Twenty Thousand Leagues with Jules Verne

A short review of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for any fellow bibliophiles!


The first book on my reading list for this summer (at least the first one I got around to reading – I don’t have a specific order) was Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005, with introduction and notes by Victoria Blake).  My first real experience of Verne’s writing, the book fascinated me from beginning to end – I now see why it’s considered a classic!  Despite the fact that it was written in the latter half of the 19th century, it is as gripping an adventure story as I ever read, and manages to weave in a textbook-load of scientific knowledge that only makes it more fascinating.

They say that Jules Verne is the father of science fiction – but considering everything that is now labelled as science fiction, that title gives somewhat the wrong impression for many of his books.  Although I have read and greatly enjoyed sci-fi such as Ender’s Game, I really don’t think it belongs in the same genre as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  This book, as well as Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island, hasn’t the aspect of future that characterizes most of today’s science fiction.  While the Nautilus certainly uses futuristic technology, the story takes place in 1866, about the time that Verne wrote it.  (Other books of Verne’s do take place in the future, one of which I intend to read soon, entitled Paris in the Twentieth Century)

What struck me as I began this novel was its remarkable writing style.  I have to admit that, while I knew the story somewhat and expected it to be fascinating, I was prepared for a significantly less interesting style.  Knowing that Verne was a nineteenth century author, and especially after reading the introduction, which describes Verne’s “sometimes endless categorizing of scientific knowledge,” I wasn’t sure Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was going to be the adventure I was looking for.  It turned out to far exceed my expectations, however!  A gripping style that made it nearly impossible for me to put the book down in mid-chapter.

The three characters held captive on the Nautilus, Professor Aronnax, his manservant Conseil, and his friend Ned Land, are almost (but not quite) stereotypical.  Aronnax, the academic, so fascinated by his new perspective on the wonders of the ocean that he can hardly bear to leave it – the man who becomes almost a friend to Nemo, and attempts to delve into his shadowy character.  Ned, the harpooner, whose only wish is to get off Nemo’s iron ship, and becomes increasingly angered by their captivity.  Conseil, the devoted manservant who shares both his master’s fascination with the ocean and Ned’s desire for freedom, combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of science.  These are the three “main” characters, so to speak.  The story is told in the first person by professor Aronnax, and his companions take part in all of his adventures.

Ask anyone who the really central character is, however, and you will most likely be told that it is Captain Nemo.  Though Aronnax tells the story, the it truly revolves around this enigmatic ruler of the oceans.  He seems one moment to be the epitome of decency, and the next to be a complete barbarian.  He is both merciful and vengeful, generous and miserly, kind and cruel.  Hence the adjective “enigmatic.”  Nemo’s personality is never explained in full, but leaves plenty of room for interpretation.  Though Aronnax learns much about him, he never discovers precisely why he is so strange and secretive.  This is the great mystery that drives the plot, and which, I am told, is explained in the sequel, The Mysterious Island (which I intend to read soon).  Nemo’s name, incidentally, means “no one.”

Slight spoilers ahead!  If you haven’t read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, you might want to skip the next paragraph.

These are two of my personal favorite sections from this book:  The chapter entitled “The Coral Kingdom,” in which a member of Nemo’s crew dies.  This chapter was very moving, and I feel that it gives a great deal of insight into Nemo’s character.
The chapter “A Vanished Continent,” in which the Nautilus visits the lost land of Atlantis.
This scene contains some truly beautiful imagery, a testament to Jules Verne’s imaginative ability.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is definitely a jewel among novels in my opinion.  Once finished with it, I immediately added Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island to my summer list.  Sorry if this only seems like a stream of praise, but I really tried to give some objective information – I find that rather difficult when I’m so enthusiastic about a book.  I hope you found this book review enjoyable or helpful in some way!


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2013.

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