Summary of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea book summary

Literary Classic

  • Science fiction
  • Victorian literature

What It’s About

Underwater Adventures

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea tells the story of marine biologist Pierre Aronnax, his manservant Conseil and harpoonist Ned Land, who – after joining the hunt for a mysterious sea monster – are thrown overboard when the monster attacks and find themselves prisoners of Captain Nemo, probably one of Verne’s most memorable yet elusive characters. On board the Nautilus, a technologically advanced submarine that everyone has mistaken for a sea monster, the three companions get to experience the vast and endlessly fascinating world under the sea. Twenty Thousand Leagues is an adventure tale, political commentary and scientific utopia all in one – and one of Verne’s most successful works. Its first edition sold out within a week. Despite terrible initial English translations and the sometimes academically dry writing style, its appeal has endured, still capturing readers young and old with the excitement of discovering a new world.

Take-Aways

  • Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is considered a science fiction classic.
  • Marine biologist Pierre Aronnax joins an American mission to hunt down a monster that causes havoc across the oceans. When he and two of his companions are thrown overboard in an attack, they find that the monster is in fact a technically highly advanced submarine, the Nautilus. Its captain takes them prisoner, and they embark on a journey of experiencing the wonders of the world under the sea. After many adventures, they finally manage to escape.
  • Verne took inspiration from many other novels as well as philosophical works. One notable allusion is to Homer’s Odyssey. Both Captain Nemo and Odysseus are exiles from the world and travel the seas.
  • Captain Nemo remains a figure of mystery throughout the novel. The reader never learns of his nationality, his background or the reason for his hatred of humanity.
  • Two manuscripts of the novel exist; the first one is in places markedly different from the second – the official version.
  • The first English translation contained numerous errors and also cut the text by almost a quarter. Despite its flaws, it remained the official translation for almost 100 years.
  • The English version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of the most published novels of all time.
  • Several film adaptations of the novel have been made, the best-known being Disney’s live-action Technicolor film of 1954.
  • Verne was fascinated by the sea and spent a lot of time on his boat traveling the world.
  • “As I speak of this underwater expedition, I fully realize how unbelievable it all sounds! I am the recorder of things which may seem impossible but which are real and incontestable. I did not dream them. I felt and I saw them.” (Dr. Aronnax)
 

Summary

The Sea Monster

A sea monster is on the loose, and the world is in turmoil. Several ships have spotted a creature that is bigger and moves faster than any other known species living in the sea. Yet despite several sightings, not everyone is convinced, and the whole world debates whether such a creature could actually exist. Putting his academic reputation on the line, Dr. Pierre Aronnax, a French expert in marine biology, argues that it must indeed be a sea monster as it is highly unlikely that a government or individual could build such a submarine without anyone knowing about it. After a number of ships collide with what is believed to be the creature, the American government decides to send out an expedition to find and kill the monster.

“The public demanded sharply that the seas should at any price be relieved from this formidable cetacean.”

It tasks Captain Farragut with leading the expedition. Dr. Aronnax and his manservant Conseil join the hunt, together with French-Canadian harpoonist Ned Land, who is famous for his whale-hunting skills.

Hunting a Phantom

The expedition sets off, and Captain Farragut promises $2,000 to the person who spots the monster first. The whole crew, including Dr. Aronnax, enthusiastically scan the horizon, each one hoping to be the first to see the creature. Only Ned remains indifferent. Having spent most of his life on the ocean, he doubts that such a monster really exists. For three months, the frigate Abraham Lincoln scours the Pacific Ocean between Japan and North America where the creature was spotted last. They find nothing apart from whales; the sea monster seems to have vanished. The mood on board starts to deteriorate, and the crew nearly starts to mutiny when Captain Farragut refuses to abandon the hunt. Eventually, he relents and promises to return home if they still haven’t found anything within three days.

Encounter with the Monster

The crew start scanning the horizon again with renewed vigor, but it is Ned who spots the creature during his night watch. It emits an eerie glow and begins to approach the Abraham Lincoln. Because it’s nighttime, Captain Farragut tries to keep out of its reach, but when the dawn breaks, the hunt begins. Yet no matter how fast the Abraham Lincoln goes, the creature is always faster and stays just out of reach. Captain Farragut gets out the heavy artillery, but even cannon balls and Ned’s harpoon bounce off the monster with a metallic clang.

“This monster, this natural phenomenon that had puzzled the learned world and overthrown and misled the imagination of seamen of both hemispheres, it must be owned was a still more astonishing phenomenon, inasmuch as it was a simply human construction.”

Eventually, the creature stages a counterattack from below and breaks the screw and steering of the Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Aronnax is thrown overboard and the loyal Conseil dives in after him. After hours of swimming, they come upon Ned, who, after also being thrown from the boat, has managed to pull himself up on the back of their attacker and found that it is not a living creature, but a submarine.

Captives

The three men try to get the attention of the crew, whom they assume must be on board. Eventually, a hatch opens, and a few men come out, pull the three men inside the submarine and lock them in a room aboard the ship. Hours pass, and no one appears. The longer they are locked in, the angrier Ned gets. When finally a steward appears with food, Ned attacks and chokes him until the captain of the ship enters and commands him to stop. Captain Nemo, as he is called, tells the three men that he can’t let them go as they have discovered his secret – his submarine, the Nautilus.

“Most annoying circumstances have brought you into the presence of a man who has broken all the ties of humanity.” (Captain Nemo)

He explains that he will keep them as prisoners on board rather than kill them. They have the freedom to move freely wherever they want to on the Nautilus; the one condition is that they have to return to the room and be locked in without argument whenever Captain Nemo requests it of them. They will also never regain their freedom to return to land and their previous lives. However, Captain Nemo promises to show them the secrets of the ocean – a prospect that excites Dr. Aronnax greatly.

Onboard the Nautilus

Captain Nemo offers to show Dr. Aronnax around the ship, and he eagerly accepts. The ship has a well-stocked library, including many of Dr. Aronnax’s own books, pieces of valuable art, and an exclusive collection of marine plants and animals, which particularly impresses Dr. Aronnax. Captain Nemo explains that nearly everything on the submarine is powered by electricity, which is generated from mercury and natrium, both of which are sourced from the sea.

“I am nothing to you but Captain Nemo; and you and your companions are nothing to me but the passengers of the ‘Nautilus.” (Captain Nemo)

The food on board all comes from the sea: Turtle filet replaces meat, and sea cucumber serves as fruit. Nemo even has special cigars made from nicotine-rich plants he finds in the ocean. The ship has an electric clock and a powerful light beam that illuminates the surrounding water. The shell and windows of the submarine are strong enough to withstand extremely high pressure, allowing the ship to dive to the bottom of the sea. The submarine also has a dinghy fitted within the shell of the submarine and only releases its mast once the submarine is above water. Nemo built his technological marvel to escape from humanity.

Underwater Hunt

The days pass with ever new and exciting views as the Nautilus travels across the Pacific Ocean. One day, Captain Nemo invites Dr. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned to  join him on an underwater hunt. Equipped with state-of-the-art diving suits, underwater guns and oxygen tanks that last an astounding ten hours, the group sets off for the underwater forests of the island of Crespo. The sights of the light illuminating the colors and shapes of the flora and fauna under the sea make a deep impression on the three prisoners. The hunt is less successful; only Captain Nemo manages to shoot a sea otter. The excursion ends with a scare. The group only just manages to hide from a group of tintorea sharks and return safely to the Nautilus. The submarine continues its journey, first toward Hawaii and the Marquesas Isles, and eventually arrives at the volcanic island of Vanikoro – the nemesis of many a ship. Captain Nemo confides in Dr. Aronnax that he would like to die like that – at the bottom of the ocean.

Attack from the Savages

On January 4, the Nautilus crosses the dangerous Torres Straits. Even though Captain Nemo himself steers the ship, it runs aground on coral reefs and rocks near a tropical island. The crew can do nothing but wait for the next high tide to lift the submarine off the rocks. Surprisingly, Captain Nemo allows his prisoners to take the dinghy out and explore the island. Ned, excited by the prospect of finally having meat again after weeks of a marine diet, is determined to go hunting. The three men wander around the island, enjoying fresh fruit, coconuts and jackfruit.

“The Nautilus, floating betwixt wind and water, went at a moderate pace. Her screw, like a cetacean’s tail, beat the waves slowly.”

They bring back their spoils to the Nautilus. They return to the island the next day and hunt birds and a forest pig, as well as several kangaroos. However, a sudden attack by the native people cuts their excursion short. They flee to the Nautilus. The next day a crowd of natives surrounds the submarine, trying unsuccessfully to gain entrance since the ship has put down its hatches. Knowing that soon they will have to open up again to “tank” fresh air, Dr. Aronnax is surprised by Captain Nemo’s unconcerned attitude. Nemo doesn’t seem to be worried at all that the natives might be able to storm the ship and harm its crew. The following day, Dr. Aronnax finds out why. When the hatches open and the first natives try to climb on board, they are jolted back: Captain Nemo has electrified the railing and the attackers withdraw. Shortly after, the tide reaches its highest point, and the Nautilus is free once more.

Captain Nemo’s Secret

One day, Dr. Aronnax joins Captain Nemo on the deck of the ship. Captain Nemo intently scans the horizon and suddenly commands Dr. Aronnax and his companions to go below deck and return to the room where they were first held. They do so and are immediately locked in. When they are finally released, Captain Nemo asks Dr. Aronnax for medical assistance for one of the crew members. The man has a crushed skull, and Dr. Aronnax is unable to help him. The man dies the following night. Soon after, Captain Nemo invites Dr. Aronnax on another underwater excursion. They wander through a beautiful underwater landscape until they reach a clearing where Captain Nemo’s men begin to dig. It’s an underwater cemetery, where they bury their dead crew member.

A Pearl of Great Worth

Toward the end of January, the Nautilus approaches India. Captain Nemo invites Dr. Aronnax and his companions on a trip to see the famous pearl fishing area near Sri Lanka. During the excursion, they visit the site of an underwater cave, and Captain Nemo shows Dr. Aronnax an oyster with a huge pearl in it, which the captain is cultivating. Upon their return, they spot a pearl fisher and watch him from their hiding place. Suddenly, a shark attacks the fisherman. Captain Nemo rushes in to help, and a bloody battle ensues. Captain Nemo gets trapped, and Ned comes to his aid, finally killing the shark. Immediately, the captain rushes over to the fisherman, drags him to the surface, revives him and puts a string of valuable pearls in his hand. Surprised by the captain’s actions, Dr. Aronnax comments, but the captain only says that the fisherman, like him, is an inhabitant of an oppressed country.

A Secret Passage

Several weeks later, the Nautilus makes its way into the apparent cul-de-sac of the Red Sea. However, Captain Nemo has discovered an underwater tunnel between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, which they travel through. As they sail close to the Greek Isles, Dr. Aronnax witnesses a strange exchange: A diver appears at one of the windows of the submarine. Shortly after, Captain Nemo arranges for a box of gold bars to be sent to land. They continue their journey, passing countless wrecks along the way. When they arrive at Vigo Bay, Dr. Aronnax discovers the source of Captain Nemo’s wealth: boxes and barrels full of gold and silver as well as coins and jewelry collected from shipwrecks. Captain Nemo shares this wealth with the “oppressed” of the world – hence the delivery of gold bars to one of the Greek islands.

“The Earth does not want new continents, but new men.” (Captain Nemo to Dr. Aronnax)

The Sunken Continent

Captain Nemo invites Dr. Aronnax along on another excursion – this time a nighttime trip. They walk a long way, climbing an underwater mountain. After a long ascent, they arrive at the top. Before them lies the lost city of Atlantis with its temples and buildings. They return to the Nautilus, and the ship continues its journey to its “dock” – an extinct volcano, where Captain Nemo’s crew mine the coal that the Nautilus needs to create electricity. Ned continues to think of ways to escape their prison, but no opportunity presents itself.

Exploring the South Pole

They continue their journey south and finally arrive at the ice packs that surround the South Pole. Captain Nemo is determined to become the first person to reach the pole and sets course for the Nautilus to make its way under the ice packs to reach the pole’s coordinates. When they emerge at what they believe to be the pole, they have to wait several days for the sun to come out, so they can take accurate measurements. Finally, they succeed and Captain Nemo plants his flag in the ground.

However, on the way back, they become trapped when an iceberg collapses on top of the ship. With oxygen running lower and lower, the crew, Dr. Aronnax and his companions desperately try to dig their way out of their icy grave. At the last minute, they manage to escape.

Squid Attack

They continue their travels around Cape Horn to the Amazon. As they approach Guadeloupe and Martinique, they spot a giant squid following the submarine. Soon they realize that a whole swarm of the creatures has surrounded them. The ship comes to an abrupt stop when one of the squids is caught in the propellor of the Nautilus. Captain Nemo decides to surface and attack the creatures with axes and harpoons. As soon as they open the hatch, one of the squids rips off the door. It manages to grab one of the crew and pull him out of the ship. Despite the best efforts of the rest of the crew, the man is lost. A creature nearly kills Ned as well, but Captain Nemo rescues him.

No Escape

The Nautilus continues on its northerly course. When it reaches the gulf stream near North Carolina, Ned’s homesickness becomes almost unbearable, and he urges Dr. Aronnax to speak to the captain one more time to see if he will let them go. However, the answer is the same: Leaving the Nautilus isn’t an option. Ned is determined to attempt another escape. However, on the night that Ned, Dr. Aronnax and Conseil agree to leave, a fierce storm batters the ship, and their escape is thwarted. Their journey continues, this time heading across the Atlantic towards the British Isles. Close to the southwestern coast of England, the Nautilus starts to circle, and Captain Nemo (whom Dr. Aronnax hasn’t seen for weeks) reappears on deck. Nemo proceeds to make precise observations and finally declares that he has found the spot he has been seeking. He submerges the Nautilus, and they soon come across the wreck of a battleship – the Marseillais. The crew of that ship fought heroically in a battle against the British, and rather than surrender, the captain decided to sink the ship and its entire crew.

Captain Nemo’s Revenge

When the Nautilus resurfaces, it’s greeted with cannon fire from a warship attack. Dr. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned realize that Captain Farragut must have told the world about the submarine when he returned to America. Captain Nemo sends everyone below deck and starts a game of cat and mouse with his adversary. The three companions hatch a plan to escape and swim to the battleship as soon as it comes a bit closer. Yet before they can put their plan into action, the Nautilus dives and rams the warship from below, causing such damage that the ship starts to sink.

“I turned to Captain Nemo. That terrible avenger, a perfect archangel of hatred, was still looking.”

A gloomy, silent Captain Nemo watches the sinking ship and all its drowning victims and then returns to his room. Before the door closes behind him, Dr. Aronnax sees him break down sobbing in front of the picture of a woman and two small children.

Free at Last

The Nautilus leaves the site of the battle and starts heading north toward the Arctic seas. Finally, there is land in sight, and the three companions again prepare for escape. Whereas earlier Dr. Aronnax was slightly reluctant to leave the Nautilus and the sights and beauty of the world under the sea, now he is ready to go; his esteem for the captain is completely gone. A day of waiting ensues. When the time finally comes, Dr. Aronnax encounters a problem: Captain Nemo has left his room and is playing the organ in the salon, which Dr. Aronnax must cross in order to get to the dinghy. He carefully tiptoes through the room and manages to get to the other side without the captain noticing him. The three men make it into the dinghy and close the door behind them. However, just as Ned, Conseil and Dr. Aronnax are loosening the bolts which fix them to the Nautilus, the submarine gets sucked into a maelstrom – dangerous waters just off the coast off Norway that form a powerful whirlpool from which no ship has ever escaped. They don’t know if the captain has maneuvered the ship into the maelstrom deliberately. The Nautilus and the still attached dinghy start to go around in an ever faster spiral. Suddenly, the bolts break apart and the little vessel is flung into the center of the whirlpool. Dr. Aronnax hits his head and is knocked unconscious. Miraculously, they all survive, and, when he awakes again, he is in the hut of a fisherman on the Loffoden Isles, together with his two companions. He has no memory of how they escaped the maelstrom. Dr. Aronnax finishes his tale with good wishes for Captain Nemo, hoping that he, too, managed to escape and may continue his life in the oceans and that he will eventually stop hating humankind.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea consists of two parts, the first one containing 24 chapters and the second one 23. Up until the mystery of the sea monster is lifted, mounting tension characterizes the narrative. After Dr. Aronnax and his companions board the Nautilus, shorter episodes of action and adventure take place, following the conventions typical of an adventure story. Unexpected events, explorations, situations of danger and rescue occur. The story is told solely through Dr. Aronnax’s eyes, and he proves to be an unreliable first-person narrator, often misreading situations or failing to see or observe important aspects until much later. The story line is interspersed with long and detailed scientific observations of the underwater world and the creatures living in it, as well as the technology that powers the submarine. These passages reflect a typical “Verne style”: objective, detached and almost encyclopedic, consisting of lists of nouns. While these lengthy and almost academic passages may put off some readers, the overall story is riveting, full of tension and bound to draw in even the most reluctant reader.

Interpretation

  • Jules Verne modeled Dr. Aronnax after himself. Not only do they share the same scientific mind-set and curiosity, but the first French edition of the novel includes an illustration of Aronnax that was based on a portrait of Verne.
  • Captain Nemo remains a figure of mystery throughout the novel. The reader never learns where Nemo’s hatred of humanity comes from, nor his full backstory or whether he survives the maelstrom.
  • The novel contains elements of Homer’s Odyssey. For example, Captain Nemo resembles Odysseus in his journey across the sea as an exile from humanity. Also, in the same way that Odysseus introduces himself to the cyclops as “Utis” (no-body), Nemo means “nobody.”
  • The novel has a strong political undertone. For example, the fight against the giant squid is sometimes seen as referring to Europe’s Revolution of 1848.
  • The world of the story is inhabited solely by men. The absence of women is notable, as is the limit to only four (five, if you include Captain Farragut’s short appearance) speaking characters.
  • The Nautilus is both prison and safe haven at the same time. There is a marked distinction between the confined, refined and almost luxurious world within the submarine and the chaotic and often dangerous world that surrounds it.
  • Captain Nemo is an example of the Renaissance man: cultured, well-read, musical, scientific and courageous.
  • Despite the advanced technology on board the Nautilus, the boat and the captain are stuck in the past. The extremely well-stocked library, which forms the center of Nemo’s world, doesn’t contain anything beyond 1865.
  • The concept of the last frontier and going where no one has gone before weaves its way through the novel. Not only is the world under the sea still unexplored and unknown, but Captain Nemo is also at pains to avoid the known world at all cost.
  • Some argue that the novel laid the ground for ecological considerations of the world under the oceans and humans’ impact on the environment.

Historical Background

Technological Progress and Political Upheaval

Jules Verne lived in an era of great technological progress and inventions, and most of the science and technology in his novel already existed in his lifetime, though possibly not quite in the advanced form that he described. The first working submarine is mentioned around 1620. It was a leather-clad rowing boat, designed by the Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel. It had air tubes that transported fresh air into the boat when underwater. Bushnell’s Turtle was the first military submarine, built by David Bushnell in 1776. The submarine that inspired (and also carried the name of) Jules Verne’s Nautilus was built around 1800 by the American inventor Robert Fulton. It was 20 feet [6.09 meters] long and looked similar to modern submarines. It had a rudder as well as an air-supply system and used a foldable sail to move when on the surface.

Twenty Thousand Leagues also shows the influence the political climate had on Verne. In 1848, when he was in Paris, he experienced the Revolution of 1848 and the bloody but unsuccessful uprising of Paris workers against the conservative turn in the Republic’s aims. Then followed 20 years of Emperor Napoleon III’s reign – the Second French Empire, which lasted until the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Development

Despite the fact that Verne had a clear idea of the story line and characters when he started writing Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, there exist two quite different manuscripts of the novel. Verne finished the first one in 1866 and the second – which has become the definitive version – in 1870. There are marked differences between the two manuscripts, with characters changed and whole passages altered. It is believed that Verne introduced many of the changes based on suggestions (or some might say interference) from his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel published the novel in serialized form in his periodical Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation between March 1869 and June 1870. In 1871, the deluxe illustrated edition was published, including more than 100 illustrations. The first English translation appeared in 1873. However, the translator, Lewis Page Mercier, introduced many errors, sometimes changing the meaning of the original. He also cut the text by almost a quarter. Despite its faults, it remained the standard English translation for more than 100 years.

Verne was fascinated by the sea and spent a lot of time on boats, where he found inspiration for his novels. He bought himself a yacht and turned it into a floating office, which is where he wrote the first draft of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne wasn’t only inspired by the sea but also by a visit to Scotland in 1859. As a result, several Scottish landmarks found their way into the novel. For example, the underwater mountain that Captain Nemo and Dr. Aronnax climb to get a view of the sunken Atlantis is said to be modeled on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. It was George Sand who planted the initial idea for the novel, suggesting to Verne that the sea was the one area where his scientific knowledge and imagination had yet been put to use. The novel also shows clears influences from Verne’s predecessors and contemporaries, including James Fenimore Cooper, Théophile Gautier, Victor Hugo and Herman Melville – as well as the ancients Homer and Plato.

Reviews and Legacy

When Verne handed the finished manuscript of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to his publisher, Hetzel was over the moon with it. Both critics and the public agreed that this was the best work Verne had ever written. The first edition sold out within a week.

Verne’s work influenced other writers such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, but the topics of his books led to Verne often being neglected by so-called high-brow French literary history and authors. However, his works deeply influenced popular literature and film. Twenty Thousand Leagues has had several screen adaptations and has also been turned into an animated picture. Probably best-known is the Disney Studios version from 1954, a live-action Technicolor film with James Mason and Kirk Douglas as the main characters. However, most film adaptations diverged from the book in that they decided to give Captain Nemo a defined nationality – either as a European or Indian – as well as a backstory that would explain his hatred of humanity.

About the Author

Jules Gabriel Verne was born in Nantes, France, on February 8, 1828. He was the eldest of five children, having one brother and three sisters. Despite having always been interested in literature, he followed in his father’s footsteps and went to Paris in 1847 to study law. However, there he became involved in artistic circles and wrote several plays and short stories. In 1850, one of his plays was published and ran for twelve nights at Dumas’s Théâtre Historique. Verne finished his law studies, but rather than becoming a lawyer, he became secretary of Théâtre Lyrique in 1852 and continued to write short stories and plays. In 1857, he married Honorine Morel, a widow with two daughters. This new responsibility required him to take on a regular profession, and he started work as a stockbroker. He continued to write and also traveled extensively. A journey to Scotland in 1859 in particular affected him deeply and influenced much of his writing. However, his novel Journey to Scotland wasn’t published until after his death, together with eight other books (some of which were in part written by his son, Michel, who was born in 1861). Verne was fascinated by technology and inventions and used much of the material that he gathered on his journeys in his writing. In 1863, he published Five Weeks in a Balloon, which proved an immediate success and kick-started his publisher Hetzel’s idea for the Extraordinary Journeys series. Soon Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousands Leagues under the Sea (1869/70) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) followed. In 1871, Verne and his family moved to Amiens, where he became a member of the Academy. Driven by his love of traveling and the sea, Verne bought himself a yacht on which he continued to travel extensively until he sold it in 1886. In March 1905, he fell seriously ill from diabetes and soon died at age 77 on March 24, 1905.


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