20,000 Leagues under the Sea Analysis

Jules Verne

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...

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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 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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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.

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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

2. Why has Captain Nemo renounced living on land? Is he a tragic figure?

3. What makes Professor Aronnax want to stay on the submarine? What makes him decide to flee?

4. What would 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea be like without Conseil? Is he necessary to the action of the novel?

5. The sea provides Captain Nemo with a living, but does it also provide him with a reason to live?

6. Nemo uses the miraculous technology of the Nautilus to destroy. Might he use the submarine to benefit humankind?

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Professor Aronnax is the narrator of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What thematic advantages do you see in his being the narrator?

2. Captain Nemo is an enigmatic character. Write a character analysis of him, explaining his motivations for specific actions in the book.

3. The works of Edgar Allan Poe influenced Verne's literary career. Read Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" (1841). What similarities do you find to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? How do the authors' writing styles and techniques compare?

4. How are modern submarines superior or inferior to Captain Nemo's Nautilus? Research the development of the first submarines and compare these early efforts with Verne's concept of the...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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."

The character types that one sees in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea appear in Verne's other novels. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, for instance, readers encounter a scientist similar to both Nemo and Aronnax, and an active adventurer similar to Ned Land. This grouping of character types and the image of the fantastic journey are common elements in much of Verne's fiction.

20,000 Leagues Under the...

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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 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.