20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne: A Book Review
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Diving into some classic science fiction!
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the sixth novel of French writer Jules Verne, serialized and first published in 1870. It is one of Verne’s most popular works and often described as a premiere science fiction adventure novel. To this day, it remains one of the greatest works of science fiction.
Jules Verne is often regarded as the “Father of Science Fiction,” and he has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979. Upon its release, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was met with wide acclaim with many of the aspect of the story being considered ahead of its time. It’s been adapted and referenced in pop culture many times; for instance, there are seven different film adaptations.
Summary (spoilers ahead)
The story is told from the first-person point of view of Professor Arronax.
After a series of attacks against merchant/exploratory ships by a mysterious sea beast, Professor Pierre Arronax and his loyal servant Conseil are called upon to join a team of sea explorers led by Captain Farragut with expert harpooner Ned Land aboard the Abraham Lincoln to set out in search of the great sea beast. Shortly into their journey, on one fateful night, they find the beast, or rather the beast finds them. Heretofore thought to be a monster narwhal, the crew sees pulsating lights emanating from the beast. They chase after it trying to catch it, and at one point, the beast is struck with a harpoon which sends it into a fury. The beast rams into the ship sending Arronax overboard into the vast ocean.
Arronax finds that Conseil has jumped in after him, and they begin helping each other swim. They swim for hours and hours before finally seeing the ship in the horizon, but suddenly, just as Arronax is sinking from fatigue, a great, hard body lifts him up out of the water. He finds himself above water atop a metal surface with Conseil and surprisingly Ned Land. The beast is, in fact, a submarine! Just then, the hull on its surface opens up, and a crew of masked men seize the three men and bring them inside.
After being fed and left to sleep the rest of the night, the three men wake to meet Captain Nemo, captain of the Nautilus, who has taken them prisoners. Captain Nemo is an indomitable, brilliant, and valiant man whose love of the sea is unparalleled. He has taken to live the rest of his life underwater, exploring the seas with a crew of men who, with Captain Nemo, all communicate in a mysterious made-up language. The Nautilus itself is a MASSIVE, futuristic, secret submarine, complete with multiple levels and hundreds of rooms including a library of 12,000 volumes, an art museum, and an observation deck. Captain Nemo leads Arronax on a tour and explains to him how the Nautilus operates (truly some incredible passages of well-researched science clashing with the imaginative genius of Jules Verne); Arronax is amazed and seems to accept his circumstances, and the other two, while initially hesitant, eventually acquiesce.
Over the course of two months, the Nautilus steadily traverses the ocean, all the while the three men, Captain Nemo, and his crew make multiple, perilous hunting trips into underwater forests (some of the best passages in the book). Under Captain Nemo’s tutelage, Arronax studies the multitudes of classes of sea animals, and constantly spends time out on the observation deck catching sight of some interesting events. Then suddenly, the Nautilus accidentally strikes land off the Torres Strait and gets stuck in the perimeter of the island of Gilboa, part of the providence of Papua New Guinea. Ned Land is thrilled and takes the opportunity to convince Arronax and Conseil to implore Captain Nemo about them making a trip ashore to hunt game. Surprisingly, Captain Nemo grants the three permission to make the trip as it will take a few days for the tides to rise sufficiently to release the immobile Nautilus.
Arronax, Conseil, and Ned Land were very successful on their hunting trip, bringing back meat, fruits, vegetables; however, on their second expedition, wild savages that inhabited the island took notice of them and began attacking. The three retreated to the Nautilus unscathed, but for the next few days, more and more Papuans accumulated on the shores of the island. When one inhabitant threw a stone that hit Arronax who was standing on the outside deck of the vessel, Conseil retaliated by shooting at the hundreds of men who lined the beach (no one was injured). At this, the Papuans began jumping into canoes and sailing out to the deck of the Nautilus. Arronax and Conseil retreated inside and were told by Captain Nemo to “sleep well” as there was no way that the men could penetrate the submarine; however, it came to Arronax’s attention that in a few days, the hull would be opened to renew the oxygen supply to the ship. When this day came, Arronax, visibly worried that the Papuans would invade the submarine, was astounded that when the panes were opened, the Papuans who tried to breach the submarine were electrocuted by a current that ran through the surface. Ned Land, who rushed to the violent scene, accidentally grabbed onto a railing was, too, shocked greatly. Nevertheless, the Papuans retreated, and the afternoon tides swept in to release the Nautilus.
A few days later, tragedy strikes. After a series of strange and murky events, Arronax, who used to a surgeon, is summoned by Captain Nemo to tend to a crew member who has been involved in an accident. The man has been struck by a broken engine lever and is bleeding out profusely. There is nothing that Arronax can do to save him, and so the man dies. Part one concludes with the Captain, Arronax, and a group of crew members crossing out onto the sea bed and performing an underwater funeral for their fallen comrade.
After a few strange and, at times, harrowing events–a shark attack during an expedition to scavenge for pearls as well as a giant dugong attacking Ned Land–the Nautilus gently makes its way toward the Mediterranean Sea. The route to this sea, which astonishes Arronax, is taken through a secret, subterranean tunnel that connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Thus settled in the great sea, Ned Land proposes to Arronax and Conseil his plan to escape–to charter the rowboat just after sunset and sail the way to the European coastline. Unfortunately, the opportunity evades him as the Nautilus is set sail again at full speed, but just after the vessel has exited the Mediterranean, Ned Land, determined to escape, strives to try again, this time too, proving unsuccessful.
Having reached the middle of the Atlantic, on one night, Captain Nemo takes Arronax alone on an underwater trek to an unknown location. They suit up but they don’t take any lighting equipment on their journey which puzzles Arronax as it is literally pitch black, but in the distance is a glowing red light that the two continue toward. They summit a mountain amongst debris of stones and lost artifacts and finally get to the top. The mountain is actually a volcano with spewing froths of lava in its basin, and all around them is the lost city of Atlantis. (seriously some of the coolest chapters in the book). Soon after, the Nautilus travels to yet another volcano, however this one was an empty void of a volcano. Water had invaded its basin long, long ago, and Arronax is astounded to climb onto the observation deck in the middle of the giant, cavernous room, the walls of which are massive slabs of stone pushing upward into a curved ceiling with a great hole to the sky in the center.
Then they travel to Antarctica, and once arrived under thick layers of ice, Captain Nemo searches vociferously for an opening through which he can summit the south pole which would make him the first man to set foot there. Luck is on his side and he, along with Arronax and few of his crew accomplish this feat. However, the hard part is not over. In their departure from Antarctica, the Nautilus gets stuck underwater inside a maze of massive icebergs. With their oxygen supply onboard the vessel slowly depleted, the crew, in a frenzy, start taking pick-axes to the walls of the enclosure. After six days, the combination of pick-axing and propelling boiling water into the icebergs is enough to unstick the Nautilus, and just in time too, as the crew was on the verge of fatal suffocation.
The vessel returning into the Atlantic and heading north is suddenly attacked by a group of giant squid (poulps as Verne writes). The jaws of one great monster get stuck in the blades of the rotor rendering the submarine immobile. So after surfacing, Captain Nemo, his crew, and the three men take to the outside to fight off these beastly cephalopods. It is a great battle scene! One of the crew members unfortunately gets eaten by one such beast. Ned Land nearly gets chomped in its gnarly beak too, but Captain Nemo saves him in the last second. The rest of the men successfully ward off the vicious group of poulps, but all are most certainly scarred by the brutal scene.
As the submarine continues northward, Ned Land, growing more and more anxious to get on land, simply cannot take another moment at sea. And as they inch closer to his native Nova Scotia, Ned Land, with the agreement of his two companions, begins again to plan an escape. Arronax approaches the captain with their intentions, hoping that he might grant them permission after being prisoners for over 7 months. Captain Nemo responds negatively, and curtly dismisses him. Thus begins their plans again, but also again, their efforts are thwarted by an untimely hurricane. Ned Land is beyond upset, as is Conseil, and all three are thus confined to remain on the Nautilus as it travels up the North American coastline, juts over to Europe, and begins its southerly descent once again.
Soon, an unexpected ship off in the horizon catches sight of the surfaced submarine and begins firing upon it. The three prisoners seeing this ship coming closer are suddenly rejuvenated with the hope of escape. They plan again but are prevented once again! when Captain Nemo begins destroying the foreign ship, much to the dismay of Arronax. The Captain is relentless and sinks the ship, killing all its men. At this display of such savagery, Arronax starts to see how this mysterious man of the sea, whose background and history have never been fully disclosed, is actually a man full of hatred and vengeance directed towards the outside world. Arronax begins to ponder who this man truly is, what relationship with the outside world does he have that inspires such vicious retaliation, and what does it all mean for himself and his two prisoned companions? After the decimation of the ship, Arronax spies on the Captain as he returns to him room, lastly seeing him stand before a great portrait of young women with two children, and the Captain is weeping.
At last, the night after, as the Nautilus is settled not twenty miles from land, Ned Land awakes a sleeping Arronax and tells him, “we are going to fly.” The makes their last plans and wait for the right moment in the night. Arronax, visibly nervous and a bit rueful, sneaks past Captain Nemo and meets his two companions at the row boat attached to the hull of the submarine. Just as they are departing, the Nautilus is swept into a giant whirlpool, a maelstrom, and the men nearly drown. Somehow, they are able to unlatch the boat within this chaos–along the way, Arronax hitting his head and going unconscious–and the men successfully escape the Nautilus.
Arronax wakes up surrounded by Conseil and Ned Land on a remote island off of Norway. And on the last page, Arronax ponders the fate of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. He reflects on his experiences over the last 10 months, all of his underwater journey, and he writes, “And to the question asked by Ecclesiastes three thousand years ago, ‘That which is far off and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’ two men alone of all now living have the right to give an answer–Captain Nemo and myself.”
The greatest question that the novel poses is: Would you sacrifice your freedom in order to learn the truth? Or perhaps something along those lines. In a way it’s similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – do we really want to know the truth, ie what the vast underwater world represents, even if the truth is burdensome or debilitating? or do we want to stay in the cave, ie what the above ground world represents, which is to chose to remain blind? With a notion like this, there is usually a kind of catch-22 attached, and it’s within this catch-22 that the transformation of Arronax is truly printed.
Arronax, throughout the novel, is at the constantly fluctuating center of the proverbial tug-of-war rope; on one end of the rope, he has an opportunity to fulfill all of his greatest dreams–he is man of science and has spent the majority of his life searching for the answers that are now within his grasp, his greatest passions now can fully be lived out within the walls of the Nautilus, and under the tutelage of the erudite Captain Nemo, staying on the submarine will most certainly reward him exponentially more than returning to the surface will; one the other side of the rope is everything that he has known; his life, his family, his colleagues, his home, his job, his memories and past, everything! and this side is further strengthened with his two companions, Conseil and Ned Land, who both yearn to go back to land, and it is their insistence and convincing that always yanks the rope in that direction.
But the ultimate, finishing tug on the rope in the direction of escape comes when Arronax begins seeing the kind of man Captain Nemo truly is. After his brutal destruction of the foreign ship, the last straw is laid; Captain Nemo is not the incredible, genius, respectable scholar that Arronax had thought he was. The truth is Captain Nemo has quite a complicated past that we never quite learn, but we know that whatever has happened, Captain Nemo’s past has transformed him into a paranoid, vindictive, apathetic misanthrope whose disdain for the rest of the world forced him into the seas in the first place. After learning this, his choice is clear, and Arronax joins his his comrades in escaping from the Nautilus.
This kind of theme, the catch-22 and the Allegory of the Cave, pops up everywhere, from realism to modernism to postmodernism, in literature and film alike (ever seen The Matrix?), and it’s no wonder that Verne, using his brilliant aptitude for story-writing in conjunction with his love for science, addresses this question through the means of science fiction. The cool thing too is (and I love that he does this; it’s like a game to him) Verne sprinkles all throughout the novel tiny allusions to Plato, as well as many other Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and writers. Nemo means ‘nobody’ in Latin, which may or may not but definitely was influenced by Homer’s The Odyssey, of which this novel reeks of literary allusions and themes.
This book is terrifying at times. Verne goes IN on his descriptions of the vastness of the ocean and all that lurk underneath. There were times when chills literally flew down my spine as I was so vividly imagining what it would be like to be trapped miles underwater, completely helpless and totally at the whim of the monstrous forces beyond. I cannot begin to fathom (lol) how his audience in the late 19th century reacted while reading this novel.
However, the reason this book is considered an adventure novel, rather than a horror novel, is because the bulk of the novel is NOT scary. The bulk of the novel is really just the Nautilus swimming around the world, all the while the characters encountering some interesting things. But this still proved interesting, and honestly difficult to read at times, as a lot of the places were obscure islands, cities, and nations that I, being somewhat of a geography neophyte, was certainly not familiar with. To follow along better, I kind of made a game out of it. What I did was (and I highly recommend others do this too) I rolled out a map of the world and kept track of their travels, meticulously following their geographic location that moved like an invisible snail through the seas, each new location potentially holding some wild encounter or event. To visibly chart out their journey gave me a wider scope of perspective, and I gained a greater appreciation for the story because of it.
Along with the intense geographical descriptions, Verne’s attention to detail in regards to science is staggering. The novel is RIFE with heavy scientific, mathematical jargon which sometimes lasts for many pages. At times it really is bland and gratuitous–lots of numbers and calculations, explanations of physics, passages filled with italicized Latin names of animal classifications, etc. Now, for someone like me who loves this kind of scientific attention to detail, it was truly very fascinating albeit difficult to read at times. I recognize that, to someone who might not share my enthusiasm for science and math, these passages would appear boring as hell as not much action occurs during these nerdy episodes. But that’s also another reason why this book was so monumental (and also the reason why it’s considered one of the greatest science fiction novels)–the amount of work that went into all of the physical calculations is tantamount to a true scientist’s/mathematician’s work. That aspect of the novel completely floored me.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is most definitely worth a read. Verne’s prose is beautiful, and his hyper-description is truly paramount. The story too is everlasting, certainly something that will endure through the ages. Beyond that, the novel itself is attributed to the early foundations of modern science fiction, and that alone warrants a read. A ground-breaking genre that has expanded exponentially over the past century sprouts from the roots that Jules Verne sowed. So if you enjoy science fiction, grab a copy of this one and dive in.
· The title 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is frequently misconstrued. The title refers to the distance traveled underwater. Many take it to mean 20,000 leagues deep which is an impossible distance as 20,000 leagues is a little more than 69,000 miles. The deepest part of the ocean (the Mariana’s trench) is only 1,580 miles straight down.
· Some aspects of the Nautilus make their way into pop culture: some examples include the glass paned cockpit of the submarine–the Millennium Falcon of the Star Wars series definitely took inspiration from this; and one thing Captain Nemo loves to do is play his organ aboard his submarine–something that Captain Davey Jones also loves to do aboard his Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
· Jules Verne, over the course of his literary career (1850-1905), predicted A LOT of future technologies. Here is a list of a few:
o Gasoline-powered automobiles
o Airplanes and helicopters
o Modern irrigation
o Movies and video
o The trans-Siberian railway
o The electric chair
o Fax machines
o Nuclear weapons
o A moon rocket
§ which had nearly the exact same dimensions of the actual Apollo 8
§ also, Verne’s rocket reached a top speed identical to the Apollo and it splashed down only four kilometers away from the exact spot in the Pacific that the Apollo landed in 1968. (taken from the foreword by T.A. Barron)