20,000 Leagues under the Sea Analysis
by Jules Verne

20,000 Leagues under the Sea book cover
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The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Until 1965, most English editions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were based on the translation of Mercier Lewis (a pseudonym for Lewis Page Mercier), an English clergyman who cut numerous important passages from the novel and mistranslated many scientific measurements. This caused Jules Verne’s reputation as a writer of extrapolative fiction to suffer in English-speaking countries. In 1965, Walter James Miller edited a completely revised and restored English translation; an annotated critical edition appeared in 1976. The Mercier Lewis translation remained in use in some inexpensive paperback editions. Serious readers should make sure that they study the novel in Miller’s rendition.

The first-person narrator of the novel, Professor Pierre Aronnax, begins his story by referring back to the year 1866, when a number of ships reported encounters with a mysterious creature in various locations. Intense public speculation about the nature of the creature begins, and when a ship suffers a large hole below the waterline in the latest incident, Aronnax, a French professor of natural history on a scientific expedition in Nebraska, publicly weighs in with his conclusion that the creature is a giant narwhal. He is consequently invited to participate in a government-sponsored hunt for the creature on board the U.S. frigate Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by his servant and assistant, Conseil.

After searching the oceans in vain for several months, the Abraham Lincoln finally encounters the presumed sea monster off the coast of Japan. When ace harpooner Ned Land attempts to kill the beast with his weapon, the ship is rammed. Land, Aronnax, and Conseil are thrown into the water. After drifting for hours, they are washed up onto the “monster,” which they discover to be a giant submarine. They are taken in by crew members whose language they do not understand and are left to languish.

Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus, eventually introduces himself and outlines his terms. Despite having been treated in a hostile manner by their ship, he will spare their lives. Because he and his crew have severed all ties with the rest of humanity, the three shipwrecked companions will be compelled to stay on the Nautilus. Aronnax is attracted by this proposal because the submarine is a mobile oceanic research laboratory. Land, a Canadian, is outraged about the loss of his freedom. Conseil unquestioningly follows his master.

The Nautilus, driven by electricity and completely self-sufficient, begins a long underwater journey designed to give Aronnax and Verne’s readers a partly scientific, partly mythological view of the wonders of the submarine world. After various adventures in the Pacific, including an encounter with aboriginal savages and an underwater hunt, the Nautilus crosses from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean by way of a secret oceanic tunnel near Suez. The vessel stops to supply freedom fighters on Crete and visits the site of the sunken continent of Atlantis.

After a nearly disastrous trip to the South Pole beneath the Antarctic icecap and a battle with a giant squid, the three companions witness Nemo attacking a helpless British ship, sending it to the bottom of the ocean with all hands, apparently as an act of vengeance. On previous occasions the three had been drugged for some periods of time to prevent them from observing similar encounters. This barbaric act persuades them to try to escape.

The companions barely manage to get out with their lives before the Nautilus is presumably destroyed in a maelstrom off the coast of Norway. Readers of Verne’s later novel The Mysterious Island (1874-1875) learn that Nemo and the crew survived the disaster. Many of the mysteries of Nemo’s background are revealed there as well.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

USS Abraham Lincoln

USS Abraham Lincoln. American naval frigate sent to investigate reports of a mysterious sea monster that is destroying warships on the high seas. Under Commodore Farragut—named after Civil War naval hero David G. Farragut—the

(The entire section is 2,230 words.)