Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

(electronic book © Pennsylvania State University, originally published 1869)

I recall reading this when I was a child (in, I think, a heavily abridged version with sensational pictures), but had remembered so little of the book (apart from the pearl fisher menaced by a shark, and the turbulent ending) that this current reading was fresh and new to me. I read the electronic version courtesy of my husband’s e-book reader (a Sony PRS 505 if you’re interested).

In 1866, so the narrator, Professor Pierre Aronnax, informs us, many sightings were noted of a huge spindle-shaped object or creature in the world’s oceans, and at length, an expedition in the American steamship Abraham Lincoln was begun. Aronnax’s own researches suggested that the thing was a huge narwhal, and the instrument that had injured at least two ships was thought to be its twisted horn. The ship cruised the waters of the oceans for several months, searching for the gigantic beast, until mutiny almost set in, whereupon – finally – it was found in the Pacific. However, the great whale was found to be a submarine, and due to its activities, the professor, his servant Conseil and Ned Land, a sailor from the Abraham Lincoln, were thrown overboard, later to be rescued by the submarine itself.

The Nautilus, commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo, became the trio’s home for many months, for the Captain, having rescued them, refused to let them go again. The rest of the book is an account of their voyages around the world, the adventures that befell, and their eventual escape.

Verne, although constrained by the available knowledge (particularly noticeable in the chapter about Antarctica, where he assumed the South Pole to be on an island, and not in the midst of the great continent), does a fine job of presenting the underwater world to the reader in an entertaining fashion. Scientific enquiry follows adventure, and vice versa, the two extremes shown by Professor Aronnax and Ned Land, a former harpooner who only has to see a pod of whales and is longing to get out his harpoon and kill one of the animals. There are attacks by sharks, encounters with giant oysters, submarine volcanoes, hollowed-out volcanoes (surely the prototype for all Bondian supervillain lairs), and Atlantis, not to mention vast quantities of South American gold in wrecked galleons off the coast of Spain.

Throughout all of these travels, the professor finds himself intrigued by the character and personality of Captain Nemo: the men of his crew speak no language that the professor or his companions know, and rarely appear, so the few glimpses we get of the commander are the more interesting. Why has he shunned the civilised world so thoroughly? What is his ultimate purpose or duty? Of what nationality is he, and for which nation has he such particular hatred?

These questions are asked, but the answers are only hinted at, never explained. Nemo rails against civilisation, but he has a strong sense of fellow-feeling with the oppressed and powerless – the Indians of Ceylon (as it was then), the Cretans freeing themselves from Turkish rule – giving them monetary aid; and perhaps more. He is quick to defend the whale, refusing permission for Ned to hunt any of a group encountered in the southern Atlantic, but allows the Nautilus to hunt the cachalots who themselves hunt the whales, and allows Ned to hunt a dugong in the Red Sea for meat for his crew. If his motivations are mysterious, so too are those of his crew, but none of them have names, and they rarely enter the narrative, the professor only occasionally giving thought to them.

I was rather amused by the obvious class distinctions on board: the professor is given a cabin next to the captain himself, and appears to be the only one of the visitors entrusted with any degree of conversation or information. Conseil and Ned have to share a cabin, and are only occasionally invited to join some of the captain’s expeditions. Conseil, in fact, has a very traditional idea of what a servant’s life should be – he is only in this predicament because he followed his master’s involuntary exit from the Abraham Lincoln by jumping into the water himself! I did find myself rather irritated by Aronnax’s habit of calling Conseil ‘my boy’, since he explains at the very start that Conseil is only ten years his junior, and the professor is forty. Ned is not an altogether sympathetic character, to modern readers, given his incessant desire to kill things, though by the end one can sympathise with his desire to escape from the Nautilus, so active a character as he is, and how little stimulated by the wonders of the sea which enthral Aronnax and Conseil.

There is much in this book which is scientifically accurate, even now (though some of Verne’s assumptions are incorrect), though the advanced technology he writes about sounds very outdated by modern standards. The speculative parts are interesting, too, though unlikely (the underwater passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, for example), and one is unsure how realistic, for example, the attack by giant squids would be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though the version I read had quite an inconsistent translation from the original French, with occasional odd constructions, and changes in tense, so that I wouldn’t recommend it of the versions available.


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4 Responses to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    This is a wonderful book — the original illustrations are so beautiful. I’ve read a large amount of his work — both in French and English. Make sure to get the more recent editions — this is probably missing 120 or 80 or something pages from what was originally published in the French editions. The American editions until recently CUT OUT all his social commentary. For example, my favorite, Mysterious Island was missing 200 pages in comparison to the French editions — it was published FINALLY in its entirety in 2002 or something. Again, even if they don’t say they’re abridged they almost always are — for example, I first read Robur the Conquerer in French last summer (I picked a short one since it would be easier) — after I finished a month or so later I picked up an English edition and a whim — it said unabridged, an low and behold it was missing large chucks of his most satirical sections. It sadly hasn’t been reprinted yet in it’s original — although his most famous novels have.

    Nice review 🙂

    • ela21 says:

      I hate it when books don’t tell you that they’re abridged. I guessed, after I’d read the Wikipedia page on the book, that I’d got the old American translation – which explained the strange mis-translations of certain words, and the odd constructions – but I didn’t realise that it also had bits missing. Unfortunately my French is probably not good enough to read it in the original.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    Jules Verne wrote predominately for 14/15/16 year old boys — you don’t need great French to read his stuff. And, with online dictionaries where you can insert any conjugated verb and get the translation it makes it easy… I needed the dictionary for the first 40 or so pages and then got pretty acclimated with his word selection and style and was fine (although I’m required to know French I only need to be able to read academic French essays — which are simple since they use predominately English cognates and I already know the jargon of the field — however, Jules Verne is exciting enough for me slog through the conversation sections).

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I’m actually not sure how much is missing from 20,000 Leagues under the sea — I just know that most of his works are heavily abridged in American editions until recently…

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