A grand journey that takes place under the sea — discovering both the natural wonders hidden in the depths of the oceans and the elusive and mysterious character of Captain Nemo.
This review contains significant spoilers — I’m not really sure how to write a thorough review without them. Go and read the book then come back and see if you agree with my review!
When reading a ‘classic’ – having withstood the test of readers over a hundred and fifty years, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is certainly regarded as a classic – it’s difficult to read it in the same way as an anonymous book that you’ve just picked up. In many respects I find it harder to read; being distracted by what the original readers thought or felt; trying to imagine the author’s own lifestyle, interests and beliefs; expectations of the story (looking out for signs of what made it a classic in the first place); plus of course the language is different (though often only subtly so), so that words have now taken on new meanings or are barely used in common language today.
Twenty Thousand Leagues is written by Jules Verne, a French author who went on to become well known for his almost prophetic ability to write science fiction – prescient fiction perhaps – that spoke of technologies that people of the time could barely dream of.
The translation of this book from French was part of the struggle for me, with many terms that I believe are direct translations (or in fact are French words sometimes adopted in English) that I didn’t know. This did make progress significantly slower as there was a mental unwinding of many of the turns of phrase, however, I was determined to persevere!
The novel begins with a breakdown of global news coverage over the preceding year: something has been spotted in the ocean by many ships and has even caused destruction to some ships, to the extent that its existence cannot be denied – whatever it is. Experts argue as to whether this is a great new ship (doubtful – how could this have been built without the notice of the spies of the powerful countries of the time), or perhaps a huge ichthyosaur disturbed from its depths by some force of nature.
We follow an eminent Professor, Monsieur Arronax, whose reading of the news is that a great cetacean (a word repeated many, many times throughout the book, meaning a marine mammal of the order Cetacea; a whale, dolphin, or porpoise) is roaming the seas from the depths. The theory is popular and discussed to the extent that he becomes a leading expert on the subject and is asked to go on an expedition to hunt the great creature.
The human mind delights in grand conceptions of supernatural beings.
Within just a few pages we’ve discovered something of the truth of the matter, as the unidentified object destroys the hunting ship they are on, casting M. Arronax, his faithful servant Conseil, and the ship’s Canadian harpoonist Ned Land overboard. When all is lost and they are floating in the ocean nearing death, they stumble across the very object that they were hunting.
Adventures under the sea
The opening chapters to the book were arresting – I particularly found the introduction exciting, as I wondered what the creature could be (the writer working to help us make the assumption that it was indeed a creature and not, as it turned out, an advanced submarine). The clue really was the cover of the book which depicted a submarine… so if I’m spoiling the book for you try not to look at the design on the front!
I found the opening writing style somewhat reminiscent of one of my favourite Sci-Fi/thriller authors, Michael Crichton, who no doubt was inspired and influenced by Jules Verne – presenting the baseline story in a very realistic and somewhat scientific manner (possibly without quite the same sense of drama that Crichton later used).
Nevertheless, I believe the revelation of this submarine machine would have been extremely surprising to Jules Verne’s original readership – who were possibly much more ready to believe in deep-sea monsters than the possibility of an advanced submarine vehicle, especially one of such power, speed, and even high standard of comfort. Although I believe Verne wasn’t the first to come up with the concept of the submarine, the idea of one like this when the common experience of daily life consisted of candlelit life in poor quality housing is quite amazing.
The submarine named the Nautilus, is designed and run by the enigmatic and mysterious Captain Nemo (Nemo meaning: ‘no-one’ in Latin, and ‘I give what is due’ in Greek). The Nautilus is seemingly invincible on their many adventures, withstanding many things that I suspect a modern day submarine might not even be able to, such as smashing through icebergs and almost melting next to volcanoes.
The writing itself is in places quite dry, though whilst I initially found this to be an irritation, I started to realise this was an intentional move by the Verne: the story is, after all, written from the perspective of Professor Arronax’s journal, and therefore carries his own personality and writing style. The professor’s interest and very detailed knowledge of sea life are clear to the reader, lending to it a realism that the story might not have otherwise carried. However, there is poetry within the tale as well.
The pace of the story works well – the steady revelation of aspects of Nemo’s character keep you reading, just waiting for him to enter the scene so that you may discover something more about him (he actually doesn’t appear all that often).
Locations and events
There are a number of key adventure points which help keep the plot moving along whilst we’re waiting for the drama between the Captain and his captors to unfold.
These scenes, spanning the expanse of the world, from ocean to ocean, include; diving for pearls in the Indian ocean, fighting off sharks and giant squid (referred to as polyps throughout) by hand with hatchets and harpoons, conquering the South Pole, following the transatlantic telegraph cable, finding Atlantis, observing many shipwrecks, travelling an underground shortcut from the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and also avoiding cannibals! All in the space of about four months.
Nemo’s character is kept secretive which adds a lot to the mystery – how has he discovered all these things? Rather than the novel following Nemo’s initial discoveries, it ensures we think of him as wise and knowledgeable – that he is always taking them to places he has already visited and knows about (and can be one of the only people in the world – you admire him more and more even though he continues to keep them captive.
Sign of the times
There are many reasons that this book felt old, but one of them that resonated most clearly was the attitude that everyone had towards killing the sea creatures. Even though they admired them and studied them, there were many occasions where they are hunting for sport rather than for supplies. I found this jarred a little as it changed my perception of the characters – and I’m sure this is a twenty-first-century mindset of mine.
Of course, in the 1850s there probably weren’t many people going around killing whales with hatchets, but I can’t un-watch the beauty of shows like Blue Planet which make me feel much more kindly towards these creatures that we are beginning to understand. Soft, I know!
Finally – wait for the end
I must admit, about three quarters into the book I was ready to finish it. The language used made it a tough read in places, and along with the detailed description of sea creatures, I was impatient to understand Captain Nemo’s story better.
The last few chapters rewarded me for sticking it out: giving us a powerful twist on the composed, enigmatic and almost invincible Captain, whilst also giving us a tense account of the escape from the Nautilus. When I finished the book, I suddenly realised why it was considered a classic – the ending to some extent had the power to change the whole story, making me mentally review the journey they had been on.
All in all, I enjoyed the story a lot, though finding it a challenging read at times.
The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the ‘Living Infinite’…The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquillity.