Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea Analysis

Jules Verne

The Plot

Until 1965, most English editions of Twenty Thousand 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...

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Places Discussed

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 Abraham Lincoln encounters not the sea monster it expects when it leaves New York but a mechanical wonder the likes of which did not exist in the civilized world. The encounter between the conventional warship and the exceptional submarine occurs only after the former’s long and exhausting search of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, two hundred miles off Japan, where the Nautilus sinks the Abraham Lincoln. The Nautilus takes aboard three of the frigate’s survivors: French scientist Pierre Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and Ned Land, an expert harpooner.

Verne’s love of the sixteenth president of the United States is evidenced in his choice of name for this novel’s frigate. Lincoln is also honored in the sequel to this novel, The Mysterious Island (1875), as the name of a Pacific island.


Nautilus. Submarine on which most of the novel is set. Verne’s love of ships and technology is evident in his descriptions of the technologically marvelous Nautilus. He knew the kinds of keels that could be manufactured in France, the kinds of shafts that could be cast in London, the screws that could be forged in Glasgow, the instruments that could be invented in New York City, the powerful engines that could be...

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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...

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Literary Qualities

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...

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Social Sensitivity

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in many ways anticipated the submarine warfare that was developed in World War I and refined...

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Topics for Discussion

1. What is the relationship of Ned Land to Captain Nemo? What do they admire and dislike about each other?

2. Why has Captain...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Professor Aronnax is the narrator of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. What thematic advantages do you see in his being the...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

Captain Nemo disappears into the whirlpool but reappears with his submarine at the end of The Mysterious Island, giving his blessing...

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For Further Reference

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Article on Verne provides the basic facts of his...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Allotte de la Fuÿe, Marguerite. Jules Verne. Translated by Erik de Mauny. London: Staples Press, 1954. A biography of Verne by a member of his family which includes a commentary on his works, including the chapter “Nemo, Genius of the Seas.”

Butor, Michel. “The Golden Age in Jules Verne.” In Inventory. London: Cape, 1970. An excellent essay which discusses the symbolic significance of Nemo and his vessel in the context of Verne’s oeuvre.

Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978. Chapter 8 of this critical biography deals with Twenty...

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