Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater (French: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin) is a classic science fiction adventure novel by French writer Jules Verne; it was first published in 1870.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Frontispiece of 1871 edition
AuthorJules Verne
Original titleVingt mille lieues sous les mers
IllustratorAlphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou
SeriesVoyages Extraordinaires
PublisherPierre-Jules Hetzel
Publication date
Published in English
Preceded byCaptain Grant's Children 
Followed byCircling the Moon 

The novel was originally serialized from March 1869 through June 1870 in Pierre-Jules Hetzel's periodical, the Magasin d'éducation et de récréation. A deluxe octavo edition, published by Hetzel in November 1871, included 111 illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou.[1] The book was widely acclaimed on its release and remains so; it's regarded as one of the premiere adventure novels and one of Verne's greatest works, along with Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The presentation of Captain Nemo's ship, the Nautilus, was considered ahead of its time, as it accurately describes many features of modern submarines, which in the 1860s were comparatively primitive vessels.

A model of the French submarine Plongeur (launched in 1863) was displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where Jules Verne studied it, [2] and it became an inspiration[3][4] for his novel.[5]


The title refers to the distance traveled under the various seas and not to any depth attained, as 20,000 leagues (80,000 km) is nearly twice the circumference of the Earth;[6] the greatest depth mentioned in the book is four leagues. This distinction becomes clear when the book's French title is correctly translated: rendered literally, it should read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas” (not “Sea”). The book uses metric leagues, which are four kilometers each.[7]


During the year 1866, ships of various nationalities sight a mysterious sea monster, which, it's later suggested, could be a giant narwhal. The U.S. government assembles an expedition in New York City to find and destroy the monster. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist and narrator of the story, happens to be in town at the time and receives a last-minute invitation to join the expedition, which he accepts. Canadian whaler and master harpooner Ned Land and Aronnax's faithful manservant Conseil are also among the participants.

The expedition leaves Manhattan's 34th St. Pier aboard the United States Navy frigate Abraham Lincoln and travels south around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. After a long search, the ship finds and attacks the monster, which damages the ship's rudder. The three protagonists are hurled into the sea and ultimately climb onto the monster itself, which they are surprised to find is an amazingly advanced submarine. They are forced to wait on the back of the futuristic vessel until morning, when they are captured, hauled inside, and introduced to the vessel's mysterious manufacturer and commander, Captain Nemo.

The rest of the novel follows the protagonists' adventures aboard the submarine Nautilus, which was built in secrecy and now roams the seas beyond the reach of any land-based government. In self-imposed exile, Captain Nemo seems to have a dual motivation: a quest for scientific knowledge and a desire to take revenge on terrestrial civilization. Nemo explains that his submarine is electrically powered and can carry out advanced marine research; he also tells his new passengers that his secret existence requires never letting them leave. Professor Aronnax and Conseil are enthralled by the prospect of undersea adventures, but Ned Land increasingly hungers to escape.

They visit many ocean regions, some factual and others fictitious. The travelers view coral formations, sunken vessels from the battle of Vigo Bay, the Antarctic ice barrier, the Transatlantic telegraph cable, and the legendary underwater realm of Atlantis. The passengers also don diving suits, hunt sharks and other marine fauna with air-guns, and also attend an undersea funeral for a crew member who died during a mysterious collision experienced by the Nautilus. When the submarine returns to the Atlantic Ocean, a school of "poulpes" attacks the vessel and kills a crewman. (In French "poulpe" is a generic term for a cephalopod, such as a cuttlefish, octopus, etc. — the noun "devilfish" is a close English equivalent. Verne's text specifies that the monster in this case is "un calmar de dimensions colossales", "a squid of colossal dimensions", that is, a giant squid.)

Late in the novel it's suggested that Captain Nemo went into undersea exile after his homeland was conquered and his family slaughtered by a powerful imperialist nation. Following the episode of the devilfish, Nemo largely avoids Aronnax, who begins to side with Ned Land. In the book's final pages, the Nautilus is attacked by a warship from the mysterious nation that has caused Nemo such suffering. Carrying out his quest for revenge, Nemo — dubbed an "archangel of hatred" by Aronnax — rams the ship below her waterline, and sends her to the bottom, much to Aronnax's horror. Afterward Nemo kneels before a picture of his deceased wife and children, then sinks into a deep depression.

Circumstances aboard the submarine change drastically: watches are no longer kept, and the vessel careens about aimlessly. Ned Land becomes so reclusive that Conseil fears for the harpooner's life. But one morning Ned announces that they're in sight of shore and have a chance to escape. Professor Aronnax is more than ready to leave Captain Nemo, whom he now holds in horror. Yet he's still drawn to the man, and, fearing that Nemo's very presence could weaken his resolve, he avoids contact with the captain. Before their departure, however, the professor eavesdrops on Nemo and overhears him crying out in anguish, "O almighty God! Enough! Enough!" Aronnax immediately joins his companions, and they carry out their escape plans. But as they board the ship's skiff, they realize that the Nautilus has seemingly blundered into the ocean's deadliest whirlpool, the Moskenstraumen, more commonly known as the "Maelstrom". Nonetheless they manage to escape and find refuge on an island off the coast of Norway. But the submarine's ultimate fate remains unknown.

Themes and subtext

Captain Nemo's assumed name recalls 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" (ουτις), which translates as "No man" or "No one". In the Latin translation of the Odyssey, this pseudonym is rendered as "Nemo", which also translates as "No man" or "No one". Like Captain Nemo, Odysseus wanders the seas in exile (though only for 10 years) and likewise grieves the tragic deaths of his crewmen.

Verne's text repeatedly mentions U.S. Naval Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, an actual oceanographer who investigated the winds, seas, and currents, collected samples from the depths, and charted the world's oceans. Maury was internationally famous, and Verne may have known of his French ancestry.

The novel alludes to other Frenchmen, such as Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a celebrated explorer whose two sloops of war vanished during a voyage of global circumnavigation; Dumont d'Urville, a later explorer who found remnants of one of Lapérouse's ships; and Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal and a nephew of the sole survivor of Lapérouse's ill-fated expedition. The Nautilus follows in the footsteps of these men: she visits the waters where Lapérouse's vessels disappeared; she enters Torres Strait and becomes stranded there, as did d'Urville's ship, the Astrolabe; and she passes beneath the Suez Canal via a fictitious underwater tunnel joining the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

In one of the novel's most famous episodes, the above-cited battle with a school of giant squid, one of the monsters captures a crew member. Reflecting on the battle in the next chapter, Aronnax writes: "To convey such sights, it would take the pen of our most renowned poet, Victor Hugo, author of The Toilers of the Sea." A bestselling novel in Verne's day, The Toilers of the Sea also features a threatening cephalopod: a worker battles with an octopus, believed by critics to be symbolic of the Industrial Revolution. Certainly Verne was influenced by Hugo's novel, and, in penning this variation on its octopus encounter, he may have intended the symbol to also take in the Revolutions of 1848.

Other symbols and themes pique modern critics. Margaret Drabble, for instance, argues that Verne's masterwork also anticipated the ecology movement and influenced French avant-garde imagery.[8]

As for additional motifs in the novel, Captain Nemo repeatedly champions the world's persecuted and downtrodden. While in Mediterranean waters, the captain supplies financial support to rebels resisting Ottoman rule during the Cretan Revolt of 1866–1869, proving to Professor Aronnax that he hadn't severed all relations with terrestrial mankind. In another episode, Nemo rescues an East Indian pearl diver from a shark attack, then gives the fellow a pouch full of pearls, more than the man could have gathered after years of his hazardous work. Nemo remarks later that the diver, as a native of British Colonial India, "lives in the land of the oppressed".

Indeed, the novel has an under-the-counter political vision, hinted at in the character and background of Captain Nemo himself. In the novel's initial drafts, the mysterious captain was a Polish nobleman, whose family and homeland were slaughtered by Russian forces during the Polish January Uprising of 1863. However, these specifics were suppressed during the editing stages at the behest of Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, believed responsible by today's scholars for many modifications of Verne's original manuscripts. At the time France was a putative ally of the Russian Empire, hence Hetzel insisted on Verne's suppressing the identity of Nemo's enemy, not only to avoid political complications but also to avert lower sales should the novel appear in Russian translation. Hetzel was a thoroughly commercial publisher ... hence Professor Aronnax never discovers Nemo's origins.

(Even so, there's still a trace of the novel's original concept, a detail that may have eluded Hetzel: its allusion to an unsuccessful rebellion engineered by an earlier Polish hero — Tadeusz Kościuszko, leader of the uprising against Russia in 1794, a Polish national hero who mourned his country's prior defeat with the Latin exclamation "Finis Poloniae!" ("Poland is no more!")

Five years later, and at Hetzel's urging, Captain Nemo was revived and revamped for another Verne novel The Mysterious Island. It revises the captain's nationality from Polish to East Indian, changing him into a fictional descendant of Tipu Sultan, Muslim ruler of Mysore who resisted the expansionism of the British East India Company. Nemo's unnamed enemy is thus converted into France's old antagonist, the British Empire. Born as an Indian aristocrat, one Prince Dakkar, Nemo participated in a major 19th century uprising, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, ultimately quashed by the United Kingdom. After his family members were slain by the British, Nemo fled underseas, then made a final reappearance in the later novel's concluding pages.

Verne took the name "Nautilus" from one of the earliest successful submarines, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton, who also invented the first commercially successful steamboat. Fulton named his submarine after a marine mollusk, the chambered nautilus. Three years before completing his book, Jules Verne also studied a model of the newly developed French Navy submarine Plongeur at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, which inspired him in his development of the novel's Nautilus.[9]

The breathing apparatus used by divers on the Nautilus is presented as a combination of two existing systems: 1) the surface supplied[10] hardhat suit, which was fed oxygen from the shore through tubes; 2) a later, self-contained apparatus designed by Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze in 1865. Their gear featured tanks fastened to the back, which supplied air to a facial mask via the first-known demand regulator.[10][11][12] The diver didn't swim but still walked on the seafloor. This device was called an aérophore (Greek for "air-carrier"). Its air tanks could hold only 30 atmospheres, however Nemo claims that his futuristic adaptation could do far better: "the Nautilus's pumps allow me to store air under considerable pressure ... my diving equipment can supply breathable air for nine or ten hours."

Recurring themes in later books

As noted above, Hetzel and Verne generated a sequel of sorts to this novel: L'Île mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island, 1874), which attempts to round off narratives begun in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas and "Captain Grant's Children," aka In Search of the Castaways. While The Mysterious Island attempts to provide additional background on Nemo (or Prince Dakkar), it's muddled by irreconcilable chronological contradictions between the two books and even within The Mysterious Island itself.

Verne returned to the theme of an outlaw submarine captain in his much later Facing the Flag (1896). This novel's chief villain, Ker Karraje, is a simply an unscrupulous pirate acting purely for personal gain, completely devoid of the saving graces that gave Captain Nemo some nobility of character. Like Nemo, Ker Karraje plays "host" to unwilling French guests — but unlike Nemo, who manages to elude all pursuers — Karraje's criminal career is decisively thwarted by the combination of an international task force and the resistance of his French captives. Though also widely published and translated, Facing the Flag never achieved the lasting popularity of Twenty Thousand Leagues.

Closer in approach to the original Nemo — though offering less detail and complexity of characterization — is the rebel aeronaut Robur in Robur the Conqueror and its sequel Master of the World. Instead of the sea, Robur's medium is the sky: in these two novels he develops a pioneering helicopter and later a seaplane on wheels.

English translations

The novel was first translated into English in 1873 by Reverend Lewis Page Mercier. Mercier cut nearly a quarter of Verne's original text and made hundreds of translation errors, sometimes dramatically changing the meaning of Verne's original intent (including uniformly mistranslating French scaphandre — properly "diving apparatus" — as "cork-jacket", following a long-obsolete meaning as "a type of lifejacket"). Some of these mistranslations have been done for political reasons, such as Nemo's identity and the nationality of the two warships he sinks, or the portraits of freedom fighters on the wall of his cabin which originally included Daniel O'Connell.[13] Nonetheless, it became the standard English translation for more than a hundred years, while other translations continued to draw from it and its mistakes (especially the mistranslation of the title; the French title actually means Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas).

In the Argyle Press/Hurst and Company 1892 Arlington Edition, the translation and editing mistakes attributed to Mercier are missing. Scaphandre is correctly translated as "diving apparatus" and not as "cork-jackets". Although the book cover gives the title as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the title page titles the book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas; Or, The Marvelous and Exciting Adventures of Pierre Arronax, Conseil His Servant, and Ned Land a Canadian Harpooner.

A modern translation was produced in 1966 by Walter James Miller and published by Washington Square Press.[14] Many of Mercier's changes were addressed in the translator's preface, and much of Verne's text was restored.

In the 1960s, Anthony Bonner published an essentially complete translation of the novel for Bantam Classics. A specially written introduction by Ray Bradbury, comparing Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick, was also included.

Most of Mercier's errors were again corrected in a fresh re-examination of the sources and a new translation by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter, published in 1993 by Naval Institute Press in a "completely restored and annotated edition".[15] Its text tapped into Walter's own 1991 unpublished translation, later made available online by Project Gutenberg. In 2010 Walter released a fully revised, newly researched translation with the title 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater — part of an omnibus of five of his Verne translations titled Amazing Journeys: Five Visionary Classics and published by State University of New York Press.

In 1998 William Butcher issued a new, annotated translation from the French original, published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-953927-8, with the title Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas. He includes detailed notes, an extensive bibliography, appendices and a wide-ranging introduction studying the novel from a literary perspective. In particular, his original research on the two manuscripts studies the radical changes to the plot and to the character of Nemo urged on Verne by the first publisher, Jules Hetzel.


Theodore L. Thomas in 1961 said that "there is not a single bit of valid speculation" in the novel and that "none of its predictions has come true". He described the depictions of the diving gear, scenes, and the Nautilus as "pretty bad, behind the times even for 1869 ... In none of these technical situation did Verne take advantage of knowledge readily available to him at the time". Thomas said, however, that despite poor science, plot, and characterization, "Put them all together with the magic of Verne's story-telling ability, and something flames up. A story emerges that sweeps incredulity before it".[11]

Adaptations and variations

The national origin of Captain Nemo was changed in most feature film realizations; in nearly all picture-based works following the book Nemo was made into a European. However, he was represented as an Indian by Omar Sharif in the 1973 European miniseries The Mysterious Island. Nemo is also depicted as Indian in the 1916 silent film version of the story and later in both the graphic novel and the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), a live-action Technicolor film adaptation of the novel, Captain Nemo is European, bitter because his wife and son were tortured to death by those in power in the fictional prison camp of Rorapandi, in an effort to get Nemo to reveal his scientific secrets. This is Nemo's motivation for sinking warships in the film. Also, Nemo's submarine is confined to a set circular section of the Pacific Ocean, unlike the original Nautilus. In this version, he is played by British actor James Mason, with an English accent, with no mention being made of Indians.

Finally, Nemo was depicted as Indian in a Soviet 3-episode TV film Captain Nemo (1975), which also includes some plot details from the "Mysterious Island", Jules Verne's sequel to the novel.

See also


  1. Dehs, Volker; Jean-Michel Margot; Zvi Har’El, "The Complete Jules Verne Bibliography: I. Voyages Extraordinaires", Jules Verne Collection, Zvi Har’El, retrieved 2012-09-06
  2. Payen, J. (1989). De l'anticipation à l'innovation. Jules Verne et le problème de la locomotion mécanique.
  3. Compère, D. (2006). Jules Verne: bilan d'un anniversaire. Romantisme, (1), 87-97.
  4. Seelhorst, Mary (2003) 'Jules Verne. (PM People)'. In Popular Mechanics. 180.7 (July 2003): p36. Hearst Communications.
  5. Notice at the Musée de la Marine, Rochefort
  6. "(20000 leagues) ÷ (diameter of earth) - Wolfram Alpha". Retrieved 2015-09-17.
  7. F. P. Walter's Project Gutenberg translation of Part 2, Chapter 7, reads: "Accordingly, our speed was 25 miles (that is, twelve four–kilometer leagues) per hour. Needless to say, Ned Land had to give up his escape plans, much to his distress. Swept along at the rate of twelve to thirteen meters per second, he could hardly make use of the skiff."
  8. Margaret Drabble (8 May 2014). "Submarine dreams: Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas". New Statesman. Retrieved 2014-05-09.
  9. Notice at the Musée de la Marine, Rochefort
  10. Davis, RH (1955). Deep Diving and Submarine Operations (6th ed.). Tolworth, Surbiton, Surrey: Siebe Gorman & Company Ltd. p. 693.
  11. Thomas, Theodore L. (December 1961). "The Watery Wonders of Captain Nemo". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 168–177.
  12. Acott, C. (1999). "A brief history of diving and decompression illness". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 29 (2). ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  13. "How Lewis Mercier and Eleanor King brought you Jules Verne". Retrieved 2013-11-15.
  14. Jules Verne (author), Walter James Miller (trans). Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Washington Square Press, 1966. Standard book number 671-46557-0; Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 65-25245.
  15. Jules Verne (author), Walter James Miller (trans), Frederick Paul Walter (trans). Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Completely Restored and Annotated Edition, Naval Institute Press, 1993. ISBN 1-55750-877-1
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