illustration of Captain Nemo's ship, the Nautilus, ramming a giant squid

20,000 Leagues under the Sea

by Jules Verne

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Why does Captain Nemo strongly dislike mankind in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea?

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In Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo has clearly broken with a civilization he has grown to loathe.  While remaining sympathetic to individuals beaten down by that form of civilization, his attitude towards mankind in general is decidedly negative.  The Nautilus is his and his crew’s escape from one form of civilization and represents their efforts at forging a new society in the submarine commander’s image.  Early in Verne’s novel, the story’s narrator, Professor Pierre Aronnax, describes a conversation with this autocratic ruler of his undersea kingdom:

"Captain," I replied, "I'll rest content with marveling. You've obviously found what all mankind will surely find one day, the true dynamic power of electricity."

"I'm not so certain they'll find it," Captain Nemo replied icily.

This brief exchange reveals what would emerge as a bitter, condescending perception of humanity as it exists on land.  Throughout the story, there are references, some subtle, some not so subtle, regarding the idiocy that rules the lands, as when the narrator describes his research:

“When I arrived in New York, the question was at the boiling point. The hypothesis of a drifting islet or an elusive reef, put forward by people not quite in their right minds, was completely eliminated.”

And, again, the professor, in providing the background that would lead him to the Nautilus, writes,

“Yet if some saw it purely as a scientific problem to be solved, more practical people, especially in America and England, were determined to purge the ocean of this daunting monster, to insure the safety of transoceanic travel.”

It is clear that Captain Nemo’s disdain for much of mankind reflects the author’s perceptions, as both his narrator and his main protagonist, the submarine commander, express negative attitudes towards mankind.  In the following passage, one of the visitors to the Nautilus engages Captain Nemo in a discussion on the whales they encounter and the former’s perception of wildlife:

“Captain Nemo observed the herd of cetaceans cavorting on the waters a mile from the Nautilus. "They're southern right whales," he said. "There goes the fortune of a whole whaling fleet."

"Well, sir," the Canadian asked, "couldn't I hunt them, just so I don't forget my old harpooning trade?"

"Hunt them? What for?" Captain Nemo replied. "Simply to destroy them? We have no use for whale oil on this ship."

 "But, sir," the Canadian went on, "in the Red Sea you authorized us to chase a dugong!"

"There it was an issue of obtaining fresh meat for my crew. Here it would be killing for the sake of killing. I'm well aware that's a privilege reserved for mankind, but I don't allow such murderous pastimes. When your peers, Mr. Land, destroy decent, harmless creatures like the southern right whale or the bowhead whale, they commit a reprehensible offense. Thus they've already depopulated all of Baffin Bay, and they'll wipe out a whole class of useful animals. So leave these poor cetaceans alone. They have quite enough natural enemies, such as sperm whales, swordfish, and sawfish, without you meddling with them."

Captain Nemo could be considered an early progenitor of the environmental movement that would proliferate in the latter half of the 20th century.  Verne/Nemo’s undersea world is vastly morally and practically superior to what exists above it on land.  Nemo's views on humanity are shaped by the waste and cavalier approach to life he has witnessed and of which he has grown weary. 

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