Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-45

Chapter 36

Axel barely makes out what happens when the raft hits the shore. He tumbles out, and would have been dashed to pieces if not for Hans. When he awakens, though, everything has calmed down. The weather is placid and Lidenbrock is happy once more. He tells his nephew that they have arrived on the other side.

Axel asks Lidenbrock what the plan is once they reach the center. How, after all, will they return home? Lidenbrock teases his nephew for wanting to know the end before they even get to the center, but replies that they will either find a new route or just go back the way they came. Hans, who is already repairing the raft, has actually saved most of the group's possessions. The compass and manometer made it, although the firearms were lost. Food and water should be plentiful.

The men eat a delicious meal and Axel wonders where they are geographically. Lidenbrock muses that they’ve traveled over 2,500 miles from Reykjavik. Whether they are under Turkey or beneath the Atlantic bears consulting the compass. When they do so, however, they are stunned by what they see; the compass informs them that the storm returned them to the shore they thought they’d left forever.

Chapter 37

Axel watches his uncle move through “amazement, incredulity, and finally rage. Never in my life had I seen someone so crestfallen at first, and then so furious” (175). Such high emotion passes, though, and Lidenbrock soon becomes defiant in his claims to best nature. Axel tries to tell his uncle that all ambition must have a limit eventually, and is frustrated when the stoic Hans will not take his side against Lidenbrock. Axel knows that he cannot resist them both and resigns himself to continuing on with the exploration.

Before they depart, though, Lidenbrock says that he wants to explore the shore more thoroughly, especially as they landed somewhere slightly different from where they had set off. Axel accompanies him and they walk toward the cliff walls.

Under the men's feet are innumerable seashells of creatures long dead. Some shells are even fifteen feet long. Axel muses that the ocean above filled this sea, but that at some point the aperture must have closed.

The explorers walk along the shore for a mile or so until the ground changes appearance. Now it is rougher, a testament to some geological upheaval. The ground is filled with broken granite, flint, and alluvial deposits. Axel thinks that this area looks like a cemetery “where the generations of 2,000 years mingled their eternal dust” (178). The men marvel at this accumulation of the whole history of life. Lidenbrock’s jaw is slack as he looks up unto the vault. Finding these relics is like finding the ancient library of Alexandria returned to completion. He even finds a human head, and rues that the scientists Milne-Edwards and Quatrefages are not there with him.

Chapter 38

Axel explains the reference to Milne-Edwards and Quatrefages. In 1863, French workmen unearthed a human jawbone 14 feet below the surface of the soil in a quarry near Abbeville (Somme). The discovery was very influential and those two scholars were instrumental in publicizing the finding. Lidenbrock and other German scholars also did so. Some other scholars did not believe that it was a genuine fossil remain, though.

As Lidenbrock and Axel continue to walk they find the entire preserved body of a Quaternary man. They are shocked into silence and awe. The body is propped up, looking out at them through hollow eye sockets. This sight is incredible to them.

Lidenbrock adopts a didactic tone, as though he is addressing a university audience. He begins by saying that he knows how many doubting Thomases exist in the world and how fossil finds have been exploited by charlatans and Barnums. Here, though, is real, actual proof. The corpse is there to look at and to touch. It is less than six feet tall, is Caucasian, and belongs to the Japhetic family from the Indian subcontinent.

Axel bursts into applause. The men then see other bodies in the ossuary, and wonder if these are the remains of people who lived their whole lives down there or who fell into the cracks after they were already dead. Could there be a live man wandering about as well?

Chapter 39

The walk continues. A strange light bathes every square inch; there are no shadows. The mist is gone. Fantastic vegetation from the Tertiary period grows to colossal heights, but since there is no sun the plants are devoid of green coloration. Lidenbrock and his companions wander into the thicket and observe large mastodons ambling about. Axel is scared but Lidenbrock urges him forward.

Suddenly the adventurers glimpse an actual man—twelve feet tall, shepherding the mastodons. His wild locks and height make him formidable, and Axel and the others quickly leave. Their minds reel with what they have seen.

As they walk back, Axel notices rocks whose shapes remind him of Port Grauben. The men know that they did not return to the exact point from which they’d departed but are not sure where they are. In the dirt they find a rust-covered knife and, knowing that it is not theirs, they conclude that some other man must have been there before them. On a slab of granite nearby this hunch is confirmed; the letters of Arne Saknussemm’s name are carved into the rock.

Chapter 40

Lidenbrock expostulates on what a remarkable find the exploration party has just made. Axel is also enthusiastic, the delight of discovery rekindled in his breast. He tells his uncle how lucky they are that the storm sent them back here, because otherwise they never would have been put back on Saknussemm’s trail.

The men return to the raft and set sail once more, landing on the shore near a dark tunnel. After disembarking, they enter. Unfortunately, there is a large rock blocking their way; since it could not have been there during Saknussemm’s time, it clearly came from some sort of earthquake in the intervening centuries.

Axel will not give up the quest and feverishly suggests using the powder to blow up the opening. This course of action is agreed upon.

Chapter 41

At one point the next morning, Axel realizes that “our reason, our judgment, our ingenuity were to have no influence at all on events: we were to become the mere playthings of Earth” (195). The adventurers set up the explosives and set the fuse, then hurriedly return to the raft and set out to sea to protect themselves from the blast. The explosion is monstrous and the sea unleashes a huge wave. The three men barely know what is happening, but come to realize that their carelessness brought the whole sea through the blasted opening. They are swept wildly through the dark gallery. Their mast breaks and they look at each other with wild eyes. Most of the possessions are swept overboard; in fact, there is not even enough food left onboard for one day.

The raft seems to stop moving forward, then seems to plummet. The men hold on for their lives until the falling abruptly stops, and they then begin to rise.

Chapter 42

The raft bearing Axel, Lidenbrock, and Hans rises up a narrow shaft at about 14 miles per hour. This experience is terrifying, and Axel assumes that if there is no opening they will be crushed to death at the top. Lidenbrock is unfazed and seems almost calm.

The temperature increases to uncomfortable levels. The men decide to eat what remains of their food and then become lost in their individual thoughts. Axel is disconsolate that he will never see Grauben again. As for Lidenbrock, he murmurs about the type of rock in the gallery.

The water around the raft begins to boil and Axel can barely quell his fear. He looks at the compass and sees that it has gone mad.

Chapter 43

The compass needle shakes uncontrollably, a movement that Axel attributes to magnetic forces. He is terrified that the mineral crust is breaking around him; explosions occur frequently, the heat increases, and rock shatters. Lidenbrock is not scared, though, and placidly tells his nephew of his hope for an eruption which will finally bring them to the surface.

Together, the travelers continue to rise almost all night. Axel feels as though he is suffocating. He dips in and out of dreams.

Near morning the explorers find that they are ascending faster. They are no doubt somewhere in the Northern regions. The chimney formation widens out and Axel can see deep corridors. Flames crackle. There is no more water, only lava lifting them up. The eruption is periodic and occasionally the movement stops, then starts again. Their raft rises and falls and flames surround the men. Axel is barely conscious. He feels like a criminal lashed to the front of a cannon.

Chapter 44

When he wakes up, Axel finds that he is lying on the slope of a mountain. The area is bathed in warm sunlight and the mountains are covered with lush green trees of astonishing beauty. Lidenbrock and Hans have also survived; together, the men find fruit and a spring, and satiate their hunger and thirst.

A man comes by; through him, the adventurers realize that they are in the middle of the Mediterranean, in Stromboli. They have come up through Etna.

They depart from the olive grove where they were deposited after leaving the underground regions. Lidenbrock pays Hans, and the mute Icelander smiles in response.

Chapter 45

To secure transportation home, Hans and Lidenbrock pretend that they were shipwrecked, knowing that the Stromboli fishermen would not believe their actual adventures. Martha and Grauben are overjoyed when the two men return home.

As a result of his travels, Lidenbrock becomes a great man. He deposits Saknussemm’s document in an archive and tells the story of the expedition to all. He is modest in his glory. The writings, though, are translated into every language and attain considerable fame.

One occurrence that Axel and Lidenbrock parse out is the movement of the compass. They realize that during the storm on the Lidenbrock Sea (as they named the great subterranean body of water) the fireball magnetized the iron on the raft and disoriented their compass; this event is what, apparently, reversed the poles.


In these last chapters, Axel demonstrates some character growth. While he is still trepidatious on several occasions, he has come around to his uncle’s point of view and espouses a similar enthusiasm about the journey. He is even the one who suggests blowing open the rock obstacle rather than turning back. Lidenbrock remains as stubborn, tempestuous, and ultimately optimistic as ever, although when he discovers that the expedition has been brought back to the same shore he seems to have a moment of staggering clarity as to his foolishness.

One of the interesting aspects of Lidenbrock’s character is his view of himself in regards to nature. When he realizes his error in determining location, he shouts, “We shall see who wins: man or nature!” (175). This is a bold, arrogant statement; it is also a rather careless one, given how much at the mercy of nature the men are. In fact, it is easy enough to argue that Lidenbrock does not in fact win. After all, Axel’s plan sends the adventurers straight back up to the surface. They never reach the center of the Earth, never complete their journey. Nature shows them that she is still in charge.

These last chapters are primarily interesting, though, for the discoveries that Lidenbrock and Axel make: the cemetery of bones, the mastodons, the human skull, the other human bodies, and the tall living man. These finds add to what had come before, such as the geology in the descent into the crater and the plants and animals found along the way down. Critic Allen A. Debus looks at the science of the novel, starting with how Verne cleverly uses a real scientist—Humphrey Davy—along with a fictional authority—Arne Saknussemm—to leave the impression on readers that “on the grounds of both scientific theory and practical experience this incredible journey should be possible.”

Debus finds the paleontological aspects of the writing even more fascinating, calling the Journey a “life-through-time” work. The journey takes the characters through a veritable museum, bringing the past alive and narrating that past through a character who seems almost like a curator or guide. Fossils usually foreshadow the living specimens. Another use of foreshadowing in terms of what is truly going on here is when the adventurers take the wrong route early on and start going back up the geological time ladder.

Finally, another sort of foreshadowing takes place in Axel’s strange dream. Debus writes, “The ensuing waking dream sequence comprises travels across geological time, back to the planet Earth’s formation as a nebula in space. Yet key points along the way are paleontological, as Axel’s mind spins backward into Time’s recesses, where the reader glimpses eight prehistoric mammalian genera. During this directonalist (and non-evolutionary) retrogression through the ages, mammals are soon replaced by saurian, fish, and then invertebrate forms.” What Axel sees in his dream will soon appear before his very eyes.

Debus looks elsewhere at the role of evolution in the work, concluding that Verne is quite skeptical of this scientific premise. For this critic, Axel’s “progressionist ‘waking dream’ narrative is not really evolutionist in nature, and anatomically distinct Neanderthal brutes…are also absent from Journey.” The shepherd whom the characters see stands erect and is not simian, and he seems almost imaginary. Even Axel admits that the shepherd appears to be an insane apparition. Debus notes that “Verne did not accept the idea of physically less-evolved, primitive-looking ape-men.” Verne was well aware of the debates of the day and "wrote stories that poked fun at Darwin and far-fetched evolutionary matters.” Thus, Verne was simultaneously of his time, advanced for his time, and not yet caught up with his time. This multi-faceted perspective is what makes his works so compelling and enduring.