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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I finished reading an unabridged version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1870). Though I am glad to have read it, there were components that dated the text – to the point that the author’s intended meaning may have been lost on me, and influenced how I view the story’s takeaways.

The biggest one is ethnicity, particularly how people of non-European origins are described. This isn’t as noticeable in the beginning of the story, when narrator and French marine biologist Professor Pierre Arronax is preparing to board a United States Navy frigate in an attempt to hunt a mysterious “sea creature.” (This sea creature is, in fact, the Nautilus, a secretly built submarine skippered by the mysterious and stoic Captain Nemo.) But after Arronax, his servant Conseil, and Canadian whaler Ned Land are thrown from the frigate and taken aboard the Nautilus, they go on a series of adventures that make up the gist of the book. On some of these adventures, Verne describes the people encountered in terms that would not be acceptable today. For example, there is an incident where Arronax, Conseil, and Land are given the opportunity to go on dry land. They arrive on a beach in New Guinea and immediately begin collecting fruit and hunting. They contemplate staying in order to escape Captain Nemo. This plan is thwarted, though, when some natives spot them and begin chasing them. Out of breath and back on the Nautilus, Arronax refers to these natives as “savages.” Captain Nemo, who has all-but cut ties with humanity (his own nationality is never revealed), asks an exasperated Arronax, “Where are there not any [savages]? Besides, are they worse than others, these whom you call savages?” Reading this in 2017, Captain Nemo looks like the more reasonable one, and Arronax and company to be the questionable lot. However, the 1870 audience may have taken away something different – to the extent that it alters how it and I use the information to form our opinions of the characters. (The tone had already been set that Captain Nemo is a mad genius with a serious case of melancholy, whereas Arronax is presented as the relatable one.) Also, there are dark incidents in the book that I don’t think resonated with me in the way they were intended. This may be because airplanes, not ocean liners, are my more common mode of transportation. Passengers aboard the Nautilus see shipwrecks and dead bodies – more than once – and it is vividly described. These passages, taken together, suggest readers back then viewed these waterways more as I view highways today. This adds an important element to just what it means to have hidden things in these common waterways seen and described. Other parts of the book did not feel outdated. Submarines were relatively primitive, but the Nautilus is anything but primitive. Verne’s description of the electricity powering the Nautilus and the submarine’s capabilities don’t seem far-fetched to the modern reader. The book would appeal to those interested in marine biology – to the point that it’s jargon-heavy. And, of course, there are nail-biting adventures the Nautilus barely escapes, which explains why these elements of the story and its characters have been reinterpreted and rebooted numerous times since the book’s creation – and will undoubtedly continue to be in the years ahead.


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