20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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Jules Verne | Biography


Early Life

Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France, on February 8, 1828. At the time, Nantes was a prosperous port city just inland from the Breton coast. The city was a center for international commerce and was deeply enmeshed in the business of shipping slaves to the West Indies. Tall, ocean-traversing ships and sailors were a constant presence in the city, which in many ways revolved around maritime life. The Vernes lived on Feydeau Island, so named for its location in the middle of the Loire River, which runs through the city.

Verne's father, Pierre, was a highly successful lawyer, and his mother, Sophie, was a deeply religious woman who, like her husband, descended from a long line of aristocratic and distinguished Frenchmen. Though raised just outside Paris, Pierre Verne moved to Nantes in his 20s, eventually building up one of the most successful law practices in the city.


Verne was the first of five children. As the child of a bourgeois family, he received a classical education that emphasized Greek and Latin. According to Verne biographer William Butcher, one of Verne's primary schoolteachers was the widow of a sea captain, which may have contributed to his interest in the mysteries of the ocean. In 1847 at the urging of his father, Verne moved to Paris to study law. He arrived to a city in deep political crisis; in February 1848 King Louis-Philippe was overthrown by a mass revolt and the French Second Republic was proclaimed. Although he graduated law school in 1849, Verne spent much of his time immersed in the city's literary scene, and he befriended playwrights and writers like Alexandre Dumas. In 1850 he staged a one-act comedy titled Broken Straws, and he published several short stories the following year. The same year he met Jacques Arago, the French scientist and explorer, an event some commentators consider crucial in Verne's development.

Forays Into Writing

In 1852 he decided to leave the practice of law to become a secretary at the Théâtre-Lyrique opera company in Paris, devoting himself to writing plays and other works in his spare time. He was fascinated with science and published a number of essays. In 1856 he met Honorine de Viane, a widowed mother of two, and the couple wed the following year. Their only child, Michel, was born in 1861. Jules took on work as a stockbroker to support his family but continued to write on the side.

In 1862 Verne met the enterprising publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an encounter that would change the course of Verne's life. The following year Hetzel published Verne's adventure novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, which quickly became a popular success and solidified the almost 40-year partnership between the men. The book was the first entry of Verne's Extraordinary Journeys series, which eventually spanned 65 works. Journey to the Center of the Earth, another one of his most popular works, was also published in 1863 (and expanded in 1867).

Verne's Influence on Science Fiction

Though today Verne is often referred to as "the father of science fiction," his influences were wide, including "literature, science, geography, and history," according to Butcher. Uniquely, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea quotes liberally from real-life naturalists and scientists who worked at the Museum of National History in Paris.

Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1872, is an adventure tale that takes readers through England's New Imperialism, which resulted in the colonization of exotic Egypt, India, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Verne even offers a glimpse of the thrilling, yet terrifying, American Wild West. Verne mesmerizes readers with his larger-than-life characters who blend realism and romanticism.

Beginning in the late 1880s, Verne's novels began to showcase disillusionment with scientific progress. Some biographers have attributed this pessimism to his tumultuous personal life. His unruly son, Michel, required his intervention on multiple occasions, and in 1886 Verne was shot (and permanently maimed) by one of his nephews after an argument.

A Lasting Legacy

Verne died of diabetes in Amiens, France, on March 24, 1905, after which his son Michel revised (sometimes heavily) and published nearly a dozen of his father's unfinished manuscripts. Verne's books continue to influence other science fiction writers, as well as adventurers, explorers, and dreamers who imagine what the world could be. The success of Jules Verne's classic novels, which have been translated into more than 140 languages, proves his literary influence and continued popularity with readers.

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