Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater
Original Title: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin
Written by: Jules Verne
Central Theme:
Series: Sea Trilogy
Followed by: In Search of the Castaways
First published: 1870
More Information
Source: Read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea here
v · d · e

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an 1869 adventure novel by Jules Verne. It scores a solid 5 on Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness and has a strong focus on technology, existentialism, and marine biology.

During a visit to America, Professor Aronnax, a famous French marine biologist, is invited to join a US Navy expedition in the hunt for a mysterious sea monster (believed to be a giant narwhal) that has attacked and damaged two ships. Once they find the narwhal, it attacks, causing Aronnax, his trusty manservant Conseil and Ned Land, the ship's Canadian harpoonist, to fall overboard (well, Conseil jumped, to rescue the Professor). They clamber onto the only dry spot in the sea, namely the narwhal's back, expecting to drown as soon as it dives. Then a hatch opens...

The mysterious narwhal is in fact not a whale, but a high-tech electric submarine, owned and designed by the mysterious and eccentric Captain Nemo. While refusing to put our heroes ashore, he lets them live, and takes them on a fantastic journey under the seas of the world, showing them the many wonders of the world beneath the waves. Aronnax finds himself torn between his passionate interest in marine biology and his desire for freedom - should he try to escape with his comrades or stay and find out why Nemo sails around the world, sinking British and American ships?

The novel has a sequel, The Mysterious Island, which tells Nemo's Backstory.

In 1954, Walt Disney Pictures made a big-budget movie based on the book - its first live-action science fiction film. The film featured an all-star cast (Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, Peter Lorre as Conseil, and James Mason as Captain Nemo) and a memorable design for the Nautilus, and has become one of Disney's classics.

Fun fact that people sometimes forget: the title refers to the distance the Nautilus travels horizontally over the course of the book, not the depth it dives to. 20,000 leagues vertically would be impossible, being 80,000 kilometers,[1] or twice the circumference of the Earth. The translation is partly to blame; a closer translation would be Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. A Saturday Night Live sketch with guest host Kelsey Grammar as Nemo lampshaded this misconception.

Tropes used in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea include:

A disciple of such character–judging anatomists as Gratiolet or Engel could have read this man's features like an open book. Without hesitation, I identified his dominant qualities—self–confidence, since his head reared like a nobleman's above the arc formed by the lines of his shoulders, and his black eyes gazed with icy assurance; calmness, since his skin, pale rather than ruddy, indicated tranquility of blood; energy, shown by the swiftly knitting muscles of his brow; and finally courage, since his deep breathing denoted tremendous reserves of vitality.
I might add that this was a man of great pride, that his calm, firm gaze seemed to reflect thinking on an elevated plane, and that the harmony of his facial expressions and bodily movements resulted in an overall effect of unquestionable candor—according to the findings of physiognomists, those analysts of facial character.
I felt "involuntarily reassured" in his presence, and this boded well for our interview.

I returned to the saloon, fearing and yet hoping to see Captain Nemo, wishing and yet not wishing to see him. What could I have said to him? Could I hide the involuntary horror with which he inspired me? No. It was better that I should not meet him face to face; better to forget him. And yet—

  • The Butcher: Ned Land accuses Nemo of this when Nemo Kicks The Cachalots in a massacre. (See The Hunter).
  • Canada, Eh?: Okay Jules, we get it! Ned Land is from Canada! You don't have to keep telling us twice per page!
  • The Captain: Deconstructed with Nemo, he is so charismatic a captain and so loved by his crew that nobody notices his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Character Filibuster: Arronax tends to go off on long digressions about various species of marine life he's observed, interrupting the adventure story of which he's one of the main characters.
  • Closed Circle: Even when the Nautilus travels around the whole world, The Professor Aronnax, Battle Butler Conseil and Idiot Hero Ned Land are confined to the submarine. They only talk with Captain Nemo (all the other crew talk a secret language).
  • Completely Unnecessary Translator: A variation occurs when The Professor Aronnax, Battle Butler Conseil and Idiot Hero Ned Land cannot understand the language used by their captors, everyone of them try to talk to them in their respective native languages (French, German (Conseil is Dutch, but presumably uses German because Dutch is a very rare language outside of The Netherlands) and English, respectively). When their captors didn’t react, Aronnax spoke Latin without success. In a second interview, the man that will present himself later as Captain Nemo told them:

...After some moments of silence, which not one of us dreamed of breaking, "Gentlemen," said he, in a calm and penetrating voice, "I speak French, English, German, and Latin equally well. I could, therefore, have answered you at our first interview, but I wished to know you first, then to reflect…”

  • Con Lang: Subverted because even when the Nautilus crew uses a language that The Professor Aronnax cannot recognize, Verne didn’t bother himself making any word of it except "Nautron respoc lorni virch." that Aronnax thinks must mean: "There's nothing in sight.". Aronnax describes the language like this: … a language I didn't recognize. It was a sonorous, harmonious, flexible dialect whose vowels seemed to undergo a highly varied accentuation.
    • Given that the Nautilus crew is a NGO Superpower, it makes sense this language is a Con Lang Completely Original, designed to substitute all the other “continental” languages that were original to each of the crew countries that the crew has abandoned. Aronnax observes that just moments before his death, one of the crew forgets to use that Con Lang and ask for help in French. A hungry Ned Land also theorizes:

"Don't you see, these people have a language all to themselves, a language they've invented just to cause despair in decent people who ask for a little dinner! Why, in every country on earth, when you open your mouth, snap your jaws, smack your lips and teeth, isn't that the world's most understandable message? From Quebec to the Tuamotu Islands, from Paris to the Antipodes, doesn't it mean: I'm hungry, give me a bite to eat!"

"Haven't seen or heard a thing!" the Canadian replied. "I haven't even spotted the crew of this boat. By any chance, could they be electric too?"
"Oh ye gods, I'm half tempted to believe it!"

"And to what purpose?" replied Captain Nemo; "only to destroy! We have nothing to do with the whale-oil on board."
"But, sir," continued the Canadian, "in the Red Sea you allowed us to follow the dugong."
"Then it was to procure fresh meat for my crew. Here it would be killing for killing's sake. I know that is a privilege reserved for man, but I do not approve of such murderous pastime. In destroying the southern whale (like the Greenland whale, an inoffensive creature), your traders do a culpable action, Master Land. They have already depopulated the whole of Baffin's Bay, and are annihilating a class of useful animals. Leave the unfortunate cetacea alone. They have plenty of natural enemies—cachalots, swordfish, and sawfish—without you troubling them."

  • Egopolis: Captain Nemo offer us a variant when he claims an entire continent for himself, acting like a sovereign:

...Well now! In 1868, on this 21st day of March, I myself, Captain Nemo, have reached the South Pole at 90°, and I hereby claim this entire part of the globe, equal to one–sixth of the known continents."
"In the name of which sovereign, Captain?"
"In my own name, sir!"
So saying, Captain Nemo unfurled a black flag bearing a gold "N" on its quartered bunting. Then, turning toward the orb of day, whose last rays were licking at the sea's horizon:
"Farewell, O sun!" he called. "Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!"

  • Enclosed Space: Subverted because Nemo let the Power Trio explore land where an escape would be more dangerous that Nemo's hospitality in the Nautilus.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Aronnax at one point finds Nemo privately weeping in front of a portrait of (what is implied to be) his dead wife and children.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: While the earlier English translations tend to mess up many of Verne's measurements, the original French version is an account of a journey of 20,000 lieues, which is translated into English as "leagues". As is common with many early measurements, the exact definition of a "lieue" or "league" varies, but there is internal evidence in the story that Verne was using a metric lieue of 4 kilometres. (On multiple instances he gives distances in both lieues and nautical miles, which correspond exactly, if a "lieue" is 4 km.)
    • Nemo reclaims the South Pole in his name. That means that No One owns the South Pole.
  • Executive Meddling: Verne originally wrote Nemo as a Polish nobleman, who lost his family to the Russians. Verne's publisher was wary of portraying the Russians, France's ally at the time, in a negative light, and didn't want to lose sales in Russia, so he persuaded Verne to make Nemo's nationality a mystery.[2] Also an example about Tropes Are Not Bad: Revealing Nemo's Backstory left him only a menace against a single nation, but leaving Nemo's nationality anonymous not only defines him (Nemo means Nobody) but also makes the reader realize that any nation, even the reader's nation, could have committed the alleged crimes against Nemo and his family. Even more, it implies that no ship of any nationality was safe for navigation.
  • Expy: Captain Nemo is an expy for Odisseus: A great sailor, The Captain of a ship who commanded a Red Shirt crew, that claimed he was “No One”, who fought against beings he cannot defeat (Nemo against The Empire, Odiseus against Jerkass Gods) motivated by You Can't Go Home Again.
  • Fiction 500: Captain Nemo brags to The Professor Aronnax that he is so rich, he could pay France's entire national debt. Later Aronnax discovers this is the truth in Vigo Bay: The superior tech of the Nautilus lets Nemo reclaim all the treasures lost to man in shipwrecks, before any other treasure hunter.
  • The Final Frontier: Subverted: In this book it is not space, but the unknown sea, the only place on earth where man could be free (and it remains the same more than one hundred years later) as Nemo says:

"...The sea is a vast pool of nature. Our globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who can say we won't end with it! Here lies supreme tranquility. The sea doesn't belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I'm free!"

"You said that we should be free on board."
"I ask you, then, what you mean by this liberty?"
"Just the liberty to go, to come, to see, to observe even all that passes here save under rare circumstances—the liberty, in short, which we enjoy ourselves, my companions and I."
It was evident that we did not understand one another.
"Pardon me, sir," I resumed, "but this liberty is only what every prisoner has of pacing his prison. It cannot suffice us."
"It must suffice you, however."

I'll also mention that the Canadian, at the end of his strength and patience, made no further appearances. Conseil couldn't coax a single word out of him and feared that, in a fit of delirium while under the sway of a ghastly homesickness, Ned would kill himself. So he kept a devoted watch on his friend every instant.

I thought the commander would offer me his hand, to seal our agreement. He did nothing of the sort. I regretted that.

  • He Knows Too Much: The reason Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land will remain prisoners of the Nautilus and cannot come back to Civilization. Ever. (Captain Nemo lets them abandon the Nautilus and explore land, but it is always on uncivilized shores). Captain Nemo explains:

"... You came to surprise a secret which no man in the world must penetrate—the secret of my whole existence. And you think that I am going to send you back to that world which must know me no more? Never! In retaining you, it is not you whom I guard—it is myself."

"He had made me, if not an accomplice, at least an eyewitness to his vengeance! Even this was intolerable."

"Your dead sleep quietly, at least, Captain, out of the reach of sharks."
"Yes, sir, of sharks and men," gravely replied the Captain.

"Well, sir," replied the Canadian, whose enthusiasm had somewhat calmed; "it is a terrible spectacle, certainly. But I am not a butcher. I am a hunter, and I call this a butchery."
"It is a massacre of mischievous creatures," replied the Captain; "and the Nautilus is not a butcher's knife."

"I am the law, and I am the judge! I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor!"

Is it indiscreet to ask how you discovered this tunnel?"
"Sir," the captain answered me, "there can be no secrets between men who will never leave each other."
I ignored this innuendo and waited for Captain Nemo's explanation.

  • Kick the Dog: Captain Nemo is implied to have destroyed ships with civilians and military crew, but the act of following up an attack with the Nautilus observing the horrible death of all the unnamed ship's crew on purpose, without losing any detail, is when Nemo crosses the Moral Event Horizon.

... The sea was covered with mutilated bodies. A formidable explosion could not have divided and torn this fleshy mass with more violence. We were floating amid gigantic bodies, bluish on the back and white underneath, covered with enormous protuberances. Some terrified cachalots were flying towards the horizon. The waves were dyed red for several miles, and the Nautilus floated in a sea of blood..

  • Lightning Can Do Anything: Or rather, electricity can do anything. When Verne wrote the story, electricity was just beginning to be harnessed on a wide scale for industrial purposes, and it's usage as depicted in the plot would have been seen as fantastical despite many of the basic principles being public knowledge and simply scaled and mass applied for the Nautilus in the story.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: When Aronnax call him out about the cruelty implied in never let them go out the Nautilus, Captain Nemo answers:

"What! We must give up seeing our homeland, friends, and relatives ever again?"
"Yes, sir. But giving up that intolerable earthly yoke that some men call freedom is perhaps less painful than you think!"

"You're an engineer, then, Captain Nemo?"
"Yes, professor," he answered me. "I studied in London, Paris, and New York back in the days when I was a resident of the Earth's continents."

  • Meaningful Name: "Nemo" is Latin for "no one".
    • Also Greek for "I give what is due".
    • Ned Land. He wishes more strongly than any of the other captives to return to terra firma.
    • Conseil is French for "counsel", meaning advice. Inverted because Conseil doesn't like to give advice. This is lampshaded by the Professor himself.
  • Meaningful Rename: Captain Nemo gave himself this name after he left the land.
  • Message in a Bottle: Captain Nemo plans to use one to assure his research is not lost:

"Here, Professor Aronnax, is a manuscript written in several languages. It contains a summary of my research under the sea, and God willing, it won't perish with me. Signed with my name, complete with my life story, this manuscript will be enclosed in a small, unsinkable contrivance. The last surviving man on the Nautilus will throw this contrivance into the sea, and it will go wherever the waves carry it.".

”I admit that the nationality of the two strangers is hard to determine. Neither English, French, nor German, that is quite certain. However, I am inclined to think that the commander and his companion were born in low latitudes. There is southern blood in them. But I cannot decide by their appearance whether they are Spaniards, Turks, Arabians, or Indians"

  • Mobile Menace: The power of the Nautilus: In 1869, a submarine can arrive to any part of the seas and destroy any ship:

Moving within the moving element! It was a highly appropriate motto for this underwater machine, so long as the preposition in is translated as within and not upon.

"Good lord, Professor," Ned Land answered me, "don't mention it! What did we do that's so praiseworthy? Not a thing. It was a question of simple arithmetic. Your life is worth more than ours. So we had to save it."

"I am the law, and I am the judge! I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor! Through him I have lost all that I loved, cherished, and venerated -- country, wife, children, father, and mother. I saw all perish! All that I hate is there! Say no more!"

"... Which is tantamount to saying that the air contained in the Nautilus would be exactly enough for 625 men over twenty–four hours."
"625!" Ned repeated.
"But rest assured," I added, "that between passengers, seamen, or officers, we don't total one–tenth of that figure."

"if I can trust my hunches, if I truly understand the captain's way of life, his Nautilus isn't simply a ship. It's meant to be a refuge for people like its commander, people who have severed all ties with the shore."

  • Stockholm Syndrome: One of the rare non-romantic examples, outside of Ho Yay. (In fact, there are practically no women in the book at all.)
  • Stun Gun: The firearms used by Nemo's men are generally lethal, but would have this effect if they didn't kill their targets. Nemo even turns his entire ship into one to keep primitive natives from boarding it, citing a desire to not deliberately kill any of them.
  • Sub Story: The Trope Maker.
  • Submarine Pirates: The Trope Maker.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: When Captain Nemo asks the Power Trio to promise not trying to see… “something they must not see”, he could not phrase it without sounding sinister and exciting Aronnax' suspicions:

It's possible that certain unforeseen events may force me to confine you to your cabins for some hours, or even for some days as the case may be. Since I prefer never to use violence, I expect from you in such a case, even more than in any other, your unquestioning obedience. By acting in this way, I shield you from complicity, I absolve you of all responsibility, since I myself make it impossible for you to see what you aren't meant to see. Do you accept this condition?"
So things happened on board that were quite odd to say the least, things never to be seen by people not placing themselves beyond society's laws! Among all the surprises the future had in store for me, this would not be the mildest.

  • Sympathy for the Devil: The Professor Aronnax is fascinated by Wicked Cultured Captain Nemo and his creation, the Nautilus, for seven months, and he certainly wants to delay the Great Escape to see more submarine marvels… until he sees Nemo Kick the Dog and cross the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Technology Marches On: Electricity was imbued with almost magical power in this book, and a lot of the technological wonders Verne describes seem downright quaint to modern eyes. Still, credit where credit is due, he did get the fundamentals of how submarines would work in the future essentially right.
    • In a subtle and clever bit of Foreshadowing, Verne had Nemo offhandedly remark when showing Arronaux his books and paintings he preferred to think those who lived on land no longer spoke or wrote, a curiously apathetic position to take when Nemo himself harnessed the latest knowledge of his day to construct the very vessel that made his way of life and immunity from the world above the waves possible. Later events in the story Especially when the nations of the world realize what the Nautilus really is and seek out to destroy it to no avail prove Nemo was lying when he professed this.
  • That Man Is Dead: Whoever Nemo was before he became "The Nameless Avenger", that man is so dead there is no reason to even mention him.

"...I am dead, Professor; as much dead as those of your friends who are sleeping six feet under the earth!"

"It's a wonderful sight! Isn't it, Ned?"
"Oh damnation, yes!" Ned Land shot back. "It's superb! I'm furious that I have to admit it. Nobody has ever seen the like. But this sight could cost us dearly. And in all honesty, I think we're looking at things God never intended for human eyes."

  • True Companions: Captain Nemo claims (and the few interactions Aronnax had with the Nautilus crew never shows us any different) that this is the relationship between the crew:

.."The Nautilus suffered a collision that cracked one of the engine levers, and it struck this man. My chief officer was standing beside him. This man leaped forward to intercept the blow. A brother lays down his life for his brother, a friend for his friend, what could be simpler? That's the law for everyone on board the Nautilus"

  • Undying Loyalty: Exaggerated with Conseil, The Professor Aronnax servant. He risks his life to save his employer not once, but twice in the novel. When Aronnax talks with Ned Land about the Great Escape, Conseil considers himself one with her master decision.

"Your friend Conseil," the fine lad replied serenely, "has nothing to say for himself. He's a completely disinterested party on this question... He's in Master's employ, he thinks like Master, he speaks like Master, and much to his regret, he can't be counted on to form a majority. Only two persons face each other here: Master on one side, Ned Land on the other. That said, your friend Conseil is listening, and he's ready to keep score."
I couldn't help smiling as Conseil wiped himself out of existence.

  • Villainous Breakdown: Inverted: after Captain Nemo crosses the Moral Event Horizon for the last time, he breaks down because his plans are working but he is not Above Good and Evil. He also could have voluntarily run the Nautilus into The Maelstrom (an enormous whirlpool).
  • Weapon of Mass Destruction: At the state of technology in 1869, the Nautilus is this: a submarine could easily destroy any ship in the sea without possibility of being persecuted when submerged in the sea. Nemo’s Kick the Dog moment show how terrible its destructive power really is.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Aronnax, Counseil and Ned Land are informed by Captain Nemo that, from his point of view, they are simple mooks and he threatens to invoke this trope. (See Ubermensch).
  • Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?: Justified. Nautilus was designed by Nemo, all the components ordered from different companies in different countries and shipped by the Nautilus crew to a remote island, where all plans and traces of their shipyard were destroyed after the Nautilus was completed.
  • Wicked Cultured: Nemo isn't quite a villain, but if he were he'd fit the trope. He has a library of 12000 books, of which he's read all, a collection of marine curiosities that would put most museums to shame, an art collection, likewise, and a keen interest in good dining. He also plays a pipe organ.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: The Professor Aronnax must be constantly reminded that other people are not as good as himself. He really doesn’t want to believe that Nemo is doing something sinister, and Ned Land must remind him that the war ship that is shooting the Nautilus is doing it on purpose.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: The book subtly shows how Captain Nemo is slowly but surely losing his sanity by using the Nautilus as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Captain Nemo is an early example: he adopts the Ocean as his new homeland and finances the Cretan rebellion because he hates despots. However, the Nautilus permits him to destroy any of The Empire's ship with total impunity (no Nation could chase him in the bottom of the sea). His superior technology means that even the military is as helpless as ordinary civilians.
  1. Verne used the metric league, which is 4 km
  2. at least until the sequel novel, The Mysterious Island, where Nemo is revealed to have been an Indian prince who lost his family to the British