twentythousandleaguesClassic Science-Fiction Adventure

Author: Jules Verne

Vengeance, adventure, mystery, and science combine together in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of my long cherished favorites which has been dusted off and taken out of my over packed shelves many times. I rarely re-read anything, but this novel is one that I keep revisiting for its sense of inquisitiveness, its tragic romance, and its ultimately timeless appeal to the human heart through the creation of an arch villain/mad scientist/humanitarian whose haunted past is only surpassed by his sense of adventure.

Told from the point of view of Professor Pierre Aronnax, an ardent ichthyologist and examiner of the seas, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea depicts his strange encounter with an underwater submersible, thought to be some sea monster, and the strange journey he and his companions are taken on during their imprisonment upon the vessel, aptly named the Nautilus. Professor Aronnax is joined by his loyal servant Conseil and a violent tempered Canadian harpoonist by the name of Ned Land. On this strange voyage they meet the master of the seas and the creator of the before-its-time Nautilus, Captain Nemo. It’s interesting to note that those with a little knowledge of Latin, which Verne was presuming his contemporaries would know, will realize that Nemo literally interprets as “Nobody.” This Captain without a name remains an enigma throughout the journey, telling his prisoners that they may never leave, but also opening up whole new worlds to them as he reveals the mysteries of the ocean including the Lost City of Atlantis, a pearl the size of a giant oyster, an impromptu journey to the poles, a fight with a giant squid, and (my personal favorite), a walk along the ocean floor. Images both beautiful and terrifying make this compelling sojourn just as surreal as it is deadly. As more of Captain Nemo’s dark past and vengeful nature begins to surface, a daring escape plan must be made, but can anyone really escape the man dedicated to the subterranean recesses of a sea just as dark and ultimately unknowable as he is?

Renowned for his science-fiction adventure novels, Jules Verne is a classic author who remains relevant and compelling despite the passage of time. Indeed,

drawn by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900)

drawn by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900)

many of his descriptions of the Nautilus remain accurate to scientific understanding and modern submarine architecture. Of course, it’s not the science that we are really coming for, but the journey and the idea of man being able to explore the un-navigable and plumb the depths of the ocean, which even now remain an enigma.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is quite exciting and puts readers in many tension filled situations such as being trapped under pressurized ice or fighting with a shark to save an innocent diver’s life. Sometimes the situations are terrifying, sometimes they are tragic (shipwrecks for instance, both new and covered with the detritus of time), and sometimes they are sublime. My personal favorite scene over the years has remained the same: Captain Nemo leading an expedition to walk across the ocean floor and Professor Aronnax’s elegant descriptions of the forests of ocean fauna. This was a scene that I could actively see as I read it and the peace of being hidden from the world below all that water and shrouded in the sense of an ongoing mystery is an image that remains true and vibrant.

Captain Nemo, a man conversant in many languages, a world explorer, claims that he will never again return to land and that the secret of his underwater research and of his history will go down with him and the Nautilus. His nationality and his background remain hidden, but along with the professor, we spy enough only to guess at the tip of a grand betrayal and a subsequent hatred of humanity that eventually spurs Captain Nemo into some regrettable and harrowing action, bringing the journey to an abrupt and sad ending. Just who is this man? Although the book closes with this as an open ended question, readers can never forget the captain who won’t even give himself a name. Something of his persona is romantic, something of it misanthropic, and yet something more which hints at a great humanitarian and champion of the underdog. We witness Nemo fighting sharks to save a stranger’s life. We see him giving of his vast and unaccounted wealth to unexpected divers, sending something of goodwill to the shore. But we also see him kill. The combination of so many elements form a well-rounded character draws readers in. I’m going to be honest here: I have a not so secret crush on Captain Nemo. Now my secret for continually returning to this book is out.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a book about heartache, adventure, morality, friendship, science, and exploration. Jules Verne keeps readers on the edge of their seats, but once the action is over and the book is closed, the human elements are what linger and haunt us the longest. I look forward to picking up the Mysterious Island to learn more about the continuing adventures of Captain Nemo.

–          Frances Carden


Frances Carden
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