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The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson summarizes the voluminous novel, ''The Mysterious Island'' (1874), by French science fiction author Jules Verne. We will learn about the important plot points, discover the answer to the many mysteries, and get to know the characters in the novel.

Spoiler Alert!

Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island (1874) charts the adventure of a group of castaways on an uncharted South Pacific island. It's both a shipwreck adventure and a mystery. Contemporary readers would have found the greatest similarities between Verne's Mysterious Island and DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), the quintessential castaway story. But today, The Mysterious Island will resonate with anyone familiar with the television show Lost. While Lost spoilers are unforgivable, divulging the secrets of The Mysterious Island is pardonable since the novel is nearly 150 years old.

Given the number of mysteries that arise during the course of the novel, only one spoiler is really necessary to explain the novel: it's a sequel to Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870). The first ¾ of the novel combine the castaways' efforts to colonize the island and a series of unexplainable occurrences that help them along their way. The great Captain Nemo finally shows up in the last 50 pages, and his appearance explains the supernatural events.

Backstory

The story opens in Richmond, VA, 1865, during the American Civil War. A small group of Union soldiers steal a hot air balloon to escape a POW camp. They take off during a storm. The balloon is blown across continents and oceans, and they crash land on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific.

The balloon goes down
balloon

They're referred to alternately as castaways, settlers, and colonists:

  • Cyrus Harding, the engineer (in some versions Cyrus Smith)
  • His dog, Top
  • His black servant, Neb (short for Nebuchadnezzar)
  • Gideon Spilett, a journalist
  • Pencroft, a sailor
  • Herbert, a boy

Castaways

In Part I, the five castaways explore the island, make a map, name the island's features, and begin to build. The first mysterious event occurs when Cyrus is separated from the group during the balloon crash. When Neb finds Cyrus and Top, nobody can explain how the disoriented and injured Cyrus made it from the beach to the safety of an inland grotto.

During their exploration of the island, they calculate the approximate latitude and longitude and figure out that it's uncharted. They name the island after Abraham Lincoln, and several of the other geographic features after U.S. Presidents. They decide to colonize the island, the process in which a group of people sets up a civilization in a foreign land. The castaways, who now call themselves settlers or colonizers, combine their collective skills to make pottery, manufacture metal, synthesize nitroglycerin, build houses, and weave clothing.

Map of Lincoln Island
map

A second mysterious event is more jarring than the first. A mysterious force saves Top from a dugong (a manatee). The dugong attacks Top in the water. Something tosses the dog from the water, and the bloody dugong surfaces and dies on the beach.

Mysteries

In Part II, they build a boat and continue to expand their settlement. The colonists discover a message in a bottle written by a castaway asking for rescue. They make a list of supplies that would be necessary for a rescue mission to the adjacent island. Before they know it, a trunk of supplies appears on the shore carrying all the supplies they would need for their journey. Where did the trunk come from?

The settlers sail to Tabor Island, about 200 miles away. There, the settlers discover Ayrton, captain of The Speedy, whose crew mutinied. He was left stranded on the island. Ayrton denies having written the message. Then, who sent the message in the bottle?

They would have gotten lost on their way back to Lincoln Island were it not for a beacon lit on a high point, which allowed them to navigate in the proper direction. They figure it was Harding who lit it, but he denies it. Another mystery!

Pirates Attack!

In Part III, the pirate ship Speedy attacks the island! In the shallow waters near the shore, however, the ship suffers a fatal blow to the hull. At first, it appears as though gunpowder in the cargo hold must have exploded. Then, the settlers find a torpedo on the shore! Now, they are convinced that these mysterious happenings aren't coincidental. There must be some supernatural force on their side.

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