Full spoilers for the entire book below. Proceed with caution.
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Title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Author: Jules Verne
Publication Date: originally serialized from March 1869 through June 1870 in Magasin d’éducation et de récréation. A deluxe octavo edition, published by Hetzel in November 1871(novel), 2017 (audio)
Publisher: Pierre-Jules Hetzel (novel) and Blackstone Audio, Inc. (audio)
Narrated By: David Linski
Recording time: 11 hrs and 13 mins
During the year 1866, ships of various nationalities sight a mysterious sea monster, which, it is later suggested, might be a gigantic narwhal. The U.S. government assembles an expedition in New York City to find and destroy the monster. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist and the story’s narrator, is in town at the time and receives a last-minute invitation to join the expedition; he accepts. Canadian whaler and master harpooner Ned Land and Aronnax’s faithful manservant Conseil are also among the participants.
The expedition leaves Brooklyn aboard the United States Navy frigate Abraham Lincoln, then travels south around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. After a five-month search ending off Japan, the frigate locates and attacks the monster, which damages the ship’s rudder. Aronnax and Land are hurled into the sea, and Conseil jumps into the water after them. They survive by climbing onto the “monster”, which, they are startled to find, is a futuristic submarine. They wait on the deck of the vessel until morning, when they are captured, hauled inside, and introduced to the submarine’s mysterious constructor and commander, Captain Nemo.
The rest of the novel describes the protagonists’ adventures aboard the Nautilus, which was built in secrecy and now roams the seas beyond the reach of land-based governments. In self-imposed exile, Captain Nemo seems to have a dual motivation — a quest for scientific knowledge and a desire to escape terrestrial civilization. Nemo explains that his submarine is electrically powered and can conduct advanced marine research; he also tells his new passengers that his secret existence means he cannot let them leave — they must remain on board permanently.
They visit many ocean regions, some factual and others fictitious. The travelers view coral formations, sunken vessels from the Battle of Vigo Bay, the Antarctic ice barrier, the Transatlantic telegraph cable, and the legendary underwater realm of Atlantis. They even travel to the South Pole and are trapped in an upheaval of an iceberg on the way back, caught in a narrow gallery of ice from which they are forced to dig themselves out. The passengers also don diving suits, hunt sharks and other marine fauna with air guns in the underwater forests of Crespo Island, and also attend an undersea funeral for a crew member who died during a mysterious collision experienced by the Nautilus. When the submarine returns to the Atlantic Ocean, a school of giant squid (“devilfish”) attacks the vessel and kills another crewman.
The novel’s later pages suggest that Captain Nemo went into undersea exile after his homeland was conquered and his family slaughtered by a powerful imperialist nation. Following the episode of the devilfish, Nemo largely avoids Aronnax, who begins to side with Ned Land. Ultimately, the Nautilus is attacked by a warship from the mysterious nation that has caused Nemo such suffering. Carrying out his quest for revenge, Nemo — whom Aronnax dubs an “archangel of hatred” — rams the ship below her waterline and sends her to the bottom, much to the professor’s horror. Afterward, Nemo kneels before a portrait of his deceased wife and children, then sinks into a deep depression.
Circumstances aboard the submarine change drastically: watches are no longer kept, and the vessel wanders about aimlessly. Ned becomes so reclusive that Conseil fears for the harpooner’s life. One morning, however, Ned announces that they are in sight of land and have a chance to escape. Professor Aronnax is more than ready to leave Captain Nemo, who now horrifies him, yet he is still drawn to the man. Fearing that Nemo’s very presence could weaken his resolve, he avoids contact with the captain. Before their departure, however, the professor eavesdrops on Nemo and overhears him calling out in anguish, “O almighty God! Enough! Enough!” Aronnax immediately joins his companions, and they carry out their escape plans, but as they board the submarine’s skiff, they realize that the Nautilus has seemingly blundered into the ocean’s deadliest whirlpool, the Moskenstraumen, more commonly known as the “Maelstrom”. Nevertheless, they manage to escape and find refuge on an island off the coast of Norway. The submarine’s ultimate fate, however, remains unknown.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a science fiction classic that has unfortunately become painfully boring a century and a half after its initial publication. It is difficult for me to place myself into the mind of the novel’s original audience, however, my speculation is that 20,000 Leagues developed its acclaim due to the mental pictures it painted in the minds of readers in a society prior to pictures, video, and easy travel. I do not need those pictures painted. I don’t have to imagine them because there are innumerable videos of ocean life. Today, bereft of any magic that comes with shining a light of speculation onto the unknown, the story reads like a travelogue, with a lot of info-dump, and not much drama.
Is the idea of seeing life beneath the waves intriguing? Definitely. However, I can do that from my desk chair with the YouTube app. I needed a story and this novel mostly only hints at anything dramatic. Professor Pierre Aronnax and his colleagues are captured. That fact is not a huge issue in the novel until near the end, shortly before they escape. They get to see some cool sights as the submarine traverses the globe. The story does a lot of info-dump on their location, and provides a lot of boring information on sea life and coral in that place, and then they move to the next info-dump location. Aronnax and his friends eventually escape. We learn that Captain Nemo was motivated by some unknown nation’s attacks against his own unnamed country and that his family apparently died. We learn he burns for revenge. That’s pretty much it, though. It felt like Verne gives the reader an introduction to a submarine version of Captain Ahab but then never spends enough time with Captain Nemo for the reader to really know him. What we do learn happens quite late in the novel and at enough of a distance that it has no emotional impact on the story.
One particularly irritating scene from the book was the submarine’s discovery of Atlantis. ATLANTIS. They get there, they look around briefly, and then they leave. That’s it.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is famous for its depiction of a battle with a giant squid. However, it did not turn out to be much of a battle. The crew got out of the sub to fight the squid. One of Aronnax’s colleagues, Ned Land, is nearly killed, but then he is not. I was definitely let down by this scene.
If you are a science fiction historian, I suppose you should probably read this book. However, I do not recommend it if you are reading for the purpose of enjoyment.