Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an imaginative science fiction/fantasy adventure set in the 1860s aboard the Nautilus, the electrically powered, fabulously futuristic submarine designed and built by the enigmatic and misanthropic Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo (he knows no other name) remains something of a one-dimensional character throughout the book because we never learn much about him other than that he has cut himself off from his fellow man and prefers to live under the sea. Like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Captain Nemo is out for vengeance, but we never learn exactly what happened to him to make him so bitter. Captain Ahab was seeking to destroy the whale that cost him his leg, while Captain Nemo seems to want to kill as many people in the world as he can. His small, uncommunicative crew (if they speak at all, they don’t speak in any identifiable language) of ten or so men on the Nautilus seem to share his disdain for the people of the world.

The American ship Abraham Lincoln was seeking a destructive “narwhal” (an enormous, apparently very cantankerous, whale-like animal) that was known to have destroyed and sunk several unoffending vessels for no apparent reason when it is rammed by the Nautilus and three men are thrown overboard: A French naturalist named Pierre Aronnax (he narrates the story in his first-person voice), his faithful manservant named Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land. Captain Nemo rescues these three from the sea and takes them on board the Nautilus, where they are essentially held prisoner only in the sense that they are not allowed to leave. Otherwise, they are treated well, with comfortable accommodations, shelter, comfort and plenty of good food. (I’d like a ten-month vacation like this where I can see all the wonders and splendors underneath the sea with minimal danger or discomfort.)

The Nautilus goes all over the world under the sea, witnessing wonders never before seen by man, including the lost continent of Atlantis, the inside of an extinct volcano, wrecked vessels, an attack by monstrous squids, an undersea cemetery, the South Pole, and myriad fish, plants, animals and undersea creatures that most people never have a chance to see in their lives unless they are passengers on the Nautilus. (Captain Nemo, on more than one occasion, takes them on a “walk” on the bottom of the sea.) As a scientist, Pierre Aronnax is fascinated by all he sees, while the Canadian harpooner Ned Land is unhappy and resents not being able to leave the Nautilus. Pierre Aronnax’s faithful manservant, Conseil, just seems to be happy to be able to go along for the ride.

The submarine can go to fantastic depths in the ocean because it is so solidly built by Captain Nemo. It is also equipped with sliding panels in the outside walls so passengers can get a closeup view of all the strange and wondrous sights in the undersea world (illuminated by powerful electric outside lights). The three captives, no matter how diverted they are by all they see, cannot help asking themselves exactly where the Nautilus is going and what is Captain Nemo’s end game? As cordial as he is to his guests (prisoners), he doesn’t reveal anything to them.

The Nautilus is like a character in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as is the sea itself.  Background information tells us that Jules Verne studied submarines (which, in the 1860s, were still unsophisticated) before he wrote the novel and that a lot of the information he “fabricates” for the story later came to pass. In this way he was a visionary. Also the technical knowledge he displays in describing fish, animals, plants and undersea topography is impressive. He apparently had more than just a passing interest in his subject matter.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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