"That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?"
— Ecclesiastes 7:24
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 Back Story.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 kilometersnote Verne used the metric league, which is 4 km, or twice the circumference of the Earth. The translation is partly to blame; a closer translation would be Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the 'Seas', which is sometimes used in more modern translations. A Saturday Night Live sketch with guest host Kelsey Grammar as Nemo lampshaded this misconception.The book is now out of copyright and can be obtained from Project Gutenberg here. This translation, done by Verne scholar Frederick Paul Walter, is a modern, highly accurate translation of the book, free of the errors that many other editions of the book have. Alternatively, check out the most common edition here. This translation, done by the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier, is widely considered to be the worst translation of the book; it is riddled with errors and censorship, as well as incorrect numbers (for example, the density of steel is given as .7 to .8 times that of water, while Verne really wrote 7.8 times that of water, which is the correct value). Sadly, it is also the most common translation - check your bookshelves for this version!This also allowed life-long fan and mini-submarines builder Pat Regan to publish a sequel (mostly inspired by Disney's movie), titled ''Vulcanium''The best-known adaptation of the novel is the 1954 live-action Disney film.
The novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea shows examples of the following tropes:
Abnormal Ammo: The Nautilus crew's armament of choice is an air-rifle that fires a glass bullet containing a small capacitor. When the glass shatters, the capacitor unleashes its charge, instantly killing the target.
Absent-Minded Professor: Aronnax has this a few times. One chapter has him declare a book he's been engrossed in for several hours as utterly brilliant, which Conseil is bemused by. When Aronnax asks what's so funny, Conseil tells him to check the spine to see who wrote it... turns out, it was Aronnax himself, and he'd completely forgotten about it.
Almost Out of Oxygen: When the Nautilus is trapped under the Antarctic ice. Verne, however, did his research. Oxygen is not a problem, due to the Nautilus having plenty of electricity and water around, but without caustic potash to bind the carbon dioxide the heroes are screwed anyway.
He had a beard before that as well, in the 1916 black and white silent adaptation (which merged it with the sequel, The Mysterious Island into one story, as if the events all took place simultaneously, though the sequel was supposed to be many years later), Nemo has a beard, as well as wearing Blackface.
The beard already appeared in the original illustrations of the book, since the artist used Colonel Charas as a model - fitting as Charas' life was somewhat similar to Nemo's, and he may also have been Verne's inspiration for the character.
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 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—
Canada, Eh?: Okay Jules, we get it! Ned Land is from Canada! You don't have to keep telling us twice per page!
Inverted in that he's loud, arrogant, and rather meatheaded (and whistles "Yankee Doodle").
Completely Unnecessary Translator: A variation occurs when Professor Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land failing to understand the language used by their captors, 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 atttempted to speak Latin without success. In a second interview, the man that later presented himself 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 Professor Aronnax cannot recognize, Verne didn’t bother himself making any words 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 N.G.O. Superpower, it makes sense this language is a Con LangCompletely 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:
"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!"
Cool Ship: The Nautilus, which has a greater range than any existing non-nuclear submarine.
Dangerously Genre Savvy: A subtle example: Captain Nemo knows the Power Trio will attempt a Great Escape because he desn't want to impose The Promise on them to keep the Nautilus safe. So he only allows the Power Trio to explore islands without any connection to civilization, and navigates on the surfaces of the seas that are either not frequented by ships or are actually affected by a natural event that could cause the death of the escapees (like a submarine eruption or the Maelstrom).
Death Seeker: As Nemo's mental health deteriorates through the course of the story, he becomes more reckless.
Disproportionate Retribution: Conseil and Arronax geek out over a seashell that twists left-handedly instead of to the right. When a lucky shot from one of the attacking natives shatters it, Conseil promptly picks up a gun and shoots the man.
...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!"
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 4km.)
Nemo reclaims the South Pole in his name. That means that no one owns the South Pole.
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!"
Foreign Queasine: Subverted: The food served ship-side is fish and seafood only, and the heroes are somewhat reluctant to try lightly grilled sea-cucumbers and dolphin-liver ragout. However, Nemo's chef is apparently something of a genius and can crank out very tasty meals of whatever he is given to work with.
Freudian Slip: Aronnax, whilst having a discussion about oysters and pearls shortly after being informed that they were going shark hunting, says that some larger oysters have been claimed to contain up to 150 sharks.
From My Own Personal Garden: Captain Nemo informs his prisoners that everything they are eating was taken from the ocean. Exaggerated because everything there is in the Nautilus is from the Ocean: the energy, the clothes, the cigars...
Giant Squid: The crew of Nautilus (and Ned Land) fight a giant squid that has wrapped itself around the submarine. It is the most recognisable point after Nemo and the Nautilus themselves and is a standard fixture in any adaptation.
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.
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."
Hidden Depths: All of the main characters, from Ned Land (who is surprisingly knowledgeable about marine life despite his Book Dumb personality) to Nemo (see Wicked Cultured) show this at times.
I'm a Humanitarian: Ned Land (jokingly) threatens to eat Conseil if he doesn't get something other than fish to eat soon.
Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The Nautilus' primary weapon is a ramming spur. Nemo has no compunctions about using it against wildlife he doesn't like or against shipping that's flying the flags of nations he doesn't approve of.
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..
Madden Into Misanthropy: When Aronnax calls out Captain Nemo about the cruelty implied in never letting them go out of 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!"
"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."
...until the sequel, that is: his name is Prince Dakkar.
Not That Kind of Doctor: Arronax is asked to treat a crewman with a massive head wound, but all he can do is confirm that he'll be dead in the hour.
Oddly Small Organization: For an N.G.O. Superpower capable of helping the Cretan Insurrection, destroying The Empire's ships and with its own language, the Nautilus crew is small: We only see Captain Nemo, his Number Two, and two unfortunate crewmen that die in the novel. And because they have severed all contact with inhabited continents, there will be no more crewmen. Aronnax made a calculation about less than sixty people:
"... 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."
Omniglot: Nemo is fluent in French, English, German, and Latin, and probably far more languages.
Pet the Dog: Nemo has several such moments, including sending assistance to Cretan rebels, saving the life and giving some pearls to a poor fisherman and weeping over the memory of his dead wife. See Anti-Villain.
Right Behind Me: In one scene, Aronnax is talking about a giant squid that had been sighted a few years earlier when Conseil, looking out the window, starts asking questions like, "Weren't its eyes prominently placed and considerably enlarged?"
Science Is Bad: Subverted because the book shows us all the good things the Nautilus can accomplish. Only after The Reveal, Aronnax’s Heel Realization lets him know that those good things can’t justify the terrible violence.
The North Pole is placed in the Arctic Ocean. The South Pole is placed in Antartica, a sheet of ice thousands of feet thick, and most of it on a solid continent. The Nautilus could have reached the North Polenote and indeed, the USS Nautilus (America's first nuclear sub and namesake of the vessel in this book) did reach the Pole by travelling under the Arctic Ocean, but not the South Pole.
Electricity being presented as an amazing source of energy, these days it's commonplace.
Series Continuity Error: Much of the information presented about Captain Nemo and his career in The Mysterious Island (at least the dates) doesn't make any sense at all when compared to the text of Twenty Thousand Leagues.
Shout-Out: At an early point in the book, the narration mentions a white whale named "Moby-Dick".
"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.)
The Nautilus was supposed to make 50 knots on Bunsen batteries. The only modern submarine which could approach 50 knots needed 30 000 kW for the main engine. To get 30 000 kW from Bunsen cells their combined size would exceed Nautilus entire hull in size by a few orders of magnitude.
Also, an in-universe example of Schizo Tech: despite the usual rotating electric motor with brushes being known and used in the 1860s, Nautilus main engine is an oscillating electric motor ( "where large electromagnets actuate a system of levers and gears that transmit the power to the propeller shaft") - less efficient and a royal waste of space.
The new technology of double hull seemed to solve most problems in an age when most vessels were still wooden sailing ships, so Verne become enthusiastic about Nautilus double hull able to withstand the pressure "in the deepest ocean trench". No double hulled submarine can go below 1300 meters, specialized deep-diving vehicles are small craft with 5-inch thick shells.
"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, Professor Aronnax's 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 his master's 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.
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 shows how terrible its destructive power really is.
Wham Line: But by this point observing, studying, and classifying were out of the question.
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 Übermensch).
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.
Wide-Eyed Idealist: 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.
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.
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 ships with total impunity (no nation could chase him to the bottom of the sea). His superior technology means that even the military is as helpless as ordinary civilians.