I was having a sort of hallucination; I was suffocating; I needed some fresh air. Absent-mindedly I fanned myself with the piece of paper, with the back and the front passing alternately before my eyes. Imagine my surprise when I thought I caught sight of perfectly intelligible words...I had discovered how the code worked.
This is the first of many hallucinations and dreams that Axel experiences in the text. These mental excursions don't just make for good, compelling storytelling; rather, they are conduits to knowledge and wisdom. Here, Axel's hallucination leads him to decipher the code that allows him and Lidenbrock to undertake their journey. Later, his most important dream takes him through the origins of life on Earth, through all of the successive evolutionary stages of geological, plant, and animal growth. Both in Verne's narrative and in actual modern psychology, dreams can illuminate what is murky and give us insight into the truths that are not visible during waking hours.
[Grauben] talked calmly, she gave me the most sensible reasons for doing our expedition.
For readers who enjoy determined female protagonists, Grauben is an incredibly disappointing female character. She is quiet, demure, lovely, shy, and optimistic. She is considered intelligent but is only an assistant of sorts of Lidenbrock and Axel. Her presence in these pages is limited only to pushing a male hero to his great undertaking. Grauben is also present as a prize of sorts for Axel to attain once he gets home. Thus, along with Martha the cook, a beleaguered Icelandic mother of 19, and a sour Rector's wife, Grauben is an extreme manifestation of the 19th century's reductive attitude towards women.
In the state of nerves I was in, I half-expected to see Hamlet's shadow stalking along the legendary terrace.
Here, Verne offers a direct allusion to one of the most famous works in literature—Shakespeare's Hamlet. This drama is significant not only as one of many literary references and influences observed in the text, but also in its specific evocation of ghosts, burial, dreams, drowning, and probing into the nature of what it means to be human. Hamlet is a tortured character searching for truth, much as Lidenbrock is a tortured, brilliant character searching for scientific truths of his own.
This serious, phlegmatic, silent type was called Hans Bjelke; and he came with Mr. Fridriksson's recommendation. He was our future guide—whose manner contrasted singularly with my uncle's.
Hans is of extreme importance to the text. Axel spends a great deal of time describing his guide, and there are excellent reasons why he does so; indeed, Hans saves Axel's and Lidenbrock's lives many times and provides the sense of endurance, constancy, and stoicism needed in a traveling party that includes an anxious young man and an eccentric, bombastic older one. Hans is also described in a way that makes him seem almost more than human. His characteristics, in fact, are quite unrealistic. In an introduction to the novel, William Butcher notes that Hans "demonstrates few human feelings; and although highly ingenious, he is uncreative...he lacks that vital spark: even a direct application of ball-lightning cannot bring this perfect being to life. In sum, he is one of Verne's psychological limiting cases, an experiment in extremes."
These wraith-like figures were hardly calculated to add joy to the countryside, which was becoming deeply depressing, as the last patches of grass died under our feet.
The scene with the leper roaming about the barren countryside is certainly one of the creepier moments in the text. This leper appears to foreshadow the mysterious and dangerous journey to come (and maybe even the ominous subterranean man whom the travelers observe). He is also an indication that any real sense of human life—at least that which the characters would find recognizable—is quickly vanishing. The only people they see after the leper are the Rector and his wife, also people with whom the travelers are loath to find any commonalities.
Nothing was more intoxicating than this attraction of the abyss. I was going to fall. A hand held me back. Hans's.
Friedrich Nietzsche's famous statement regarding the abyss (in which he cautions that man not look into the abyss for too long, lest the abyss also look into man) appeared several decades after Verne's own statement, but there is a striking similarity between the two. Axel stares into the abyss of the crater and feels as though he might fall in, mesmerized as he is by its depths. This is an apt metaphor for the journey itself, which certainly threatens to disrupt Axel's mental state as well as to put his body in danger. Axel tries to face his fears and to be courageous, but often this effort tests his mettle to an extreme degree, sometimes to the point of despair.
Here we are at the period where the first plants and animals appeared!
The journey down into the center of the Earth is not just a journey through space; it is also a journey through time. By having the travelers find more than just stalactites, lava, water, and coal, Verne gets to provide a history lesson of sorts. He introduces readers to the types of plants and animals that exist in the Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary Periods. We get to read about ancient sea creatures and mastodons and to imagine what early men looked like. Although some of Verne's science is flawed, there is much here that is useful or at least intriguing to would-be students of science.
What was surprising was that his silence increased every day. I believe that we were even catching it. External objects have a real effect on the brain. The person who shuts himself up between four walls finishes up losing the ability to associate ideas and words. How many people in prison cells have become idiots, if not madmen, through lack of use of their faculties of thought?
This quote clues us into the psychological changes that the travelers witness. Axel notes that he and Lidenbrock are inclined to be as silent as Hans due to the gravity of their journey. Below ground they vacillate through extreme emotions—fear, awe, joy, rage confusion—all the while trying to avoid danger to their physical bodies. It is no wonder that at times they may lose hold of their rational minds (Axel's dreams come to mind here as well) and start to confuse truth and speculation. The reader's realization of this instability also raises the question of whether or not we can entirely trust Axel's narrative. If he is basically saying that he and his fellow adventurers may have tilted into madness, then how can we take his words at face value?
No, the luminous power of this light, its flickering diffusion, its clear dry whiteness, the lowness of its temperature, its brilliance, all pointed to an electrical origin. It was like an aurora borealis, a continuous cosmic phenomenon, filling this cavern big enough to hold an ocean.
The passage detailing the storm is justly one of the most celebrated in the text. Verne creates a heightened sense of trepidation and danger by evoking two armies facing each other on the battlefield and starting to charge towards a clash. What makes his description of the electrical light so eerie is that, while it is fully an expression of Nature's power, it also seems to call upon forces outside of Nature. There is an aura of the mechanic, of dangerously alluring technological displays of power. This device may come from Verne's familiarity with the technological developments of his time and with how technology attempted to both harness and best Nature. And of course, who is left at the mercy of that battle is man, rendered diminutive and powerless against forces outside his control.
A.S.! cried my uncle. 'Arne Saknussemm once again!'
This is the moment when Lidenbrock and Axel realize that they are indeed on the right track and that the storm did not blow them of course, but rather brought them right where they needed to be. The exclamation also brings our attention back to the shadowy figure of Saknussemm, a man who obviously does not manifest himself as a character in the same way as the others but is nevertheless an important figure. What is interesting about Saknussemm is how little we know of him, and how what he do know of him is suspicious—heresy? alchemy? runes and codes? We do not know why Saknussemm kept his journey secret, why he undertook it, or what he found. Lidenbrock doesn't even stop to consider whether or not the man was lying in the first place; he simply perceives the truth in the reality that Saknussemm is a kindred spirit—an adventurer, a dreamer. It is more like fate, then, that the raft blows the explorers back on Saknussemm's path. There is little realism here, just a sense that the journey is ordained.
Journey to the Center of the Earth Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Journey to the Center of the Earth is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.