The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (original: “Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers”) was written by Jules Verne and first appeared as a serial in Magasin d’Education et de Recreation (Mar. 20, 1869-June 20, 1870). Its sequel, The Mysterious Island (original: “L’Ile Mystérieuse”) was published as a serial in 1874-1875. The French Verne (1828-1905) is, with H.G. Wells, the man responsible for modern science fiction. In some ways his work was surprisingly accurate in its predictions, and depending on the translation his prose can still be read with pleasure.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea begins with a series of sightings of a mysterious sea creature which is blamed for sinking several ships. An American warship is dispatched to hunt it down and kill it, and Pierre Aronnax, a noted Professor at the Museum of Paris, is invited along. He is accompanied by his servant Conseil. The creature is found and fired upon, only to have it strike the ship, throwing Aronnax, Conseil, and the French Canadian whaler Ned Land overboard. The trio is rescued. They do not know their rescuer’s name at first, but it quickly becomes clear that they have been rescued by Captain Nemo and are on the Nautilus, Nemo’s wonderful submarine. Unfortunately, Nemo is a misanthrope who has foresworn human society, and the trio are not so much guests on the Nautilus as they are prisoners. Months pass as the trio are held on the sub. For Aronnax, this is not an imposition, but rather a pleasure, for Nemo is usually good company as well as a man who delights in showing Aronnax the splendors of the sea. Conseil is content to accompany Aronnax wherever he go. Land, however, is uninterested in fish except as things to be caught and eaten, and grows restive.
Nemo’s pleasant side is more often on display, but occasionally his misanthropy comes to the fore. Nemo’s idiosyncratic vendetta against the hated cachalots (sperm whales) does not appear particularly reprehensible to Aronnax, but Nemo is as merciless to his enemies as he is to the cachalot. When the Nautilus sinks a warship Aronnax is offended. Nemo, meanwhile, declines from his initially not-unfriendly mood into one of melancholy and despair. Over the course of the novel he loses two sailors and kills many men with his submarine, and eventually it is too much for him. The Nautilus, aimlessly drifting, makes its way into the Maelstrom off of the coast of Norway, and Aronnax, Conseil, and Land barely escape. Twenty Thousand Leagues ends with Aronnax and the reader not knowing what the final fate of Nemo and the Nautilus was.
In The Mysterious Island Nemo returns, but only at the end of the novel. Most of the novel concerns the efforts of Cyrus Smith and a group of other men to survive after being stranded on a lonely Pacific island. The men are helped by a mysterious benefactor who is eventually revealed to be Captain Nemo. (They recognize him because they’ve read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Nemo, in “The Mysterious Island,” is not the misanthrope of “Twenty Thousand Leagues,” but rather is a repentant old man, dying in a marooned Nautilus. At the end of the novel Nemo has died and the Nautilus is scuttled.
Twenty Thousand Leagues is typical Verne. There is the scrupulous attention to achievable, realizable science and a careful extrapolation from known science and scientific principles. Verne is concerned with the probable and the possible, as opposed to Wells, who uses science as a tool for his message, as in, for example, War of the Worlds. So the Nautilus is as close to real as Verne could make it, with the exception of the source of its power, which Verne explains away with a hand-waving dismissal: “’Professor,’ said Captain Nemo, ‘my electricity is not everybody’s.’”1
There is the careful attention (or, less kindly, the pedantic obsession) with details and facts; Verne made sure that Twenty Thousand Leagues is full of accurate information about the sea. Unfortunately, Verne lets his obsession overwhelm his storytelling sense, so that what might have been a fluidly told story is constantly interrupted, sometimes for pages on end, with lists of animals and plants which Aronnax sees. Dialogue often is used for infodumps, so that Verne can unload great heaps of information on the reader. Characters lecture each other at length, and while the information therein establishes verisimilitude and shows that Verne did his homework it is often uninteresting to the reader as well as damaging to the pace of the novel.
There are Verne's favored themes of travel and the sea. Verne had long been interested in the sea—a Verne family story, possibly apocryphal, had him trying to run away as an eleven year old and enlist as a cabin boy on a ship bound for the Indies, but being caught at the last moment—and he returns to it in a number of his novels. World travel, something much more exotic and interesting and unusual to readers of his day than to ours, is similarly an interest and it is one indulged here, with Nemo taking the Nautilus around the world.
And then there is Nemo's misanthropy. The general critical consensus is that the darkening of Verne's personal outlook—he underwent a series of personal tragedies in 1886, including an attempt on his life by a nephew, the deaths of his mother and his good friend and publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel, and the crippling of his leg, all of which left him cynical and depressed—is reflected in the increased misanthropy of his protagonists. While this is true to a certain extent, especially with regard to the change in character of Robur (see: Robur the Conqueror), this is not the case with Nemo. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Nemo is a misanthrope, but by the time of The Mysterious Island he has reformed and become benevolent. And his misanthropy and recovery both take place before the 1886 events which affected Verne.
Nemo's misanthropy actually comes from the Romantic tradition. Verne intended Nemo to be a Romantic great man and genius, a type of updated Gothic Hero-Villain. The Romantics saw the defiance of society as indication of genius, of a man unrestrained by the degrading shackles of society. The ostracized Romantic genius is unappreciated, his talent unvalued, and his intellectual and spiritual values rejected by the soulless materialistic society which does not appreciate his naturally superior talents. Villiers’ Axël (see: Axël) is one of the foremost late nineteenth century figures in this mode, and Nemo is a conscious successor to this tradition.
But the modern reader is likely to notice, and dislike, the hypocrisy which accompanies Nemo’s Romantic pose. Nemo is critical of Aronnax and those who have pursued him, but Nemo has been sinking civilian ships—hardly the act of a man who truly wants to be left alone. Nemo proudly claims that “I am not what you so glibly call a civilized man! I have broken with society for reasons which I alone am able to appreciate. I am therefore not subject to its stupid laws, and I ask you never to allude to them in my presence again.”2 Nemo seems to think that this and this alone renders him immune to the judgment of society, despite his sinking ships and funding revolutions. To modern readers, the flaws in his thinking are obvious, and not particularly salutary. Likewise, his desire to “live—live in the bosom of the waters! There alone is independence. There I recognize no master. There I am free”3 is at odds with his interaction with the surface world and with his stated desire to help oppressed peoples. He can’t be, in essence, a patron to rebels and remain free from the world.
This hypocrisy extends to Nemo’s respect for nature. He does, indeed, value the world beneath the sea and sees it as superior to the world above the sea, but he is no pacifist, and he is happy to slaughter every cachalot he finds. Like the Romantic heroes, he sees his values and judgment as superior to all others’ and takes actions based on them without thinking about consequences. The cachalots are a part of the natural food chain. Killing them seriously imbalances the population of the sea. To Nemo this point does not occur; all he sees are the defenseless whales and the predatory cachalots.
Nemo is so far gone in his rejection of the surface world that he will not even eat food produced on it: “Long ago I renounced the foods of the earth, and I am never ill now.”4 This extends even to the clothing he and his crew wear.
Nemo is a hypocrite, and his sinking of the warship betrays a streak of viciousness. But Aronnax does mention his “kindness” on several occasions. It is all part of the Romantic Great Man syndrome. Nemo is capable of conscienceless killing (which, admittedly, he feels remorse for afterward) but he weeps for his dying sailor.
Nemo is much the most interesting thing about “Twenty Thousand Leagues.” The public image of Nemo has been greatly shaped by the film portrayals of the character, most especially the 1954 movie starring James Mason as Nemo. But the Nemo of Verne’s novels is not the Nemo of the movies--and the Nemo of Twenty Thousand Leagues is not the Nemo of “The Mysterious Island.” Verne originally intended Nemo to be a wealthy Polish count whose daughters had been raped and whose wife and father were killed by the Russians during the 1863 Polish insurrection. However, Russia had proved to be a lucrative market for Verne’s stories, and Pierre Jules Hetzel, Verne’s publisher feared (with good reason) that Czar Alexander II would ban Twenty Thousand Leagues if it portrayed Nemo as a Polish nationalist. Verne reached a compromise with Hetzel and kept Nemo’s ethnicity nebulous.
Alphonse de Neuville’s image of Nemo in the first edition of “Twenty Thousand Leagues,” clearly shows Nemo to be a white man. Also, Nemo says that “I studied in London, Paris and New York when I was still an inhabitant of the continents of the earth,”5 a course of instruction only a wealthy member of the European nobility could or would have taken. (“Nemo,” of course, is not his real name. In Latin “nemo” means “no man” or “nobody.” In calling himself this “Nemo” is being coy as well as indulging in the alienation and isolation so beloved of the Romantic anti-hero.) However, when Verne wrote The Mysterious Island he changed that. The Nemo of The Mysterious Island is an Indian, driven to misanthropy by British injustice:
Captain Nemo was an Indian, the Prince Dakkar, son of a rajah of the then independent territory of Bundelkund. His father sent him, when ten years of age, to Europe, in order that he might receive an education in all respects complete, and in the hope that by his talents and knowledge he might one day take a leading part in raising his long degraded and heathen country to a level with the nations of Europe.6
In 1857, the great Sepoy revolt broke out. Prince Dakkar, under the belief that he should thereby have the opportunity of attaining the object of his long-cherished ambition, was easily drawn into it. He forthwith devoted his talents and wealth to the service of this cause. He aided it in person; he fought in the front ranks; he risked his life equally with the humblest of the wretched and misguided fanatics; he was ten times wounded in twenty engagements, seeking death but finding it not, when at length the sanguinary rebels were utterly defeated, and the atrocious mutiny was brought to an end.7
In some ways Twenty Thousand Leagues is typical Verne taken to extremes: the lists of facts are longer, the lectures are more detailed, the central character more interesting, and the science as grounded but more extrapolated than in his other works. The novel lags until Nemo appears, and although he is the clear center of the novel Verne spends a great deal of time on Aronnax, Ned Land, and the flora and fauna of the sea, so that the personality of Nemo, that which is truly compelling about the novel, appears much more briefly than, for example, lectures on the science of the Nautilus. This is unfortunate, as it dilutes the power of the novel. Verne’s interests are not likely to be the same as the modern reader’s, which makes the novel less interesting than it should be. Too, the style of the dialogue is formal and stiff, which lessens the power of Verne’s ideas for the modern reader. There are marvelous ideas in the dialogue, but they are delivered in a stilted and even wooden manner. This is unfortunate, since what Verne wrote about was impressive to his contemporary audience. Similarly, the speed of the Nautilus (twenty miles per hour) and the sheer distance the Nautilus covers in the course of the novel (twenty thousand leagues or roughly sixty thousand miles) are less interesting to modern audiences who are jaded by the ease and speed of air flight.
One thing not usually remembered about Nemo is that, much as he is a scientist and engineer, he is also a passionate artist. (This is, again, part of the Romantic genius). Nemo is a skilled and emotional organ player, to the point where he loses himself, “plunged in that musical ecstasy.”8 As an artist he is concerned with the aesthetics of the Nautilus as much as its engines and technical aspects.
As a side note, for decades Jules Verne was victimized by bad translators, particularly English and Americans. In the early translations of Verne’s books, especially “Twenty Thousand Leagues,” many passages were deleted and altered, and as much as a quarter of the novel is omitted, sometimes for aesthetic reasons but often for political ones. (In the quote given above about Nemo being Prince Dakkar, the line in the original French, that Dakkar is a nephew to Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), the great enemy of the British in India, is entirely left out, undoubtedly due to British and American sensitivities). It was only in the 1990s that accurate and readable translations of Twenty Thousand Leagues began appearing, and interested readers should seek out those rather than the hack jobs available in earlier decades.
Print: Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, transl. David Coward. New York: Penguin Classics, 2017.
1 Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, transl. Philip Schuyler Allen (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1922), 94.
2 Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues, 77.
3 Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues, 84.
4 Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues, 82.
5 Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues, 107.
6 Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island (New York: Burt, 1909), 518.
7 Verne, The Mysterious Island, 519-520.
8 Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues, 490.