The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

July 15, 2009

mysterious-island Plot summary (with spoilers): The novel opens towards the end of the American Civil War in 1865, and focuses on five Northern men who have been captured as prisoners-of-war in Richmond, VA. Certain that they will either starve to death or be executed, the five prisoners — Cyrus Harding, an engineer; Pencroff, a sailor; Herbert, Pencroff’s teenage companion; Gideon Spilett, a reporter; and Neb, Cyrus Harding’s servant — agree to attempt a daring escape via a hot air balloon moored nearby. The men make it out of Virginia, but are much-buffeted by a massive hurricane and end up on an unknown, uncharted island in the South Pacific.

At first, the men spend a considerable amount of time getting a feel for the lay of the land. To their delight, they see that the island is actually quite hospitable, and with some hard work, they can turn it into a comfortable settlement. Surprisingly, the men don’t think of constructing a raft or boat in an attempt to make it back to civilization, which is what most castaways immediately do. Instead, they work to construct living quarters and stockpile some food stores, all while exploring their 30-mile island whenever they can.

Thanks to Cyrus Harding’s intelligence and ingenuity, the colonists start making all the tools, supplies, and implements they would normall have at home. These include an oven, earthenware pots, a dwelling with glass panes over the windows, and eventually even a telegraph. To be sure, many of the supplies the colonists need can be found in a natural state on the island (which, by the way, they name Lincoln Island), but some seem to fall out of the sky just when they are needed the most.

Soon the men start noticing that they get more and more help from this invisible being. For instance, when their dog Top is losing a battle with a large creature in one of the island’s lakes, the creature’s side is mysteriously gashed, allowing Top to escape. Also, when the island is invaded by pirates, the unknown being not only plants a torpedo in a canal to blow up the ship, but also supplies quinine for a deathly ill Herbert and murders five pirates who were hiding out on the island causing the colonists trouble.

Eventually, the helping hand is revealed to be Captain Nemo, of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame. Nemo says he decided to help the colonists after he saw that they were good, honest men unafraid of hard work. The captain further warns the colonists that a large volcano on the island is set to erupt, and tells them that they must leave. It’s too late for Nemo, as he is dying anyway and wants to remain with the Nautilus, but the men still have a chance. The settlers do indeed make it out in time, and are subsequently picked up by a ship heading back to America. They use some precious gems Nemo had given them to buy a huge tract of land in Iowa, and there they recreate their Lincoln Island settlement and live together for the rest of their lives.

Liked:

  • Though this was a very long book, Verne did a good job with plotting and pacing. There were few truly boring parts along the way, as most of the time the settlers were making or building something. To be sure, some of the details given (like for glass-blowing or whatever) went way overboard, but most of the stuff was interesting.
  • I’m a huge fan of the TV show Lost, and was thrilled to see so many similarities between the series and the book. Obviously, the writers of the TV program are familiar with Jules Verne!
  • I didn’t know that this book was considered a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so I had no idea that Capt. Nemo would make an appearance. As such, I had a hell of a time trying to figure out just how the colonists kept getting all the things they needed in the nick of time. I seriously thought the island had mysterious powers (like on Lost) or that the events would be written off as unexplained supernatural phenomena.
  • All five of the main characters were likable and all had distinct personalities. This is often difficult to pull off, but for a great writer like Verne, it seemed like a piece of cake.

Disliked:

  • There were some politically incorrect things in the book, especially regarding Neb. I guess that’s to be expected from a novel written 150 years ago, but still… One example that clearly stands out was when the settlers took in the orangutan Joop and decided to train him to be a servant. One of the guys then turned to Neb and said, “Now don’t get jealous, Neb.” Wow.
  • I thought the book was a bit long. Lots of the early scenes could have been cut, as they were mostly repetitive descriptions of what the colonists were doing to make the place more hospitable. Also, the battle with the pirates dragged a bit — though I guess those scenes were probably a highlight to the young boys who were Verne’s intended audience.

My Rating:

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Mysterious Island. It is actually a pretty fun adventure story, and as long as it is, it was easy to read. The characters were great, the appearance of Capt. Nemo was a bonus, and the happy ending was perfect. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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