'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' - a Novel by Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a novel by Jules Verne published in 18?? under the title . Jules Gabriel Verne (1825-1905) was French, and was born in Nantes. His other best-known books are Voyage to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and Around the World in 80 Days (1873), as translated from the French.

Like Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is essentially a travelogue - 20,000 leagues is the distance the protagonists travel around the world, not (as some may think) the maximum depth that they reach (which is a mere four leagues or 16,000 yards). To avoid the inevitable monotony some sub-stories are introduced.

Firstly, the main characters in the novel are as follows:

  • Pierre Aronnax - an assistant professor based at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. A well-travelled man, he is 40 years of age. When the tale begins, he has just published an article about a mysterious object in the ocean that has been causing shipwrecks. Thus he is invited on board the US frigate Abraham Lincoln to pursue the object.

  • Conseil - Monsieur Aronnax's manservant. His surname means 'Counsel' or 'Advisor', but he does not provide advice - he merely follows Aronnax as he is a 'true, devoted Flemish boy'. He is 30 years of age.

  • Ned Land - a French Canadian man known as 'the prince of harpooners', he is about 40 years of age and more than 6ft (2m) tall. The main theory is that the mysterious object is a massive narwhal, so Ned Land's role on the Abraham Lincoln is to kill the beast. He and Monsieur Aronnax become friends aboard the ship.

  • Captain Nemo - the captain of the Nautilus, a large electric-powered submarine. An enigmatic man of uncertain age, he is tall and handsome, with wide-set eyes and 'fine taper hands indicative of a highly nervous temperament'.

The main story begins in November 1867 near Japan after Monsieur Aronnax has been washed overboard along with Ned Land - Conseil jumps in after his master, and they find refuge on a steel island, which turns out to be the Nautilus. They are taken inside, and held prisoner, although they are given food and clothes1. Captain Nemo is familiar with Monsieur Aronnax's work, so he gives them the ultimatum that he will allow them to live, and move around inside the submarine, as long as they never leave him. Aronnax accepts on behalf of himself and his companions without consulting them, much to Ned Land's dismay. Ned Land and Conseil share a cabin, but Aronnax is given the cabin that adjoins Nemo's.

When the Nautilus reaches the Island of Crespo, the four go on a diving expedition, wearing suits similar to SCUBA gear. Aronnax notes that he doesn't feel hungry while he is out of the submarine, but he does feel sleepy - they all have a nap under the water for a few hours. Mild excitement ensues when they are at risk of running out of air - they ascend quite quickly, but not fast enough to cause 'internal lesions', so all is well.

By January 1868, they have travelled 5,250 leagues (11,340 miles) under the sea. When the Nautilus gets stuck in the Torres Straits, Nemo has to wait a few days for the high tide to lift the submarine off the rocks. In the meantime he allows Aronnax and his companions to go ashore in Papua New Guinea. They find breadfruit, but they also spend time shooting at the rarest Birds of Paradise and killing kangaroos and rabbits. Ned Land contemplates desertion, but then the island's natives appear and make 'hostile demonstrations' so the group return to the Nautilus.

In the Red Sea, the Suez Canal is in the process of being constructed, but the lack of a man made route is no barrier to the Nautilus - Captain Nemo simply uses the 'Arabian Tunnel' he discovered, which leads into the Mediterranean Sea. There he visits his secret stash of gold and the boiling water around the underwater volcanoes around the island of Santorini, and even takes a trip to Atlantis.

Southern whales are encountered, and Ned Land is keen to harpoon them, but Captain Nemo does not allow it as it would be 'killing for killing's sake'. However, Nemo has no such scruples towards 'mischievous' cachalots (sperm whales) - he kills so many in one session, using the Nautilus as a weapon, that even Ned Land is horrified.

On 21 March, 1868, Captain Nemo reaches the South Pole and claims it for his own, planting his flag there. However, the Nautilus becomes stuck in the ice and the submarine's air supply almost runs out. They escape thanks to boiling water, and then resume their travels until they encounter 'poulps' or massive cuttlefish. Nemo decides to 'slaughter this vermin'. Some time later, off the south west coast of England, he encunters a ship of unspecified nationality and destroys it in revenge: 'Through him I have lost all that I loved, cherished and veneratied - country, wife, children, father and mother.'

The story of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus ends off the coast of Norway after a journey of 20,000 leagues in 9 months.

Plausible Implausibilities

How do we consider the book as a whole? There are a number of techniques used to create an impression that the tale is true:

  • Mention of real people and work - Aronnax is 'a good swimmer (though without pretending to rival Byron or Edgar Poe, who were masters of the art)', Nemo's art collection features works by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Holbein, Rubens... Nemo has a 'large model piano organ'2 and music by Mozart, Rossini, Beethoven, Haydn, Gounod, Wagner...

  • Detailed descriptions of the terrible, vicious whaling weapons.

  • Detailed descriptions of marine life, with their Latin names - 'beautiful phyctallines, belonging to the actinidian family', - like quotes from an encyclopaedia.

  • There is no possible reason given why Passepartout would not apprise his employer of the attentions of Mr Fix.

  • Could the wager have been deemed invalid because Fogg appeared before the time stated on the signed document but he actually took 81 days to circumnavigate the globe and reach the Reform Club? If it were invalid could Phileas instead sue the police for wrongful arrest and claim back the £19,000 expenses? Perhaps those of you with legal knowledge could postulate.

This all helps the reader to 'suspend disbelief' when the more imaginative concepts are introduced. For example, Nemo's use of electricity is far in advance of the technology that was available at the time, but Verne's descriptions of things like guns that fire pellets 'in which the electricity is forced to a very high tension' seem less implausible than they otherwise might.

In summary Around the World in Eighty Days is a readable3 book with mild excitement and an irritating contrived suspense at the conclusion. Surprisingly this Researcher found the book was not readily available in many public libraries except in large print. Not for young eyes then?!

This Entry could conveniently end here, except that a movie of the same name was made in 19564 produced by Mike Todd and directed by Michael Anderson of Dambusters (1955) fame.

Movie

The film starred David Niven as Phileas Fogg. Niven was 46 and little acting was required as he certainly looked the part.

Passepartout was played by Cantinflas, aged 45. A musician and comedian, Cantinflas unquestionably played the major acting role in the film, particularly as Passepartout was only 30 years old.

Robert Newton, aged 50, played Mr Fix5 with his well-known 'manic' eye expressions for which he was famous following roles such as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950).

Princess Aouda was played by Shirley MacLaine, aged 22. It was not a very exacting role and the audience at the time were unaware that she would become such a famous film star.

The movie is 175 minutes long, although when sitting in your cinema seat it seems twice as long as that. It follows the book quite closely6 so is essentially a travelogue film. To alleviate audience boredom, several 'showcase' scenes are introduced. The first is a balloon flight from London that ends up in Spain, where Cantinflas entertains us by becoming involved in Spanish Dancing and participating in a bullfight. This Researcher felt sorry for the bull.

Other such interludes include Native American dance routines (as well as the Sioux attack that was in the book) and entertainment in a Western Saloon. There is the added excitement of trying to identify the numerous famous film stars who appear in cameo roles throughout the movie. The most notable is probably the pianist in the Western Saloon - the pianist eventually turns round and we see it is Frank Sinatra, who gives the camera a huge, beaming smile.

Nevertheless, the movie collected five Academy Awards, namely: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Music. It was also nominated for Best Art Director, Best Costume Design and Best Director, but was unsuccessful in these categories. It did not trouble the shortlist for any of the acting-related Oscars.

1Conseil and Aronnax had cut each other's clothes off in the water to help them to swim more easily.2Although he only plays the black keys.3One reading was sufficient for this Researcher, whereas books like The Count of Monte Cristo reward repeat readings.4Later adaptations include the three-episode television series from 1989 featuring Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle and Peter Ustinov, and a loosely-related 2004 film starring Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan.5Credited as Inspector Fix.6Although in the film Phileas Fogg does not punch Mr Fix on his release from custody in Liverpool.

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