The Plot

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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...

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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

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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

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 devised in Prussia, and the steel battering rams that could be forged in Sweden. From his store of mechanical lore, he invented the novel’s submarine. Verne also had knowledge of the battle of the American ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimack, during the U.S. Civil War.

Astounding for its time, the Nautilus is a submersible metal ship 232 feet long and 26 feet wide with a displacement of 1,500 tons of water. It possesses all the amenities of civilized life, including a twelve-thousand-volume library, an art museum, a collection of natural specimens, and even a pipe organ. It cost more than one million U.S. dollars to build—an amount that only a wealthy outlaw-prince, such as its Captain Nemo (a name meaning “no one”) could afford to pay.

The world does not hear of this ship before it begins its reign of terror on the seas during the late 1860’s because its parts had been secretly obtained and assembled on a desert island. This “Sailor” (for Nautilus is simply the Greek word for “sailor”) can turn a wilderness into a garden. Once again Verne returns to his familiar theme of technology having the ability to free humankind from imprisonment in space—be it on earth, over or under the seas, or in the air.

*Oceans

*Oceans. Nemo takes his uninvited guests on a tour of the world’s seas. To most people, the oceans are a watery wilderness, as hostile as the primordial oceans in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. To Captain Nemo, however, the watery desert is the “Living Infinite,” from which he obtains fuel for his ship, food for his crew, seaweed for his cigars, textiles for his clothing, and forbidden treasures from pearls, sunken ships, and the lost civilization of Atlantis. He has accumulated wealth enough “to pay the national debt of France.”

Aronnax and his cohorts are prisoners, but their prison is an elegant one. They sail under the South Pole (an impossibility in the real world), explore Plato’s legendary Atlantis, and navigate an unknown submarine passage under the Isthmus of Suez (where the Suez was being constructed at the time this novel is set). They experience high adventure—hunting with air guns in submarine forests, escaping attack by headhunters in New Guinea, and struggling with a notorious maelstrom off the coast of Norway, until they escape from Nemo’s grasp and return to normal society.

Setting

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The action in 20,000 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.

Equipped with huge windows sometimes protected by shields, the Nautilus allows the characters to explore the unknown depths of the ocean from a dry and comfortable platform. But because Nemo has vowed never to return to the land, the Nautilus increasingly comes to resemble a prison for Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land, and a tomb for Nemo himself.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Still, Verne's enthusiastic depiction of science and technology is a major strength of the book. Verne carefully researched existing submarine technology, studying Robert Fulton's early designs and the plans for Confederate submarines, such as the Hunley, used during the Civil War. To make his descriptions more convincing, Verne interviewed engineers who had helped lay the Atlantic cable about the strange life forms they encountered under the sea. This verisimilitude is what makes Verne's novel a work of science fiction, rather than fantasy. Verne's contribution to the genre is such that modern science fiction writers continue to emulate many of his techniques.

Social Sensitivity

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20,000 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.

For Further Reference

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Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Article on Verne provides the basic facts of his life along with a listing of editions and adaptations of his work.

Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. London: Oxford University Press, 1977. Verne is depicted as a writer to be admired for his imagination rather than his narrative skills.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. A Marxist perspective that examines Verne's early socialist ideas.

Verne, Jean Jules. Jules Verne: A Biography. Translated by Roger Greaves. New York: Taplinger, 1976. Particularly interesting are Verne's letters to his editor, Hetzel, which describe the political considerations that shaped the character of Nemo.

Bibliography

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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 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Miller, Walter James. The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. New York: Crowell, 1976. The first full translation of the text, elaborately annotated.

Verne, Jules. The Complete Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A New Translation of Jules Verne’s Science Fiction Classic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Eman-uel J. Mickel’s introduction offers a comprehensive study of the novel’s background and a survey of critical analyses of Verne’s work.

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