeling that the “mission civilisatrice” is required, because, to the ethnocentric Imperialist, assimilation is necessary so that, for example, India can aspire to the perceived superior European model wherein trains are more reliable. The subjectivity of the definition of ‘civilised’, here incorporating technological advancement, is crucial in the endorsement of the conquests of the colonial powers.

In conclusion, as part of his Voyages Extraordinaires, Jules Verne’s Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours includes features of what he believed to be his didactic mission with regards to the imparting of knowledge about lesser-known cultures. However, his lack of travel to the regions in which his novel is set means that often he presents the indigenous people of these regions in the negative way in which they were typically perceived at the time. As a result, Verne may unintentionally deceive a lesser-informed reader and warp their perceptions of the lesser-explored world by presenting its people in a largely derogative manner as barbarous and animalistic, as a savage and wild force to be controlled for the greater good and to avoid harm to the white colonisers. In this sense, Verne’s work serves to castigate the cultures of the Other, (for example, through an unjust generalisation as with the Indian jungle tribe), and of all that is different from the ethnocentric colonising European façon de vivre in order to justify and legitimise the otherwise seemingly over-aggressive actions of the French and other colonisers in their “mission civilisatrice”.

[1] Sylvie Chalaye, ‘Spectacles, théâtre et colonies’, in Culture coloniale: La France conquise par son Empire: 1871-1931, ed. by Pascal Blanchard and Sandrine Lemaire, (Paris: Autrements, 2003), p.85.

[2] Jules Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, (Paris: Bibebooks, 2013), Loc. 685 of 3299, Kindle e-book.

[3] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 683.

[4] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 679.

[5] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 888-908.

[6] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 913.

[7] Birgit Schäbler, ‘Civilising Others’, in Globalization and the Muslim World: Culture, Religion, and Modernity, ed. by Birgit Schäbler and Leif Stenberg, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004), p.8.

[8] ‘New Imperialism’ Encyclopedia Britannica, <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/126237/colonialism-Western#ref311523&gt; [accessed 1 March 2015]

[9] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 1080.

[10] Penelope E. Brown, A Critical History of French Children’s Literature: Volume Two: 1830-Present, (London: Routledge, 2011), p.89.

[11] Chalaye, ‘Spectacles, théâtre et colonies’, p.85.

[12] Verne, Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, Loc. 327.

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