Monday, September 25, 2006

Review: The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Recommended.

After reading The Mysterious Island, I wonder how much Jules Verne's current reputation is based on 1950s and '60s movies loosely—very loosely—adapted from his novels. In this book, there are no giant crabs or bees, or aliens, or even women. There are five men and a dog seeking to escape besieged Richmond during the Civil War who are carried off in a balloon by hurricane winds to an uncharted island in the Pacific, where they find and make what they need to survive.

The "colonists," as they style themselves to avoid the negative connotations of "castaways," are an improbable assortment, each man having knowledge or skills that complement those of the others. Cyrus Harding, the engineer, is not only a bottomless well of information about mechanics, chemistry, navigation, and other practical topics, but is also a natural leader. Gideon Spillett, the reporter, is an expert hunter. Pencroft, the sailor, knows shipbuilding and is a willing worker, while his teenage ward, Herbert, is a knowledgeable naturalist and able hunter. Harding's servant, Neb, plays the role of cook and domestic, while Harding's dog, Top, provides keen senses and instinct. When Verne wrote, "It would have been difficult to unite five men, better fitted to struggle against fate, more certain to triumph over it," it cannot have been without some sense of irony, since he is the one who brought them together in his imagination.

While a mysterious influence, whose acts are ambiguous at first but become more tangible over time, rescues the settlers or provides them with just what they need just when they need it, the real mystery of the island is the island itself. Perhaps Verne misunderstood or misused common names; he calls Jup's troop both "orangutans" (apes) and "baboons" (monkeys). He might have been pandering to a Victorian taste for the exotic. The island that the settlers call "Lincoln" for their wartime president is an impossibility of nature. Creatures from nearly every continent and ecosystem roam among an equally unlikely mixture of geological formations and collection of plants. Onagers from the Asian steppes and Middle Eastern deserts, koalas (described as "large" and speedy) from Australia, jaguars from Central and South America, orangutans from the Borneo rain forest, and musmons from isles of the Mediterranean are among Nature's bounty found on this small temperate island. Here, tropical apes, cats, and parrots survive below-freezing winters as easily as the musmons and goats.

The mineral riches are equally diverse, but even as he wonders about this paradise, Harding tells his comrades, "Nature gives us these things. It is our business to make a right use of them," signaling the beginning of man's never-ending quest to conquer and destroy nature. Even the water must be tamed; the settlers must "borrow its power, actually lost without profit to any one."

Under Harding's leadership, and with the occasional help of the island's secret benefactor, the colonists build an incredible infrastructure that provides them with shelter, water, food, clothing, power, tools, and weapons. Harding is not the leader because he is rich, good looking, charismatic, well spoken, or the other things that appeal to civilized man; he is the leader because he knows what to do and how to do it, and has faith in his ability to do it—and because he has intelligent followers in whom he can instill that same faith. The lack of discord among the colonists is as unlikely as the flora and fauna, but it may be Verne's commentary on leadership when it is most needed. When an important decision must be made, Harding refuses to make it without obtaining the opinions of all concerned, including his own servant. Taken away from civilization and its layers of social, moral, and other complexities, and forced into a situation where able leadership and willing cooperation mean not only survival but comfort and satisfaction, these men rise to the occasion. It is no coincidence that the impetus for the arrival on Lincoln Island is the Civil War, one of America's bloodiest, most savage times.

In the afterword, author Isaac Asimov tried to determine the appeal of "robinsonades" like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Mysterious Island. He came to the conclusion that such tales answer the question, "What do I do if civilization fails me?"—a question that could apply to castaways on an uncharted island or survivors of a civil war or a nuclear or chemical/biochemical holocaust. Perhaps, though, the question is more basic than that. It might be, "Do I need civilization at all?"

While the North and South were counting and burying their dead and trying to heal the nation—a process that in some ways has not been completed—Harding and his group were using both their minds and their hands to shape a near-paradise (interestingly, one in which tobacco is missed sorely, but not women).

The Mysterious Island starts off slowly; too much ink is dedicated to Pencroft's desire to kill eat every creature they encounter, and the characters can seem psychologically shallow and limited to a mature reader. At some point, however, I found myself so interested in Lincoln Island that I, like the colonists, was reluctant to leave it. I was even disappointed by the ultimate fate and home of the settlers, as it did not seem the right place for them to be. While not a literary masterpiece, The Mysterious Island does not need giant crabs, bees, or even women to be a good story of its kind.

Monday, 25 September 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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