Books | Cheat's Guide – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

So many books to read before you die, so little time and actual motivation. Fear not, LSi brings you a short cut to expanding your literary knowledge. This week: Jules Vernes’ underwater odyssey.


Pierre Aronnax A marine biologist, torn between desire for freedom and scientific curiosity spends most of the novel either swimming in water or swimming in Stockholm syndrome.

Conseil Aronnax’s Dutch manservant. Basically considers himself an extension of his master. Really likes talking about fish.

Ned Land Manly man and whaling fan. Wants to get home the most (get it – because his name is ‘Land’?). Is Canadian and Verne clearly thinks this is important as he mentions it any time Ned does anything e.g. ‘Ned Land, the Canadian, stood up Cana- dianly. “I want to go back to Canada”, he said’.

Captain Nemo Mysterious and egocentric. Goes slightly power mad over the course of the book. Does not play well with others.

Plot Summary

After reports of a giant narwhal sinking ships across the world, marine biologist Pierre Aronnax, his servant Conseil and a hunter called Ned Land join an expedition to stop the beast. However, after their own ship is sunk, they discover the true source of the attacks; a high tech submarine owned by the mysterious Captain Nemo. Taken aboard and forbidden to leave, the three undergo a journey in which they wit- ness the wonders of marine life, travel to the South Pole and fight off a giant squid. However, Aronnax soon finds himself torn between his scientific curiosity and his desire for freedom, as well as fascinated by the enigma that is Captain Nemo.

Key Points

First and foremost, ‘20,000 leagues’ does not refer to the depth the Nautilus descends to, but the distance travelled. Feel free to correct others on this and make yourself feel smug. Unsurprisingly for a book set mostly underwater, a large amount of 20,000 Leagues is dedicated to descriptions of fish, usually in excruciating detail. If you want to fake having read this book convincingly, you should probably take a trip to your local aquarium. Your new found knowledge of the mating habits of cod is guaranteed to impress your friends.

The hyper advanced Nautilus has basically raised Captain Nemo to the level of a god and his power and self-imposed isolation ultimately cause him to go mad. Use this to talk about the dangers of absolute power or uncontrolled scientific development.If you want to take a more environmental angle, there’s a conservationist argument in there as well: according to the captain we should “leave the unfortunate cetacea [whales, in fancy Vernes speak] alone” but then again, Nemo does go on to slaughter a pod of whales, so don’t go holding him up as a paragon of environmental virtue.

Adam Button

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