Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, at Nantes, an industrial town on the Loire River in western France. His father, Pierre Verne, was a magistrate and his mother, Sophie Allotte de la Fuye Verne, was a descendant of an established, well-to-do French family. Verne completed his legal training but never took over his father’s law practice as intended. Instead, he pursued an interest in literature and drama. He began to write plays for production in the Parisian theatre, most of which were unsuccessful. In 1850 one of his plays (The Broken Straws) was successfully produced by the famous author Alexandre Dumas at the Theatre Historique. Verne served as secretary of the Theatre Lyrique in Paris from 1852 to 1854.
The action in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea begins in New York in the spring of 1867 and finishes over a year later in northern Norway. The story carries its protagonists across the surface of the globe to the South Pole and back, and far down into the depths of the oceans. The Nautilus itself is the true Setting of the novel; it is the imaginative device that makes the action of the novel possible. Designed by Captain Nemo, the electrically powered Nautilus is two or three hundred feet long, capable of speeds far greater than surface ships of the day, and able to dive to great depths. It is large enough to contain a museum of oceanic research, a library, and even an organ, played by Nemo. The Nautilus’s crewmen are able to work underwater outside the ship, using devices that resemble aqualungs to harvest the fruits of the sea.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea begins with a mystery. For over a year, ocean-going vessels have reported running into a floating island or a submerged naval wreck, or being rammed by a giant whale. Pierre Aronnax, assistant professor at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, develops a theory to explain these confusing sightings; he believes that a huge narwhal is bedeviling these ships. After the Scotia, a Cunard Lines passenger ship, again encounters this “creature,” the United States equips a speedy frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, to hunt and kill the dangerous beast. Because of his theory, Aronnax is invited to join the expedition along with Conseil, his servant. Ned Land, a famous Canadian harpooner, is brought along for his hunting skills.
The main Characters in this novel are Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, Ned Land, and Conseil. Nemo (which is Latin for “nobody”) is an enigma. His age and nationality are unknown. But it is obvious that he is a gifted engineer, inventor, and marine biologist. Nemo has turned to the sea for his freedom and livelihood in response to some past horror, perpetrated upon his family by an oppressive government. He enjoys impressing his guests with his scientific prowess and genuinely seems to desire their company, but he cannot or will not confide in them. Nor will he abandon his intention to revenge himself on the passing ships of the colonial powers. Nemo is absolutely loyal to his crew and weeps when one dies. This is in sharp contrast to the quiet rage he feels when he attacks his enemies. The enigma of his character continues: is he a heroic revolutionary bent on promoting some international political cause or merely a demented pirate who ruthlessly destroys innocent people?
Verne often works scientific description into the plot, as when Nemo and Aronnax use their knowledge of the tides and the moon to free the Nautilus after it has run aground. But frequently the novel’s suspense is marred by a clutter of scientific details, such as a long listing of fishes or plants according to scientific categories of class, order, genus, and species. Sometimes Aronnax seems to be merely reciting his knowledge as he gazes out the Nautilus’s windows.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in many ways anticipated the submarine warfare that was developed in World War I and refined during World War II. The exploits of the Nautilus encourage the reader to examine how technological advances always seem to be two-edged; technology can be used to create and to destroy. Of more immediate social significance, perhaps, are the ideas Verne presents about ecology, the balance and interdependence of all things within the natural order. Verne expresses confidence that a thorough scientific understanding of nature will allow humankind to live in harmony with the environment and harvest its abundance without depleting the earth’s resources. These ideas are currently debated in issues that range from industrial pollution to destruction of the Amazonian rain forests.
1. What is the relationship of Ned Land to Captain Nemo? What do they admire and dislike about each other?
1. Professor Aronnax is the narrator of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. What thematic advantages do you see in his being the narrator?
Captain Nemo disappears into the whirlpool but reappears with his submarine at the end of The Mysterious Island, giving his blessing to the survivors of a balloon crash who have managed to create an island utopia. He says, “You have changed [the island] by your efforts and it is truly yours.”