20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Verne

Jules Verne 1870

(Note: 1 league = 3.45 miles)

If you wanted to write a book about all the cool places in the ocean, and if you were a scientist who had studied the classifications of many hundreds of species, you would write this book. What better frame: a professor, curious about everything, who gets invited on a fantastic-al submarine voyage, where he studies both the enigma of Nemo and the enigma of the seas. With creative yet impressive or too-convenient inventions, the furtive Captain Nemo takes Prof. Aronnax from wonder to wonder circling the globe–and then some.

Prepare yourself for awe. Verne wrote this I feel to talk about the splendid places below the waves that he could share his visions with the people of the 1850s. But I said to prepare yourself because the moments of awe are sometimes tucked in long paragraphs of descriptions of fish and fauna. Jules Verne loves himself a fish. He also loves a startling vista, which he offers many even fathoms under the ocean, and he loves a scene of human interest.

As the Scholastic Library Edition (SLE)’s introduction notes, Verne wrote about such types of invention as television, high-speed airplanes, atomic power, and of course submarines. I love the line “… When beginning to read it, many times I flipped back to the publishing date, shocked at the modern feel. Verne is good at explaining as much as necessary in a supremely believable way, enough to suspend belief to enjoy the story. Broadly, he contributed much to science fiction literature.

Let that not mislead you, Verne liked to wonder at technological contraptions and to include scientific calculations, but he is also a romantic through and through. “Perfume is the soul of the flower, and seaflowers, those splendid hydrophytes, have no soul,” (SLE p 283) the professor waxes a little internal sigh of missing land after being on the Nautilus so many months.

But consistently he is held in awe at the marine wonders, and there is a hint of danger laced within their travels, “‘No one has ever seen anything like it; but the sight may cost us dear. And if I must say all, I think we are seeing here things which God never intended man to see.’ Ned was right, it was too beautiful.” (SLE p 333), the professor notes, as they come to understand that they are lethally trapped in an iceberg in the Antarctic.

The professor character largely comes off as a wuss.  “Oh, that must be kind of crummy for you Ned Land, I’m a professor and I enjoy classifying things for years on end but you must be very bored. Oh. Oh my.” And he carries a pedantic manner towards Conseil, whose description in the build-up: Flemish.  But that may have something to do with translation, as noted in Wikipedia’s articles on Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues, the translators took many liberties and changed tone in some cases, especially with regards to Nemo.  From the few lines I’ve sampled, the translation I read (Scholastic, 1968) seems to be fairly straightforward and faithful.

In the set-up of the story Prof. Aronnax introduces Ned Land saying that they are “cemented in unchangeable friendship” but apart from some scenes of Ned this relationship is hardly developed.  Similarly, the crew is treated with extreme brevity. A dozen crew members came along. The crewmen rowed the boat. The crew pick-axed the ice off the frozen Nautilus. The crew mined for coal. The crew stored and prepared the giant dugong that we killed. The crew takes up oxygen (news flash that one).  But when the professor came to doctor the hurt crew member or when he beheld the crewman taken up by the poulp we saw very real people and human emotion.

The secret of Captain Nemo is an underlying tension to the events that unfold. The mystery of the captain is never clearly laid out/dispelled for us. We know he is misanthropic and hates despots, and seeks vengeance on the oceans for a lost family, but from what circumstance? This commander, tamer, forever-inhabitant of the oceans, why has he chosen to renounce humanity? Where is he from, how did he have the means to create this dream? Where does the love of humanity as extended to his crew fit in with his hate? When they killed the albatross near Bermuda, I was reminded somehow of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, somewhat comically. But maybe it has meaning.

Some great resources for the reader: a map of their journey at least through the Atlantic (and the Pacific), cutaway view of the Nautilus, and the complete original French version online.

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One response to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Verne

  1. Jules Verne honored with underwater Google Doodle
    –Google celebrates Jules Verne on his 183rd birthday with a new ‘20,000 Leagues’ interactive doodle.

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