Verne’s Mysterious Island

A review of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island.


Following in the footsteps of Daniel Defoe, Jules Verne wrote his own ship-wreck novel, The Mysterious Island, the tale of a group of castaways in the southern Pacific.  In this novel, however, the “ship” is a balloon, and the castaways prisoners of the Confederate States of America, who escaped from Richmond during the last years of the Civil War.  Their “aerostat,” as the author likes to call it, is carried far from their homeland into the Pacific Ocean by a great storm, and eventually falls into the sea by the shore of an unknown land.  The Mysterious Island combines the scientific, the adventurous, and (of course) the mysterious to produce one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Be warned!  I found it impossible not to include spoilers in this review, sorry!

The five castaways, Neb, Pencroff, Harbert, Gideon Spilett, and (last but certainly not least) Cyrus Smith, wash ashore with little to their names but their lives, their ingenuity, and a dog called Top.  They haven’t even the remains of a ship from which to build a home.  Through their ingenuity and industriousness and providence, the five self described colonists go far beyond mere survival, constructing a brick kiln, a forge, a sheep fold, a water mill, a wind mill, and a telegraph, just to mention a few.  They build a small boat and travel to a nearby island, where they pick up another outcast, named Ayrton.  They tame two horse-like animals and one ape, whom they name “Joop.”

Throughout the colonists’ three years on the island (which they dub “Lincoln Island”), there are a series of inexplicable events, which give them cause for astonishment and no small measure of alarm.  Cyrus Smith is somehow rescued from the sea and laid safely ashore, but no sign of a rescuer is found.  A bullet is found buried in a wild pig, though none of the castaways fired it.  When a pirate ship moors by the island, it inexplicably strikes a mine below the water’s surface, and the pirates who escape are later found dead, with no sign of ordinary weapons on them.  When Harbert comes down with a fever, a box of quinine sulfate mysteriously appears by his bedside.  These occurrences mystify the colonists of Lincoln Island until the day their enigmatic benefactor contacts them.  Using an extension of their telegraph wire, the unknown personage leads them to his abode, deep within the island’s bowels.  When at last they arrive, they discover that the man who helped them in their every need is no other than Captain Nemo, the outlaw from civilization and the ruler of the seas, in the last days of his life.  They finally have a chance to thank him before giving him a solemn burial in his subterranean chamber, along with his beloved ship, the Nautilus.

While still alive, Nemo, whose name is actually Prince Dakar, tells Cyrus Smith something confidentially –  very soon, the island’s long-dormant volcano will erupt and tear the island to pieces in a violent explosion.  The colonists begin to construct a large ship, sturdy enough to take them to a continent, whether New Zealand or America, and they work as quickly as possible, while the island smolders.  In the end, however, they are too late, and they barely survive the explosion as Lincoln Island falls into the sea.  Clinging to a small bit of rock that still rises above the ocean, they are found by a passing ship and taken to America.  In the end, the colonists create a new “colony” in the plains of Iowa, naming it after their beloved Lincoln Island.

My personal favorite scene in The Mysterious Island is the conversation between the colonists and Captain Nemo within the Nautilus, in which the reader discovers the Captain’s mysterious history, and finally understands his enmity towards Britain and the civilized world.  Besides solving the enigma of Nemo’s existence, this scene is a great depiction of forgiveness and absolution, as Cyrus Smith and his companions assure Nemo that however vengeful his actions may have been throughout his life, he has been justified by his recent magnanimity towards them, and his history of fighting for the freedom of the world’s oppressed.

All considered, this was a great read, and possibly even more educative than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (which I also reviewed).  It is a noble story of man triumphing over the difficulties of nature (and of his fellow man, as in the case of the pirates); however, it struck me even more as the completion of Nemo’s story, a story of noble ideals, terrible cruelty and defeat, a life of vengeance, and finally a reconciliation with humanity on Lincoln Island.  It takes the monster out of Nemo, and rediscovers the man – it shows that it is possible to conquer the bitterest hate, and that within the most hostile heart there remains a glimmer of humanity, waiting to be restored.

These were my impressions of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, and I hope you all found them interesting!


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2013.

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