Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens in 1866 when reports come in front various countries of sightings of…something in various waters, giving rise to assorted speculations. It is described as “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.” In a couple of instances it damaged nearby vessels, leaving a large hole in one ship. These kinds of accidents and the unexplained disappearance of several ships lead to the general sentiment that the creature must be found and destroyed. An expedition is arranged from New York aboard the Abraham Lincoln, and Pierre Aronnax of France, Professor of Natural History at the Museum of Paris and author of Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds, is currently in NY and invited to come along. He accepts, along with his servant, Conseil.
After a number of days of searching, they do encounter the creature. Ned Land, a Canadian expert harpooner, had also been invited on this expedition, and when he tries to harpoon the thing, his harpoon bounces off. The thing then sprays an enormous amount of water at the ship, causing, among other things, Professor Aronnax to fall into the depths.
His faithful servant Conseil goes in after him, and they find Ned Land on top of something solid – and metallic. The Abraham Lincoln’s rudder has been broken, so they can’t count on it to come after them. When whatever they are on starts to submerge, they pound on the outside. A hatch opens, and they are taken in.
After a couple of days locked in a dark room, visited by a couple of men who at first seem not to understand them, finally the master of the vessel, a Captain Nemo, introduces himself, tells them they are at liberty to roam the vessel, but he cannot let them go, and furthermore, there would be times when he asked them to remain in their cabins until they received notice they could leave again. He had “broken all the ties of humanity,” and was “done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not, therefore, obey its laws, and I desire you never to allude to them before me again!” They had no choice but to accept.
The professor finds plenty to occupy himself. Nemo takes him on a tour of his ship, the Nautilus, explains how it is fueled, how he built it, etc. A window opens up sometimes to show the surroundings, and Aronnax is excited to observe, record, even to go on some underwater excursions and explore. Conseil is happy to be wherever his master is, but Ned Land chafes at the confinement.
At times Nemo comes across as intelligent, gracious, refined, and generous. But there are other times he seems a little unhinged. When a crisis occurs, the three visitors become convinced they need to leave. But how can they?
I never knew much about this book besides being familiar with the names of Nemo and the Nautilus, and the round copper helmets of their diving suits seemed to be a staple of underwater sci-fi when I was growing up. So it was interesting to finally learn the story. There were just a couple of places where it got tedious, when measurements or long citations of plants and animals seen were listed. But there was also plenty of drama and suspense.
I bought the audiobook on sale some time ago and I had forgotten that, when reading a book that has been translated from the original, it’s good to get some information on which translation is considered the best. According to Wikipedia, the first English translation by Lewis Mercier “cut nearly a quarter of Verne’s original text and made hundreds of translation errors, sometimes dramatically changing the meaning of Verne’s original intent.” The description doesn’t say what translation this is, but the comments indicate this is not one of the better ones. So if I ever read it again, I’ll seek out another, but I did enjoy the story.
I was amazed at the misconceptions about it, though. For one, some list it as juvenile fiction, though it was not written that way. Schmoop attributes that to some of the poor translations and its having been made into a Disney movie. One source said it was about Nemo seeking revenge on a sea creature, but that’s one incident in the book and not the main plot at all.
Other interesting facts: The 20,000 leagues in the title refers to distance traveled, not depths plumbed. A little more of Nemo’s background is revealed in a later Verne book, The Mysterious Island. Verne’s publisher made several changes to the book (it wasn’t indicated whether this was with or without Verne’s approval), like changing Nemo’s nationality.
I’m thankful to the Back to the Classics challenge for spurring me to read a book I might not otherwise have picked up.