A review of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne

My list is mostly the things I feel the need to read, but I included a large selection of 19th century pop fiction in order to have a pleasant break from what I knew at times would be some pretty heavy reading. In some cases, such as Count Of Monte Christo, these books delivered exactly as planned, providing a fun romp to lighten the load. In others, however, I’ve had less success, finding myself plodding through what should be a frolic. Unfortunately, such is the case with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea which is a fine, lovely book that I really did not enjoy much at all, and couldn’t wait to be over.

The book begins with our narrator reminding everyone of the mysterious sea object that began appearing in the oceans of the world, a long object bigger and faster than any whale, spindle-shaped, and of great mystery to all who sighted her. This thing caused especial consternation when it began ramming ships with its large horn, so an expedition was mounted to find and kill the creature. Our narrator is an esteemed naturalist with a focus on the sea, so it is natural that he should join the expedition. He is joined by his faithful servant Conseil, and by a Canadian harpooner Ned Land, where they spend some months roaming the seas looking for the great narwhal, and debating its likely features, characteristics, and capabilities.

Ultimately, the search doesn’t last long, as our hero and his two companions find themselves left behind in the chase, floating in the sea with no hope of rescue, which the most curious thing happens: they happen to find themselves happening upon a long cylindrical object floating in the sea, onto which they climb and spend the night. The object is metal, and obviously man made, and is none other than the narwhal they’ve been searching, but is of course no narwhal at all. Eventually the hatch opens, and they are allowed to descend into the craft.

This begins their adventures with Captain Nemo, a self-exiled super-genius with a grudge, who built the worlds most advanced submarine in order to break with humanity entirely and rule the world’s underwater domain instead. When he brings in his guests he informs them that because he is maintaining secrecy from the world (for some reason) that they are welcome to stay on the ship in comfort with him as long as they live, but that they will never be allowed to leave. This causes some consternation among our captives, but at the same time they find themselves enjoying Nemo’s hospitality in various ways, and certainly they a variety of adventures unique to Nemo and the sea.

Our narrator Dr. Arronax is the most torn of the captives because, being a naturalist focused on the sea, he is able to study his subject with greater intimacy than he might any other way. The ship has a big picture window, and you can sit and watch the creatures swim by all day long, and of course Nemo steers them to various amazing sights as well. But because he is a naturalist, and also a very tedious writer, he spends long passages itemizing the various creatures he sees, putting them in the appropriate Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, and if just reading that list made you feel a twinge of boredom, then you have the barest glimpse of what the book has in store for you. These classifications might be interesting in a marine biology textbook, but as passages of an adventure novel they act as a powerful soporific.

Indeed, my main complaint with the book is that it is boring. There are all sorts of adventures, interesting characters, and intrigue, but Arronax—and thereby Verne himself—lays it out with a really impressive surfeit of drama. The book was published about 11 years after Origin of Species, which was the heyday one gathers of the Naturalist Adventurer, when the search for scientific knowledge was seen as a bold and dangerous career choice, traveling the world searching for new species, exploring jungles for exotic flora, and carting specimins back to the royal society. Perhaps for this reason, I speculate that Verne put too much emphasis on the this aspect of the book, the result being that it felt at times like Naturalist porn. Now, I like science as much as the next guy, but please get the hell on with the story, already.

I found myself wishing that the book were told from one of the other character’s point of view. Arronax has with him a faithful servant Conseil, who essentially behaves as an extremely erudite and committed butler, but who seems to be some sort of slave. He is also an accomplished naturalist (having followed behind Arronax across the world and presumably carted his specimens), and would have likely been prone to the same flights of classification as Arronax, but being a dutiful servant I suspect he would have served his readers with a bit more interest than his master did. Ned Land would have made a better narrator as well, I suspect. He was a simple man, a harpooner who lived for the hunt, and what he may have lacked in deft prose styling he would have made up for by getting to the point, and spinning things into a more directed story.

The central mystery of the book is never really resolved, which is what is Nemo’s deal? Why is this crazed genius doing this, and what is his agenda? He like a naturalist super-hero, who also happens to be the world’s foremost engineer, and he’s esconced himself under the sea with a crew of devoted men who’ve all given their lives to this adventure, but we never really learn what the adventure is about. Nemo seems to have deep hatred for society, but we don’t know why. We discover he once had a family, and presumably this is behind his actions, but we don’t get the skinny.  And that’s too bad, because it has the potential to be an interesting book if we’d gotten less marine biology and more tortured genius.

There are some nice scenes strewn through the book, as when they visit famous shipwrecks or the remains of naval battles, or when they put on suits and hike across the ocean floor, first on a hunt for underwater creatures, and then to an underwater burial ground Nemo has created for his fallen crew members. I got the feeling that Verne felt that these would be so thrilling as to keep the reader turning the pages, but they landed with me as a collection of excursions that were each sort of interesting, but that did not add up to anything, or serve to push the story or the reader forward.

It was pretty early on in the book that I was reminded of Moby Dick, which had been published 20 years before, and that may have contributed to my dissatisfaction. There is the search for the sea creature that begins the novel, the mad captain with a singular drive, the harpooner sidekick, and even some of the naturalist bent is comparable. Like Verne, Melville also has an appetite for instructing the reader on matters of science, and a tendency to tell you more about whales than you ever thought you would need to know. But unlike Verne he sets these into a broader story that propels you forward. And where Verne never really reveals the source or motives of Nemo’s actions, Melville makes the motives clear early on and allows us to spend the novel grasping the awful repercussions of his vengeance. Even his characters are better—where Melville give us a tattooed, savage for a harpooner, Verne give us a Canadian.

So if you’re looking for a maritime adventure centered around a monomaniac, read Moby Dick. If you’re looking for an exercise in thrilling naturalism, read Origin of Species. But if there is another reason the would argue for reading 20,000 leagues under the Sea, I’m afraid I do not know what it is.


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