20,000 Leagues Under the Sea | A Reading Resolution

For the year of 2021 I will be reading 52 classic works of literature and plan to post 52 resolution reviews along with it. While I have in my life read many classic novels, essays, and poets I haven’t ever attempted to read so many so close together as I will this year.

In this series all the works shared will be public domain titles. This is great for if you would like to follow along or join this loosely tethered book club! You can find any resolution review I’ve written by checking out my 2021 Reading Challenge list.

*Warning! My Complete Discussion will contain some spoilers. These reviews are intended for discussion among other people who have already read the book. If you would like to avoid any/all spoilers, you may choose skip to the bottom Overview section, which I keep spoiler free, and return to read this full review post finishing the novel.

Source: Open Culture

For my first review I chose an epic journey across Earth’s aquatic landscape: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea written by beloved author Jules Verne!

Sir Aurthur C. Clarke, a renowned science fiction writer, well known for co-writing 2001: Space Odyssey (of which I am a fanatic) among other successful science fiction works has said, “The reason Verne is still read by millions today is simply that he was one of the best storytellers who ever lived.” —and I have trouble finding cause to disagree, although 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is my first glance into Verne’s impressive well of work.

Complete Discussion:

Verne published this adventure classic in June of 1870 and 150 years later it has been my honor to finally sink my teeth into its 400 (+) pages. While stout in book width, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea massive in its uniquely evocative imagery. The story is complete with lush landscapes, and captured my imagination beyond its boundaries of reason.

Verne begins his novel in the 1866 in the midst of New York. To give the reader a little background; in the 1800’s New York was known as Gotham. It was crowded, major canals such as The Eerie Canal were only just being dug. Brownstones stood next to wood cabins, and the city’s reputation for being a center of trade and commerce had just begun to take root. This is important to understand, because it’s no fluke that Verne chose to begin 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea here during a media sensation which has journalists and experts all clamoring to debate the existence of a mysterious cetacean that’s disrupting trade and commerce across the ocean. Its effects would be detrimental to the investors and local economy of the time, and sensational news to say the least.

Source: Open Culture

The story is told exclusively from the perspective of our protagonist; an arrogant and proudly French academic by the name of Professor Pierre Aronnax, in the way of his published diary. Particularly back then it was not uncommon for men and women to keep detailed memoirs. We also quickly meet by way of these writings the man behind the master: always at the professor’s feet, and never too far off, Aronnax’s faithful assistant Conseil.

Aronnax is an expert scientific voice of his time on the flora and fauna of the water, having published extensive books on the topic and working tirelessly on behalf of the French natural history museum. As a result, Conseil has picked up a knack for classifying the fauna and flora like a true naturalist which we get to see in full force throughout Verne’s pages. The two find themselves swept away aboard a naval vessel christened The Abraham Lincoln, after being invited by the United States Navy to hunt the controversial cetacean. While aboard the Abe Lincoln Aronnax and Conseil meet Ned Land, a brave harpooner also tapped for the hunt; well-known for his exceptional talents with his weapon of choice. Land plays a major role in the memoirs of Professor Aronnax throughout the novel.

While not dialogue intensive, the scientific depths of research Verne bombasts within these pages fills nearly every chapter with paragraphs of animal and plant classifications and latitude/longitude locations. Truthfully, I skimmed these parts after a while, as they were hardly relevant to the story other than to paint a distinct picture of the scenery. Assuming you were familiar with the science, or willing to look up each species or space as you followed along, I imagined it’d enhance the reading experience. However, I was neither of the two and I find none the worse off: I still found the journey itself to be a captivating experience.

It is here-in during the Summer of 1867 aboard the Abe Lincoln, after months of no cetacean, when the twists of fate collide thickening the pot. An encounter with the beast leads to all three gentlemen thrown overboard from their naval sanctuary. They tread water for hours without rescue. Coaxed by Land, each man finds refuge not on the back of a water-mammal (as they suspected) but on the top of The Nautilus, a giant submarine.

Verne had a brilliant way of naming things simply and for being timely. So, it is here that I would like to bring to the attention of the reader a brief history of the real-life Nautilus. It was the work of Robert Fulton (an American), who on behalf of the French Government in the 1800’s designed the actual Nautilus submarine we know from history books. Much like in the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the realvessel was copper and cigar-shaped, but not a gigantic electric sea-lab capable of hosting upwards of 650 men. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1888 that a French submarine named Gymnote that an under-water vessel would run on electric power.

Upon being taken into The Nautilus Aronnax, Conseil, and Land are swept away into confinement where seemingly no one speaks any known language, to make matters more dire they are fed only one meal. It is after a short observation period under these conditions when Captain Nemo reveals himself and invites the men to stay aboard his vessel (but not to release them to land). His condition is only that the three agree to retire to the holding cell upon request in the future. Nemo offers the three men free reign of his vessel and its secrets.

This settles upon the characters differently: Ned Land is furious, cares nothing for the scientific marvel of The Nautilus, and he wants nothing more than to return to his life as it was before. Conseil is vocally without concern for his station outside of its relativity to his master. And Aronnax who exhibits the most fleshed out characteristics, at first seems the most appreciative of the arrangement.

I want to take a moment here to remark on how impactful Captain Nemo is as a character, while having very little to say. He seems to save his sentiments for the most pointed and philosophical remarks and leaves Professor Aronnax in particular the freedom to reason and interpret his words broadly. He asks for no oaths, he establishes that his plans are to not be delayed, and his threats are made clear to be anything but hallow. Though despite how cold he may come off in formality, Captain Nemo makes up for it in wonder and hospitality. He allows the men to experience the Nautilus as guests, not as working crew. The captain clothes them warmly, feeds them fully, and makes efforts to both educate and entertain them to their heart’s content.

Nemo was already a fan of the work the professor had published, brandishing copies of Aronnax’s books within the ship’s library, and he also made efforts to appease Ned Land’s impulses whenever the opportunity arose. While Conseil asked for nothing and found pleasure in either Land or Professor Aronnax’s company. Conseil never speaks to the captain directly.

My biggest complaint about the novel is not its endless classifications (which I admittedly skimmed), but rather the flaccidity of the major characters save for the intrigue of Captain Nemo. Conseil and Ned Land are both equally unamusing for my tastes, and I don’t believe I found much to like about Aronnax who came across as a very snobbish and entitled, personally. It should not be lost on anyone that these characters represent distinct tropes as dictated by their names: Aronnax meaning arrogance, Conseil a literal French translation of counsel, and Ned Land declaring his love of the land in the middle of the endless ocean.

To clarify further, I found Conseil was little more than a parrot of thought with the exception of a few zinging quips, which were at times quite funny. Ned Land, while offering a bit of balance is hardly present or needed, and when he is brought into a scene it’s usually only to put remind the professor that the three of them do not belong on The Nautilus under the thumb of a command they never sought to serve.

Professor Aronnax is torn between Ned’s wishes for freedom, and his newfound, unique opportunity, to observe the ocean from an unparalleled perspective. I find that I can empathize with the professor in terms of this struggle. Professor Aronnax, it’s worth mentioning, is the only character who forms any sort of bond with Nemo. He is rewarded for it by being taken on an exclusive excursion alongside the captain that reveals one of the greater fantasy scenes in the novel.  While their relationship proves both hot and cold, some of the most interesting spaces of discovery in this novel exist when Aronnax successfully peels back some of the Captain’s shrouded layers.

There are six major conflicts which occur between the pages while our protagonist is aboard The Nautilus. The first instance is the only time the men are asked to quarantine, they are put to sleep and find themselves waking up in their usual quarters. As a result of the mysterious excursion a nameless crewman dies. Aronnax, Conseil, and Land witness a haunting undersea burial in a red coral cemetery. There is also a close encounter with cannibals while hunting on a tropical island.

In the South Pole the ship becomes trapped between encroaching ice below a flipped iceberg. The whole team and cast of characters works with depleting oxygen to dig their way out of the thickening prison. It is here that we see Ned Land and Conseil risk their lives to preserve the professors. While this is of character for Conseil I found it off-putting from Ned Land.

The battle with the giant squid and his little minions was by far the most adrenaline inducing to read. There’s no mystery to me now why the scene is the book’s most iconic! Not only is the action palpable but it is perfectly worked, complete with thrilling close calls and tragic endings amidst the victory. It is here when we hear the only translatable words from one of Nemo’s faceless, nameless crewmen: a French cry for help. This simultaneously stuns and wounds the professor. As we learn by this point, he is proudly a French patriot and references his love of country many times in the novel.

The final conflict occurs when Nemo defends himself against a vessel and sinks it. Here is the heel turn so often considered when think of Nemo as a villain. Perhaps it’s my natural inclination towards black sheep but Captain Nemo is my favorite character! I note, because while doing research on this novel I found so much analysis on Nemo as a villain. Yet, I have trouble seeing him that way.

Source: Open Culture

Captain Nemo assumes no name, no space, and relinquishes great wealth to others without return. He is driven by intense humanity which encompasses activism, adventure, heartbreak, and revenge all of which no person alive cannot relate to. Captain Nemo is very much the story, without assuming the breadth of the novel’s physical margins.

The glimpses into his past when we witness Nemo crying over a portrait of (who we can safely assume are) his deceased wife and children, and his cries that “they” took everything away from him, allows me as a reader to be sympathetic towards the captain’s avenging. He does not see the civilized, militarized world as any less savage than those Aronnax labels to be savages.

We follow along as he scours the planet’s deep uncovering her secrets, pushing the boundaries of mental, physical, and mechanical fortitude without fear of confrontation with neither man nor God. I find Nemo intense, but also intriguing. I see him as an anti-hero at worst, but a hero in my heart.

As a reader you experience a sensory extravaganza with each ebb and flow of the book. The glory of this story in my opinion belongs not to the travel below the ocean but to the locations they find themselves upon in between. To pick a favorite scene would be impossible for me.

Verne took me as a reader to the volcanic rubble of the lost Atlantic continent, into dark caves withholding secret pearls the size of bowling balls, entrenched in crystal caverns hidden within the mouth of volcano, across sparkling sand, through underwater forests, and into an Arctic kaleidoscope of icicle rainbows!

There are truly no limits to the magnificence and these scenes were second only to the perilous dangers Verne seasoned perfectly betwixt this cascade of natural phenomena. For one year and 20,000 leagues these men find themselves aboard the vessel, witnessing marvelous and treacherous feats. It’s a work of sheer luck and serendipity that they finally find themselves ever ashore again. There’s a bittersweet nature to the parting despite breaking at the height of tension and offering relief to all involved.

Overview & Conclusion:

To know what lies too far and too deep is to keep secret this key to a marvelous adventure below sea-level. The explorer in me longs to slip along the water aboard the Nautilus, and the scientist in me mourns for the coral reef, the wildlife, the endangered world 150 years which suffers at the hands of man. Still, I hold out hope.

A resonant theme for science fiction is that no matter how far we come by way of ingenuity and innovation there will always be something more to discover, to invent, to witness! It’s the beautiful tragedy of being a limited being such as we are, with unlimited capacity to want and to know. This can be said of the individual or the larger human race. There will always be something just out of our grasp and we like it that way.

Verne’s under-sea habitat makes for a captivating easy read, and a critical piece to any respectable science fiction lover’s collection. To put it bluntly, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is simply remarkable and somehow still ahead of its time. I cherish this tale as so many have done before me.

Let me know if you feel the same. ♥

Paige Six | January 5, 2021


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