20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Review

Jules Verne. 20 000 Lieues sous les Mers [20,000 Leagues Under the Sea]. 2 vol. 1871; Editions Norph-Nop, 2011. E-book.

In honor of Marie-Laure of All the Light We Cannot See, I had to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are actually a few connections that make this novel an appropriate backdrop to All the Light. But 20,000 Leagues is a great story in and of itself.

Jules Verne is often rightly called the father of science fiction. Though we can point to other writings—the author Cyrano de Bergerac wrote about travel to the moon and sun while Verne here credits Poe—but Verne really brought science into fiction to create a plausible if slightly fantastic story.

Today we often think of science fiction of having to involve space travel and hypothetical means of propulsion. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is not that different. It describes underwater travel before anyone had actually done it (1871) with propulsion that at least works on paper and which tells about some things that submarines actually have used since they were invented.

Verne describes the propulsion of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s underwater craft, as coming from batteries. All submarines use batteries, whether they have diesel engines or nuclear reactors to charge them. The Nautilus’s batteries are somehow refreshed by salt water and carbon. In Verne’s day, people experimented with batteries using a variety of solutions. Why not sea water? It makes more sense than hyperspace or wormholes for space craft. What is hyperspace anyhow?

There is also a lot of science. Very frequently our narrator, Professor Aronnax, describes the marine geology and life he encounters. The rock and sea floor formations, the seaweed and algae, the mussels and crustaceans, the fish and cetaceans, the seals and seabirds are all described in detail according to each location the boat spends time in. It becomes easy to see how Marie-Laure, who read the novel repeatedly, would learn a lot about sea creatures.

Between Aronnax and Captain Nemo, we also learn a lot about sea exploration and the naturalists who described many of the creatures. It is clear that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is not only an adventure story but also a research paper. The novel, for example, mentions hundreds of explorers from the sixteenth century to the 1860s. It even discusses the laying of the Transatlantic cables.

20,000 Leagues,
for example, mentions Darwin three times, twice in reference to the Beagle voyage and once concerning his theory about coral atolls. Though written after the Origin of Species, there is no reference to Darwinism. Professor Aronnax appears to accept the more traditional idea that fossils were largely laid down by a worldwide flood, though he says he subscribes to the day-age theory: that the days of creation in the Bible refer to eras, not literal 24-hour days.

Aronnax is recruited by the United States Navy to help it investigate reports of a sea monster that has been sinking even ironclad steam vessels. Of course, the monster turns out to be a submarine. Aronnax and two associates—Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, and Conseil, the professor’s trusty valet—find themselves on a whaleboat separated from the navy ship and rescued by the Nautilus.

Their lives are saved, but they are told by its captain, “Whoever comes aboard the Nautilus must never leave it.” Aronnax has access to a thorough library and an unparalleled collection of sea life—shells, skeletons, skins, algae, and so on. Aronnax makes new and exciting scientific observations, but will he ever have a chance to share them with the outside world?

Back in France, Aronnax was a botanist and lived at the Jardin des Plantes, the garden that Marie-Laure and her father liked to visit.

The adventures do make for exciting reading. Most are realistic in the sense that it is easy enough to imagine them. Many are based on observations made by earlier scientists and explorers. Aronnax and Captain Nemo both cite ancient and modern authors. So they do visit the site of Atlantis. They see many different kinds of reefs. And they encounter monsters of various kinds: giant squid, giant crabs, a pearl oyster two meters across.

Curiously, until they encounter one, Land and Aronnax are skeptical that giant squid exist. In a connection that Marie-Laure might have made from her time in Saint-Malo, Conseil insists that he has seen one. When Land and Aronnax challenge him, he says he saw one in Saint-Malo.

“Where?” Ned asks.

“In a church,” is the answer.

Conseil tells them that there is a painting of one in a church in Saint-Malo.

They go on to discuss how Olaus Magnus, two bishops, and Aristotle all claim to have seen them, and how museums in Montpellier and Trieste contain skeletons of giant squid in their collections.

A few interesting episodes have proven to be impossible. The Nautilus sails from the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean via an underwater tunnel. This is set just about a year before the Suez Canal is completed. The Nautilus reaches the South Pole by water. Back then, it was unclear how much of Antarctica was land and how much of it was an ice cap like the North Pole.

One exciting episode finds them under the South Polar icecap and running out of air. Finally, the submarine breaks through the ice cap in a manner resembling a fish jumping out of water. The USS Nautilus broke through the North Polar icecap some ninety years later. By the way, submariners sometimes talk about a breach, where the sub actually jumps out of the water, but they are supposed to avoid doing it if at all possible.

Captain Nemo has developed some underwater suits. They are not unlike the diving suits of Verne’s day except that Nemo uses pressurized air tanks so men can walk underwater without being tethered to an air hose. In other words, these are a lot like scuba tanks. Aronnax on several occasions walks out to view some gorgeous coral, to view an underwater “forest” of kelp, to explore Atlantis, among other things.

One curiosity is the great kelp forest by the Isle of Crespo in the Pacific Ocean. They never go ashore, but explore the sea floor next to this island. The novel, which bases its information on other sources, locates the island in the North Pacific, north of Wake Island and west by northwest of Midway Island. There are no islands there, but there are several descriptions extant which would have led nineteenth-century readers to believe it existed. Indeed, a Wikipedia entry on the Anson Archipelago notes there are two actual islands in this group, Wake and Marcus Islands (they are not close to each other), but most of the other islands are “phantom islands.” The listing even has a map from an 1891 atlas that includes Crespo Island (a.k.a. Roca de Plata) and others that do not actually exist.

The professor would also have us believe that walruses were found in Antarctica. Most of his observations appear sound, but he misses a few.

Much of the tale focuses on the mysterious Captain Nemo. He tells his visitors directly that they speak English, German, French, and Latin on the boat. Nemo means “no one” in Latin, and he tells them that it is not his real name. At one point he says that he was from India, but when he cries out for help, he cries out in French, leading Aronnax to believe that Nemo is a Frenchman. Nemo also appears to harbor a bitter hatred towards a French ship they come across. He also at one point donates some gold to a Greek freedom fighter.

Even though the three men are on board the vessel for a year, they only talk to the Captain. Even the second in command has no name but is simply called the Second. Aronnax does not recognize the language that the crew speaks to one another, so he knows it is something other than the four languages the Captain named.

The Captain and the crew all seem to be content to never go on land. We never find out why Captain Nemo wants to stay at sea, although he suggests he made some people with political clout unhappy. When Aronnax is first investigating the alleged monster sightings, he contacts virtually every seafaring government. He knows that a submarine vessel would not be a complete secret if it were being built in a government shipyard.

Nemo seems independently wealthy. We do find out where at least some of his wealth came from. He apparently built the Nautilus and gathered a crew (maybe Indian?) without drawing attention to himself.

It is also clear that he carries a chip on his shoulder. At times he gets bitter. He seems to enjoy stories of revenge. Maybe a bit like Captain Ahab, he takes predatory sea creatures personally. When they come across a pod of sperm whales, he tries to kill every one. He reminds Aronnax of the sinking of the Essex by a sperm whale and calls the creatures “vermin.” Similarly, he attacks the school of giant squid that they come across. When the cephalopods go after him and his vessel, it is hardly unprovoked.

At the same time, Captain Nemo does have a respect for most sea life. All the food and most of the materials used by the Nautilus come from the sea. The paper they use is made from kelp. The coal they refine for propulsion comes from a mine inside an island formed by an extinct volcano. Ned Land gets tired of always eating seafood, and the three friends are allowed to go ashore on an island off the coast of New Guinea where they get some coconuts and fowl.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a kind of Odyssey around the world. We visit an underwater graveyard constructed of coral. We navigate the treacherous Torres Strait north of Australia. The writer really takes us with him, so we share in his adventure. It is a lot of fun. We learn a lot about the world and its waters. Even if it is not 100% true, it is good fiction.

P.S. In tribute to Marie-Laure, I did read this in French. As with Marie’s Braille edition, the free download from Amazon came in two volumes. Most of the time in recent years I have had to read scholarly things in French. I found that slow and specialized work. That was not the case with 20,0000 Leagues [20 000 Lieues]. It was direct and clear even for a non-native speaker like me. Sure, I had to look up a few words, but it really was worth it. If you have studied a foreign language; try reading some entertaining stories in that language. You will be glad you did.

It has been noted by some critics that All the Light We Cannot See includes recurring images of spirals which all echo the design of the Chambered Nautilus, the sea creature the submarine is named after.

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