Review: The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island, by Jules VerneThe Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne (Rainbow Classics Edition, World Publishing Company, 1957)

It’s March 1865, and the American Civil War is raging. Five Northerners (and a dog), trapped in Southern-held Richmond, Virginia, stage a daring escape in a balloon during a wild storm. They mean to rejoin the Northern forces, but the storm carries them to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean.

The Mysterious Island is a tale of the triumph of human ingenuity, perseverance and courage … with occasional help from an anonymous benefactor. That’s where the mystery comes in. The island has no other inhabitants, yet the castaways/settlers experience a number of “coincidences” and interventions.

The novel was first published 1874 as three serials in magazines. It’s subdivided into sections: Dropped from the Clouds, Abandoned, and The Secret of the Island.

It doesn’t match twenty-first-century codes of writing style and political correctness. The narration is formal and of passive construction, in omniscient point of view. Of the main characters, the white sailor and the black servant naturally do the cooking and grunt work, and of course the term “African-American” hasn’t been coined yet.

The science is almost 130 years out of date. The moon, for example, is referred to as a cold star. The characters’ thoughts on the future make for interesting reading.

If you read the novel looking for things to criticize, you’ll find these sorts of things as well as some logistical ones. For example, the escapees threw everything out of the balloon to stay aloft, then cut the ropes to let the basket fall too, then landed on the island and didn’t have any knives. How did they cut the ropes?

On the other hand, if you read it looking for adventure, you’ll find that too. We have four men, a teen boy and a dog, cast onto the island with only their wits and the clothes on their backs. And the dog’s collar, and a match in one pocket, and a kernel of corn in another.

In the four years covered by the novel, the settlers become fully self-sufficient. They make bricks; smelt iron ore; concoct and use nitro glycerine; make bows and arrows, saws etc; establish a thriving garden and livestock enclosure; build a small boat. And the list goes on.

Realistic? Probably not. But it’s a lot of fun to see what they do. I admire their determination to make the best of a bad thing, and their kindness when they have the chance to help another castaway. I also appreciate their faith in their Creator. They know there’s a higher power than humankind, and they’re thankful He caused their balloon to reach the island before collapsing.

The other castaway introduces the possibility of villains turning good (other villains in the novel do not experience changes of heart) and this is relevant when the men finally meet their mysterious benefactor. All I’ll say here is that he’s an outlaw. But he’s saved their lives multiple times.

At over 600 pages, The Mysterious Island is not a light read, but it’s fun. And it has great scope for a movie, as-is. Why those who’ve adapted it to screen have felt the need to add things like giant crabs, time travel and Palpatine-type lightning bolts is beyond me. The few clips I’ve seen are enough to prove it’s not the same story.

According to Wikipedia, Jules Verne is “the second most translated author in the world (after Agatha Christie).” He’s certainly given a lot of readers many imagination-filled hours.

Other reviews of The Mysterious Island: Squidoo, Inkweaver Review (spoilers), Age 30+ … A Lifetime of Reviews.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

7 thoughts on “Review: The Mysterious Island

  1. storygal

    I’ve only read one book by Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and that was such a long time ago. Mysterious Island, apart from being scientifically dated and puzzling in places, sounds like quite an adventure.

    1. Janet Sketchley

      It’s a fun story, Carolyn. I read a lot of his other work growing up, but when I went to re-read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as an adult I found the technical references put me to sleep. Guess I’m getting lazy. I may try it again and just give myself permission to skip those parts.

  2. Joachim Boaz

    Be aware that at least 200 pages are missing from these early editions DESPITE claims that they are unabridged. The original French edition was substantially larger and a large portion of the social commentary was cut by the American publishers. I’ve read it in the original French a while back and was shocked at how much was missing (he’s much more satirical than one might think) THUS, the “political incorrectness” is a sort of satire of America (just look at the neat little pyramidal society — even an orangutan!) he’s created! The new (since 2000) editions contain the missing portions.

  3. Joachim Boaz

    Here’s the publication history. So, any of the newer ones will work — it’s all coming back (I read the new translation at least 8 or so years ago). My original one was from the 50s and contained the cuts.

    “In September 1875 Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle published the first British edition of Mysterious Island in three volumes entitled Dropped from the Clouds, The Abandoned, and The Secret of the Island (195,000 words). In November, 1875 Scribners published the American edition of these volumes from the English plates of Sampson Low. The purported translator, W. H. G. Kingston, was a famous author of boys’ adventure and sailing stories who had fallen on hard times in the 1870s due to business failures, and so he hired out to Sampson Low as the translator for these volumes. However, it is now known that the actual translator of Mysterious Island and his other Verne novels was actually his wife, Agnes Kinloch Kingston, who had studied on the continent in her youth. The Kingston translation changes the names of the hero from “Smith” to “Harding”; “Smith” is a name often used by gypsies and not suitable for an English hero. In addition many technical passages were abridged or omitted and the anti-imperialist sentiments of the dying Captain Nemo were purged so as not to offend English readers. This became the standard translation for more than a century.

    No unabridged translations appeared until 2001 when the illustrated version of Sidney Kravitz appeared (Wesleyan University Press) almost simultaneously with the new translation of Jordan Stump published by Random House Modern Library (2001). Kravitz also translated Shipwrecked Family: Marooned With Uncle Robinson, published by the North American Jules Verne Society and BearManor Fiction in 2011.”

    1. Janet Sketchley

      Thank you so much for all this information. I’ll definitely look for a complete version. And now I understand why one of the reviews I read referred to Cyrus Smith instead of Harding. It seemed an odd thing, to change his name.


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