Axel knows that the real part of the journey is beginning. He is terrified and intoxicated by the abyss, as well as thankful that it seems to have perpendicular walls that will make it relatively easy to navigate. The three men use rope to descend safely, dropping most of the luggage in before them. On the way down, Axel is too scared to look at the fantastic rock walls around him. Lidenbrock expresses confidence that the interior will not get too hot.
Three hours in, the men are still descending. The opening grows smaller and their surroundings darker. Once they reach level ground, they exhaustedly make camp for the night. Axel looks towards the opening above them and sees the Beta of Little Bear twinkling far above.
The night passes and morning arrives with rays of sunlight. Lidenbrock records his observations in a log; the men prepare to depart. The Ruhmkorff lights are turned on. Axel notes that the walls of the crater are coated in a thick and shiny material from the volcano’s 1229 eruption. There are stalactites everywhere and crystals that gleam like the crystals in chandeliers. Despite his misgivings, Axel is enthralled.
It is not getting much warmer; Axel attributes the low temperature to the more horizontal than vertical path that the expedition seems to be following. Axel and the others halt for the day and Axel asks his uncle about water. Lidenbrock is confident that there will be springs ahead. Axel is startled to realize that they are now deeper than any man has ever gone into the earth.
The next day the adventurers reach the end of the “chimney” they had been traveling down, and the path splits to offer two options. Lidenbrock does not want to appear unsure, and confidently chooses the eastern tunnel even though there is no discernible difference.
Axel marvels at the natural architecture of the space. Here, the arches resemble the naves of gothic cathedrals or Roman buildings. He is also pleased at how comfortable the solitary, quiet state is because it feels safe; there are no animals or “savages” to worry about.
In the morning, the adventurers wake up refreshed and continue along the eastern path. Axel complains that it seems that they are ascending, not descending. Lidenbrock looks annoyed and says nothing. Axel tells himself that at least they are returning closer to the surface; he misses Grauben.
At midday, Axel notices that the lava is replaced with bare rock and angled layers; apparently, the men have reached the middle of the Transition Era in full Silurian Period. Axel points these facts out to his uncle, telling him that they have encountered the time when plants and animals began to appear. Lidenbrock says nothing and Axel wonders if his uncle is starting to realize that he came the wrong way but is too stubborn to give any acknowledgement. Axel sees more proof of his theory of the Silurian Period in the fragments of plants and animals, and in the dust on the ground. He can even see the outlines of seaweeds and club-mosses. Again he says something about their course to his uncle, but Lidenbrock only admits that that they did leave the lava. Nonetheless, they must continue until there is a definitive end. Axel worries that the water is running out.
Rationing water soon becomes essential. The explorers continue along through the Transition Era, marveling at the signs of life. They seem to move up the scale of animal life to the pinnacle at which humans arrived. There are no signs of available descent, but they do stumble across a coal deposit. The next day they find a cavernous hall with the history of the coal period written upon it. It seems clear that this would be the period when vegetation existed. Axel concludes that the interior of the Earth must be heated but that they cannot feel such warmth. He marvels at the riches of coal here and muses that humans will never be able to utilize them. Lidenbrock is growing impatient, yet the end of the tunnel finally arrives. He is obliged to admit that he was wrong and that the adventurers must all go back and take the other route. Axel says, frightened, that they only have one day’s worth of water, but Lidenbrock replies that they must be courageous.
The three men suffer tremendously from want of water. Their reserves run out completely and they can barely make it to the original place where the two tunnels diverged. Axel collapses, but to his great surprise his uncle offers him one glorious mouthful of water. Lidenbrock explains that he knew his nephew would not want to go on at this point, and saved the water for him. After Axel gratefully drinks, he tells his uncle that they must all go back up the crater and to the surface. Lidenbrock considers his nephew's words and tells Axel that, if he wants to, he can take Hans and depart; Lidenbrock himself must continue. Axel is torn. He feels that Lidenbrock has undertaken a suicide mission but does not want to abandon his uncle. When he talks to Hans, though, the stoic guide conveys to Axel that he will not break his agreement with his master. Lidenbrock offers a compromise; Axel will give him one more day, in a determined effort to find springs, but if he does not they will all return.
Setting off down the western tunnel, the adventurers immediately see the Primitive terrains, which excite them. This is the time of the base of the mineral crust; the surroundings are filled with tremendous, layered schist of beautiful colors. The light’s reflection makes it seem that the men are traveling through a diamond. By eight that evening there is still no water, though, and Axel completely gives up. Lidenbrock is struck and admits that it is all over. As they sleep, though, Hans steals away. Axel sees him go and is confused.
When Hans returns he tells the others that he has found “vatten,” or water. Thrilled to hear this news, Lidenbrock and Axel follow him, descending about two thousand feet. The sound of babbling water can be discerned. Unfortunately, Hans had not actually accessed the water but has only divined it through the rock. Even though unleashing the water could be dangerous, the men are beyond reason; Hans uses his pickaxe and breaks apart the granite wall. To their delight, water spurts out, but it is boiling hot. The corridor fills with steam and a brook begins to babble. As soon as the water cools enough to drink the men imbibe deeply. They decide to let the stream (which they name the “Hans-Bach” for their ingenious guide) run as their companion; they will follow it and drink from it.
The three men continue their journey, the stream reminding Axel of a familiar spirit. Their near-horizontal path finally turns to become a sheer vertical descent. It is treacherous, like a spiral staircase going straight down. Once they make it to the bottom, the explorers find that the path becomes regular and dull again. Lidenbrock tells Axel that, by his calculations, they are actually underneath the ocean by this point. Axel is extremely worried by the idea of the entire ocean above his head, but realizes that this fact matters little in the end.
As the explorers spend a day of rest, Lidenbrock works on his daily notes. He and Axel discuss the temperature of the Earth and how long it will take to get to the center. Lidenbrock becomes annoyed when Axel concludes that it will take nearly five and a half years to get there. Axel is also worried about the pressure but keeps quiet. He wonders how Saknussemm could even have known he had reached the center if he did not have a barometer or manometer in his era.
Over time, Axel realizes that he is actually excited to be approaching the journey's goals. He is grateful for the almost completely silent Hans, who is capable of saving the other men's lives. The journey is calm except for one striking event; in this instance, Axel is walking and suddenly finds himself alone. He can see no one and hear nothing. He goes back along the single path but, similarly, finds nothing. Doubts fill his head concerning his place at the front of the line. He decides to follow the little stream but when he reaches down to refresh his face he is staggered to find that it is no longer flowing beneath his feet.
Axel is horrified that he could die buried alive in agonies of hunger and thirst. He begins to feel the weight of the earth above him. He prays and decides to look for the stream. This attempt does no good, however; he arrives at a dead end. His light also shatters. He is filled with a frenzy of horror, and runs about screaming like a madman.
A few notable events occur in these chapters. First of all, the travelers are well along into their journey, descending to the bottom of the crater and continuing their gradual course. They see things of tremendous beauty and rarity, marveling at the fact that only their eyes (and Saknussemm’s) have ever lit upon them. Second, Lidenbrock’s hubris proves itself almost deadly for all involved; the fact that he cannot admit that he took the wrong route causes immeasurable pain and fear, especially for Axel. Third, it becomes clear to the adventurers that their descent into the bowels of the Earth is pulling them, essentially, back in time. Their move through space takes them through the course of natural history as well, and as scholar William Butcher notes, “the time-space equivalence is…a literary device: the plot and the narrative voice structure the science, rather than the other way around.”
Butcher also discusses the novel in terms of its context within 19th century literature, noting that critics have sometimes found this difficult to do because his production was varied and extended over a period of time that included both Charlotte Bronte and James Joyce, two radically different authors. He begins by noting that this work in particular exhibits late Romantic tendencies, evinced in the poetic language, the sense of melancholy, personal angst experienced by the characters, a focus on time and existence, a retreat into the past, a search for the transcendental, and exclusion from the world. There is also influence from the theater, seen in the “attention to dialogue and care for timing and suspense, especially in the 'set scenes' and the ending.”
Butcher adds that this is not all, however, and sees the novel as also embracing Realism: “[the novel] shares with Realism a preference for male characters (and virtues), a reluctance to engage in unsubstantiated psychologism, a tendency to short, sharp, sometimes verbless sentences.” Butcher views this genre affiliation as somewhat paradoxical, since “so much Realism in the externals leads to the opposite of realism in the mood: Verne’s positivistic aspects culminate in the wildest longings and imaginings…Opposites not only attract in Verne, but produce a pole-reversal, an inversion of signs—as most of the conditions of surface existence are inverted underground.” Along with Realism, careful readers can detect a dose of proto-Modernism in the invocation of self-awareness and self-consciousness at all levels.
Scholar Timothy Unwin also delves into Verne’s place within the 19th century. He sees Verne as a crucial chronicler of that century’s fascination with the machine, shrinking the size of the globe, expansion, and communication—and of the concomitant discoveries and destructions. Verne’s work is much different from that of most of his contemporaries in that it is very technical. He cares very much about depicting how the world is changing in terms of technology as well as in terms of the expansion of knowledge. The way he does so, though, is by delving into the past. Unwind explains that Verne's “novels of anticipation are in fact a journey back in time” and that “the past is a fundamental and recurring feature of his world-view.” In Journey this backward-looking sense is quite literal, as the travelers head into the depths of the Earth and find themselves also going back in geological and evolutionary time.
Unwin notes that even with all of the emphasis on science, there is still a healthy skepticism that pervades the text. He references Foucault’s celebration of scientists who make mistakes and reveal their humanity; such scientists are tied to the characters of the Journey, who also err and then turn error into discovery and progress.