If the Count of Monte Cristo went on a scientific tour of the sea, the resulting story might be something like Jules Verne’s 1870 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Except there’s much more science then revenge, though the revenge is what you really remember.
The book is narrated by Pierre Aronnax, a professor from Paris. He and his servant, the impassive and unflappable Conseil, accompany an American military ship to hunt down a mysterious sea creature that has been wreaking havoc on the seas, sinking several ships. Aronnax thinks the mysterious creature must be a narwhal. On board, they meet Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner of the highest ability.
The mysterious creature is not a narwhal, as it turns out, but a submarine, which they discover when Ned Land tries to harpoon it and the submarine bumps into the ship and Aronnax, Conseil and Land end up in the water and scramble for safety on top of the submarine (Conseil jumped into the ocean out of loyalty to Aronnax).
They are taken in and meet the mysterious crew and their captain, Nemo. He is a man who claims to have turned his back on all civilization and oppressive nations and lives only in the sea and is sustained only by the sea, doing scientific research in his submarine, the Nautilus, which he engineered himself (it is shaped like a cigar, attacks like a battering ram and powered by a battery).
But because Nemo fears discovery by the world, he tells them that they can never leave the Nautilus. This is hard news for Ned Land, but the professor is enchanted, despite his fears. He initially finds Nemo’s idea of being able to live truly free of the world a romantic one and is thrilled to be able to engage in marine biology such as he’s never done before and even Conseil is excited to have so many new fish to classify. Captain Nemo, although moody and taciturn, seems to welcome the opportunity to have a knowledgeable man to talk to and explain all the wonderful things he has discovered (after all, what is the fun of discovering things if there is no one to appreciate it?).
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an episodic story as the Nautilus explores the many oceans, stops at a few islands, visits Antarctica, finds Atlantis, characters walk on the bottom of the ocean, view wrecks of ships, classify dozens of animals and sea life, fight giant squid, encounter natives on an island who attempt to board the Nautilus from their canoes. The only two threads that run throughout the story are Ned Land’s desire and search for a way to escape the Nautilus and Professor Aronnax’s dawning realization of the dark side of Captain Nemo, though he likes the man.
Captain Nemo claims that he is done with civilization and is a law unto himself, but that is not quite true and Aronnax begins to suspect that he is using the Nautilus for another purpose besides science, like perhaps revenge. It also becomes clear that Nemo is still helping people, such as the Greeks, who are rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, by sending them gold (which he found in a sunken ship – he’s fabulously wealthy) or giving pearls to a Ceylonese man (a nation ruled, “oppressed,” in Nemo’s words, by the British).
Originally, Jules Verne was going to make Captain Nemo Polish and have the enemy whose ships he’s determined to sink at every opportunity be Russian. However, in 1870, France was allied with Russia and Verne’s publisher urged him to change it. As a result, in the novel, we never do learn what nationality Nemo is. When he reappears in Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Verne has made him a prince from India who was educated in Europe and the enemy who destroyed his family and home are the British, who were not French allies at the time.
But he makes me think so much of Eduard Dante from The Count of Monte Cristo. The brooding, mysterious man who is magnetic, sensitive, filled with hate, convinced of his own righteousness in seeking revenge, forceful, impossibly good at everything. Nemo plays the organ (it’s an opulent sub: library, museum, organ, paintings, comfy divans – though oddly it seems reserved for the captain’s use. What the crew do with themselves to occupy their time is anyone’s guess. The crew remain a complete enigma of personality throughout.). He’s even fabulously rich, like Dante, so he can afford to do anything (even build his presumably expensive submarine). And he’s an engineer, great explorer, and brilliant scientist. He’s practically a demigod.
Fortunately, for sympathy’s sake, Captain Nemo is more vulnerable than Eduard Dante, because he seems to be slowly going mad. He claims to have perfect freedom in the ocean, but he’s really just taken his inner demons with him (like Satan’s line from Paradise Lost: “Hell; myself is hell!”). He plays gloomy music on his organ, grows more remote from Aronnax and seems to have a bit of a death wish while Aronnax is horrified to discover that Nemo is destroying ships and killing men and finally agrees with Ned Land that they should escape as soon as possible, since Nemo is likely to take them down with him. Nemo’s justification?
I am the law, and I am the judge! I am the oppressed and there is the oppressor!”
It is his justification for everything he does, a frightening line of reasoning, however much one may sympathize with all he has suffered.
One weakness of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are the interminable lists. Professor Aronnax is always detailing exactly what kind of sea life he sees and when you do not know much about the ocean, it tends to read like a laundry list and there are a lot of them and I find that my eyes glaze over every so often. I now know what a zoophyte is (any kind of sea creature that looks like a plant, such as an anemone). A dugong is like a manatee. I learned about how pearls form in oysters. I think the book would have benefited from a glossary with pictures, as well as a map that details all the places that the Nautilus goes.
It’s never a fast-paced book – extremely leisurely – but these periods of boredom are relieved by Verne’s striking images. There is the moment when the Nautilus comes in sight of a recently sunken ship and they can still see the newly dead bodies lashed to the ship and floating in the water while sharks are coming towards it, which is an eerie and melancholy moment. The giant squid attack is exciting and unforgettable. Nemo shows Aronnax the sunken city of Atlantis. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land hunting on an island (Land is determined to have fresh meat; he’s tired of all the fish).
There is something about Verne that captures one’s imagination, despite the slow moments. It’s not as much fun as Around the World in 80 Days, but there’s something eerie, mysterious and exciting about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, about secrets only half plumbed. Professor Aronnax may be learning an incredible amount about the sea, but Nemo remains a mystery and ultimately, so does the sea.