Imperialism in Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours and La Montagne

Compare Verne’s Le Tour du monde en 80 jours and Pancrazi’s La Montagne and show how the two texts account for imperialism.

Le Tour du monde en 80 jours and La Montagne account for imperialism in different ways because they are products of opposing authorial perspectives in that Verne was writing from the homeland of a colonising power whilst Pancrazi experienced first-hand life in a colony. Moreover, as they were released 130 years apart, the two novels have been published into contrasting contexts with regards to shifting public opinions of the policy. Imperialism is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence […] in the form of an empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another”[1]. This essay will firstly analyse the depiction of indigenous peoples in Le Tour du monde, focussing on their relationship to that which is perceived as superior in order to assert that this may be a means through which Jules Verne aims to advocate imperialism. This representation of the policy will then be contrasted against that of La Montagne in which Jean Noël Pancrazi, by highlighting the human suffering in the fallout of decolonisation, is critical of imperialist thought because of its propagation that the policy was a noble and moral duty of the colonial power.

Le Tour du monde was published at a time in which imperialism was at its peak, and perhaps in light of this, the novel has a condescending and harmful attitude towards unfamiliar, non-European practices. For example, when Passepartout ignorantly breaks the religious law of his host country, the Hindu priests react savagely. With their, “regard plein de fureur”, they, “commencèrent à le rouer de coups, en proférant des cris sauvages[2]. In contrast, Passepartout’s decision is described as “malencontreuse[3]. He is portrayed as a victim having entered the temple, “sans penser à mal, comme un simple touriste, admirait, à l’intérieur[4]. It could be argued that such a narrative wherein the indigenous people are falsely presented as barbaric may manipulate the perceptions of the nineteenth-century reader who, in the absence of contextual knowledge of other cultures, may believe that such tales of savage natives are accurate. As Verne often wrote without visiting the sets of his later novels, his prejudice may have simply been naivety and a compliance with the beliefs of the day rather than a maliciously false representation. Indeed, Michel Serres argues that, “Le grand impérialisme fin de siècle se reflet, chez Verne[5]. Daniel Compère embellishes upon this, writing that:

L’énonciation vernienne se fait […] représentation du XIXe siècle. Elle orchestre une multitude de discours, textes littéraires certes, mais aussi documents scientifiques, journaux, récits de voyages, et même éléments verbaux (clichés, opinions, croyances, jargons, argots)[6].

In this respect, it could be argued that Le Tour du monde somewhat endorses the ethnocentric attitude of imperialism in that this typical depiction of a savage indigenous people may, inadvertently or otherwise, create a consensus of support for the suppression of such barbarity.

The natives are again depicted as primitive in that they spring from the jungle in ambush and host a religious ceremony including human sacrifices, the parading of corpses, necklaces made of skulls, and a God of death[7]. Fogg is shocked that, “Ces barbares coutumes subsistent encore dans l’Inde, et les Anglais n’ont pu les détruire?[8]. As the suggestion is that these practices should be supressed, Martyn Lyons argues that, “L’intérêt que Jules Verne portait à l’impérialisme se confondait facilement avec une forme modérée de racisme”[9]. This is further evidenced by the labelling of areas of Hindu independence as “farouches et terribles[10]. This is typical of the ethnocentric belief of the imperialists in the inferiority of indigenous peoples. Indeed, Penelope Brown states that:

“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”[11].

Despite his belief in a didactic mission to impart knowledge about lesser-known cultures, Verne fails to distinguish the aforementioned practices of an extreme minority from those of the overwhelming majority in India. This absence of nuance, as Brown suggests, may manipulate the culturally unaware reader into believing that this behaviour is commonplace and, in turn, inspire a consensus amongst fearful readers in favour of imperialism as a necessary and altruistic ‘mission civilatrice[12]. Similarly, Mrs Aouda is introduced as “charmante” and, in the eyes of the narrator, this characteristic is linked to, or even a result of, her European appearance and schooling[13]. As Brown suggests, her presence during the ritual may be intended to alert the reader to the dangerous nature of the indigenous people. Therefore, the suggestion is that, as Sylvie Chalaye says, “il est du devoir de l’Europe de lutter contre la barbarie primitive […] et d’utiliser pour cela la guerre s’il le faut[14]. Moreover, the narrator’s reaction upon her arrival suggests that it is her European qualities that render her superior to those around her. Equally, it seems that it is only amongst its allegedly inferior surroundings that the Anglo-French railway astounds Passepartout[15]. Similarly, in Hong Kong, the narrator is indifferent towards the city’s past, as though the degree to which it now replicates the British model is the only measure by which to assign value[16]. This casual chastising of a relatively unknown yet prejudged entity is near constant in the novel’s propagation of the ‘mission civilisatrice’ through which such countries could be adapted to the ethnocentric European model of civilisation.

However, Andrew Martin suggests that Verne’s novel is in fact working in the opposite direction, to criticise and condemn imperialism. He argues that, “If Verne’s œuvre is in part a study of the growth of empire, it is also a diagnosis of its growing pains […] and the strains that threaten to undermine its coherence”[17]. This is an argument supported by Catherine Belsey who suggests that Verne was not in fact casting dispersions about those subjugated by colonisation, but was instead condemning imperialism by writing about its subjects in a manner that may highlight its failings. She argues that:

“If Verne’s nineteenth-century reader did not identify the repressed in the text, if they did not recognize the silence with which the work finally confronts its own ideological project, it was because they read from within the same ideological framework, shared the same repressions, and took for granted the same silences”[18].

This quotation asserts that Verne did not in fact adhere to the ethnocentric ideology of imperialism. Instead, the ignorance of characters such as Fogg and Cromarty was deliberately reinforced as, for example, they were able to sleep ‘as peacefully as ever’ and ‘like a brave soldier’ regardless of their surroundings[19]. This indifference conveys the associated ethnocentric attitude, and the reader, given a sufficient understanding of other cultures, would identify the irony and recognise the flaws of imperialism. In this respect, Verne demonstrates the naivety of the colonialists, and in contrast, endorses travel as a means through which to gain a far greater appreciation of the world. For example, Passepartout’s discovery that, “il n’est pas inutile de voyager si l’on veut voir du nouveau[20], may be a reminder to his readers and to society that not all cultures need aspire to the same model and that intervention should be replaced by open-mindedness. It could be argued that Le Tour du monde is therefore an indictment of colonisation which aims to inspire a resistance to the ideology of subjugating, self-serving imperialism.

In contrast, La Montagne is set during the Algerian War, a period in which the public opinion of imperialism was shifting in light of independence movements throughout the empires of the major powers. Whilst Verne was perhaps criticising colonisation from his position as an intellectual in France, Pancrazi was a pied noir born in Sétif, and as such, he accounts for the de facto brutality of imperialism that he personally encountered from a different perspective, that of the inhabitant of a colonised and assimilated country. Through the recounting of his own childhood experiences, he revisits the human suffering associated with imperialism and the traumatic consequences of decolonisation. For example, the delivery of the bodies of murdered children described as “paquets de chagrin”[21]. In the aftermath of the massacre, Pancrazi demonstrates the ensuing military oppression in the region with long, winding phrases recounting the times in which he was personally attacked[22]. Yet, whilst Pancrazi touches upon the horror of these attacks and reprisals on both sides, there is little mention of the real, large-scale atrocities of war. Instead, it is the impact that this war of independence had upon the inhabitants of the country, some of whom, like the narrator’s family, were exiled and headed, by a boat “plein de monde et de larmes”, for France in 1962[23]. Whilst the narrator is neither accusing nor hostile in his accounting for the role of imperialists, his reflections emphasise the fact that the events of the war, the murder of his friends and his displacement from his home, were initiated in the fallout of decolonisation. In this respect, the novel portrays the destructive impacts of imperialism in order to quash its claim to be a noble and moral undertaking.

However, perhaps an even more condemnatory element in Pancrazi’s accounting for imperialism is the reception described upon his repatriation. When offered the chance to move earlier, he thinks of it as, “cet autre pays qui m’apparaissait si lointain, presque hostile et glacé”, adding that, “je voulais rester avec eux sur cette terre qui était aussi la mienne et à laquelle je ne voulais pas dire adieu[24]. This quotation is vital in assessing Pancrazi’s portrayal of imperialism. He did not want to leave Algeria and, later, his father initially stays “par amour pour ce pays[25]. When what they consider to be home is taken from them, there is a sense of injustice in that this is all that they know and France remains distant and unknown, regardless of their ancestry. Despite the imperialistic pursuit of ethnocentric assimilation to provide a model of civilisation similar to that of France, the narrator and his father, once ousted from Algeria as pieds noirs, find that France is almost equally dismissive of them. For example, his father is considered French in Algeria, yet, humiliatingly, he must prove his French-ness upon repatriation in the absence of the necessary, destroyed documents. It is implied therefore that the notion of ‘l’Algérie française’ only seemed to apply in the sense of its importance to France’s geopolitical ambition, and not, for example, when the pieds noirs, these assimilated would-be French citizens, arrived in the homeland of the empire, at which point they were left isolated and unwanted on both sides. Pancrazi, by implicitly criticising this discriminatory provision of civil rights that renders the pieds noirs inferior to French-born citizens, demonstrates a vital failing in the imperialistic ideology as it does not truly serve those it claims to benefit through colonisation.

This is an idea replicated in the nostalgia of the narrator and his father during their time in France. It would perhaps be a surprise to the reader, who has been pedalled the idea of the superiority of the empirical powers, for these characters to later reminisce about their pre-war lives. The expectation might be that, having fled the war-torn and perceived inferior society of Algeria, they would be relieved to find refuge in the ethnocentrically perceived superior homeland of the empire. Yet, it is stated, for example, that the father had a good job in Algeria, and that “tout était plus difficile, ici, bien sûr[26]. It could be argued that this is an attitude intended to contrast with the propagated notion of this noble assimilation because it illustrates that the policy has not been beneficial to the people of the colony. Instead, Pancrazi shows the detrimental impact of imperialism in that they have had the people, and the country, that they love taken from them by war, murder and exile. In spite of the ethnocentric views of the colonising powers therefore, life was better before their intervention. This is perhaps an area in which one can draw comparisons with the arguments of Belsey and Martin on Le Tour du monde in that this indictment of imperialism stems from a suggestion that not all cultures must aspire to the same model of civilisation, regardless of which is a power most capable of invading and conquering others. As Verne had suggested the benefits of travel in attaining such a view, Pancrazi suggests to his readers that, contrary to their likely expectations, he preferred life in the colony, and it is in this way that he is critical of the attitude of ethnocentrism, the theory of assimilation, the assertion of military power and the ideology of colonialism, all of which are key components in the earlier definition of the policy of imperialism.

In conclusion, Verne’s Le Tour du monde and Pancrazi’s La Montagne present contrasting views of imperialism. During a time in which its influence was perceived to be positive, Le Tour du monde seems, at least at face value, to castigate the indigenous populations and label them as dangerous in order to inspire a consensus of support for the policy as a noble responsibility of the empirical powers. However, Catherine Belsey and Andrew Martin suggest that, in fact, Verne’s work was intended to be an indictment of imperialism in that the ignorance and ethnocentrism of his characters were tools employed to emphasise through irony the shortcomings of the policy. In this respect, one can draw certain comparisons with La Montagne in which Pancrazi demonstrates the human suffering associated with the failing of imperialism. Although he does not directly blame colonialism for the events of his early life, they came about during a war which was inspired by a desire to break from the injustices of colonisation. Moreover, by highlighting the fact that the pieds noirs were left isolated, unwanted on both sides, and without equal rights upon repatriation, La Montagne quashes the delusion that assimilation was a noble crusade intended to benefit others, and in this respect, is highly critical of the negative impacts of imperialism in colonised territories.

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