All night I remained by the side of the poor fellow's corpse, and several times Miss Herbey joined me in my mournful watch.Jules Verne was probably the earliest intellectual influence on my life. As a child, I had convinced myself that it was good and profitable reading, and I set to work on my grandmother's Zhyul Vern. Polnoe sobranie sochineniy with a vengeance. I must have spent half of my childhood curled up on the veranda couch with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or The Floating Island, eating sweet plums, dripping the juice all over the crackling Soviet pages. Mysterious Island was, of course, my favorite; one after another, the characters conquer the forces of nature with the power of science and human ingenuity, a million little triumphs. (If you read Mysterious Island parallel with Bouvard and Pécuchet, you will at last understand the nineteenth century.)
Before daylight dawned the body was quite cold, and as I knew there must be no delay in throwing it overboard, I asked Curtis to assist me in the sad office. The body was frightfully
emaciated, and I had every hope that it would not float.
As soon as it was quite light, taking every precaution that no one should see what we were about, Curtis and I proceeded to our melancholy task. We took a few articles from the lieutenant's pockets, which we purposed, if either of us should survive, to remit to his mother. But as we wrapped him in his tattered garments that would have to suffice for his winding-sheet, I started back with a thrill of horror. The right foot had gone, leaving the leg a bleeding stump!
- Jules Verne, Survivors of the Chancellor (Le Chancellor)
But Chancellor terrified me; I stopped reading for a while when I got to the above lines, the beginning of Chapter XLI. The pieces of the puzzle are clear: a shipwreck, the survivors floating on a raft amid open ocean, no food, no hope of rescue, a dead man's body whose leg has mysteriously disappeared. The conclusion is thus unavoidable: the survivors of the Chancellor have turned to cannibalism, eating the body of the noble Lieutenant to stay alive for a few more hopeless days. The instinctive association is confirmed by the long tradition of stories about such instances, as, for example, in the case of the real-life Brig Caledonia and the Mignonette.
But when I picked up the book again, things turned out differently. The lieutenant's leg did not become dinner--rather, it was apparently used as fish bait by the sinister boatswain, who soon turns out to be surprised that sharks have managed to eat the chunk of bloody flesh he hung off the side of the raft in the hopes of catching a "large fish." This implausible story shocks the young narrator, who puts his hand over the boatswain's mouth.
Why is there no actual cannibalism in Le Chancellor? Was Verne, perhaps, afraid to include such graphic scenes in his novel? But the way the chapter is written suggests that he intended the cannibalism to be there. Why else wedge the "fish-bait" issue into it? Corpse mutilation does little as a plotline on its own. Or maybe the cannibalism was supposed to be understood as having happened, but concealed from an unsuspecting reader (remember, the book is technically the diary of a passenger)? In that case, Verne would seem to have a much subtler grasp of form and content than he is given credit for.