Name: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Author: Jules Verne
Verne, Jules (1869, 1955). 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Chicago: Scott, Foresman
Date Posted: April 25, 2013
I don’t really remember the first time I read a Jules Verne book. Actually until I was in college I thought he was an English writer. This book was the first I read, and then several others. It was just the kind of book that appealed to my imagination.
The English title, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was given in French, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. The book is a classic science fiction novel by French writer Jules Verne published in 1869. It tells the story of Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus as seen from the perspective of Professor Pierre Aronnax. By the way, the version I first read was checked out of the public library, clearly before the edition listed above was reprinted. The above version is a faithful translation and an excellent one to own.
Captain Nemo’s name is a subtle allusion to Homer’s Odyssey, a Greek epic poem. In The Odyssey, Odysseus meets the monstrous cyclops Polyphemus during the course of his wanderings. Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, and Odysseus replies that his name is “Utis” , which translates as “No-man” or “No-body”. In the Latin translation of the Odyssey, this pseudonym is rendered as “Nemo”, which in Latin also translates as “No-man” or “No-body”. Similarly to Nemo, Odysseus is forced to wander the seas in exile (though only for 10 years) and is tormented by the deaths of his ship’s crew.
Nemo’s name may have been, at least in part, inspired by Jules Verne visiting Scotland and there coming across Scotland’s national motto Nemo me impune lacessit, correctly meaning “No one attacks me with impunity”, but reinterpreted by Verne as “Nemo attacks me with impunity”.
Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, “Captain Maury” in Verne’s book, a real-life oceanographer who explored the winds, seas, currents, and collected samples of the bottom of the seas and charted all of these things, is mentioned a few times in this work by Jules Verne. Jules Verne certainly would have known of Matthew Maury’s international fame and perhaps Maury’s French ancestry.
References are made to three other Frenchmen. Those are Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a famous explorer who was lost while circumnavigating the globe; Dumont D’Urville, the explorer who found the remains of the ill-fated ship of the Count; and Ferdinand Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal and the nephew of the man who was the sole survivor of Lapérouse’s expedition. Verne was an investor in Lesseps to build the French sea level crossing in Panama. The Nautilus seems to follow the footsteps of these men: She visits the waters where Lapérouse was lost; she sails to Antarctic waters and becomes stranded there, just like D’Urville’s ship, the Astrolabe; and she passes through an underwater tunnel from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean.
The most famous part of the novel, the battle against the school of giant squid, begins when a crewman opens the hatch of the boat and gets caught by one of the monsters. As he is being pulled away by the tentacle that has grabbed him, he yells “Help!” in French. At the beginning of the next chapter, concerning the battle, Aronnax states that: “To convey such sights, one would take the pen of our most famous poet, Victor Hugo, author of The Toilers of the Sea. The Toilers of the Sea also contains an episode where a worker fights a giant octopus, wherein the octopus symbolizes the Industrial Revolution. It is probable that Verne borrowed the symbol, but used it to allude to the Revolutions of 1848 as well, in that the first man to stand against the “monster” and the first to be defeated by it is a Frenchman.
In several parts of the book, Captain Nemo is depicted as a champion of the world’s underdogs and downtrodden. In one passage Captain Nemo is mentioned as providing some help to Greeks rebelling against Ottoman rule during the Cretan Revolt of 1866–1869, proving to Arronax that after all he had not completely severed all relations with mankind outside the Nautilus. In another passage, Nemo takes pity on a poor Indian pearl diver who must do his diving without the sophisticated diving suit available to the submarine’s crew, and who is doomed to die young due to the cumulative effect of diving on his lungs. Nemo approaches him underwater and gives him a whole pouch full of pearls, more than he could have gotten in years of his dangerous work.
Some of Verne’s ideas about the not-yet-existing submarines that were laid out in this book turned out to be prophetic, such as the high speed and secret conduct of today’s nuclear attack submarines, and (with diesel submarines) the need to surface frequently for fresh air. However, Verne evidently had no idea of the problems of water pressure, depicting his submarine as capable of diving freely even into the deepest of ocean deeps, where in reality it would have been instantly crushed by the weight of water above it, and with humans in diving suits able to emerge and walk along the deep ocean floor where they would have died quickly because of physiological effects of depth pressure and their breathing sets not working because of the pressure.
Verne took the name “Nautilus” from one of the earliest successful submarines, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton, who later invented the first commercially successful steamboat. [See my blog entry for Emulation and Invention, by Brooke Hindle (1981)]
Fulton’s submarine was built in France. He named it after the paper nautilus because it had a sail. Three years before writing his novel, Jules Verne also studied a model of the newly developed French Navy submarine Plongeur at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, which inspired him for his definition of the Nautilus. The world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, the United States Navy’s USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was named for Verne’s fictional vessel.
Verne can also be credited with glimpsing the military possibilities of submarines, and specifically the danger which they possessed for the naval superiority of the British Navy, composed of surface warships. The fictional sinking of a ship by Nemo’s Nautilus was to be enacted again and again in reality, in the same waters where Verne predicted it, by German U-boats in both World Wars.
The breathing apparatus used by Nautilus divers is depicted as an untethered version of underwater breathing apparatus designed by Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze in 1865. They designed a diving set with a backpack spherical air tank that supplied air through the first known demand regulator. The diver still walked on the seabed and did not swim. This set was called an aérophore (Greek for “air-carrier”). Air pressure tanks made with the technology of the time could only hold 30 atmospheres, and the diver had to be surface supplied; the tank was for bailout. The durations of 6 to 8 hours on a tankful without external supply recorded for the Rouquayrol set in the book are greatly exaggerated.
No less significant, though more rarely commented on, is the very bold political vision (indeed, revolutionary for its time) represented by the character of Captain Nemo. As revealed in the later Verne book The Mysterious Island, Captain Nemo is a descendant of Tipu Sultan (a Muslim ruler of Mysore who resisted the British Raj), who took to the underwater life after the suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which his close family members were killed by the British.
This change was made on request of Verne’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel (who is known to be responsible for many serious changes in Verne’s books), since in the original text the mysterious captain was a Polish nobleman, avenging his family who were killed by Russians. They had been murdered in retaliation for the captain’s taking part in the Polish January Uprising (1863). As France was allied with Tsarist Russia, to avoid trouble the target for Nemo’s wrath was changed to France’s old enemy, the British Empire. It is no wonder that Professor Pierre Aronnax does not suspect Nemo’s origins, as these were explained only later, in Verne’s next book.
The national origin of Captain Nemo was changed during most movie realizations. In nearly all picture-based works following the book he was made into a European. Nemo was represented as an Indian by Omar Sharif in the 1973 European miniseries The Mysterious Island. Nemo is also depicted as Indian in a silent film version of the story released in 1916 and later in both the graphic novel and the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.