20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 1: A Shifting Reef

In 1866 reports have begun filtering back from some American and European sailors about a mysterious and unidentifiable sea creature they have encountered during their travels. It was "an 'enormous thing': a long, spindle-shaped object, which sometimes appeared phosphorescent and was infinitely larger and quicker than a whale." The reports capture the imaginations of people in America and Europe, and many speculate it is some sort of enormous, freakish cetacean; authorities on the natural world, however, remain skeptical.

Still, sightings of the creature lurking underwater become more frequent. On July 20, 1866, a steamship spots the creature just five miles off the coast of Australia. During the encounter the creature shoots two enormous columns of water 150 feet into the air. Three days later the creature is spotted by a different ship more than 700 nautical leagues away in the Pacific. Two weeks later it is spotted by two different ships heading in opposite directions through the Atlantic—a whopping 2,000 leagues away from its previous location. This time, crew members on the ships are able to estimate the sea creature's size: over 350 British feet long, nearly twice the length of the world's largest known whales. These fresh sightings add fuel to the gossip around Europe and America. All people talk about is the mysterious underwater beast. Prestigious scientists from around the world publish essays doubting the existence of a monster but to no avail.

No other incidents are reported the rest of that year, and the furor subsides. In March 1867, however, two dangerous and suspicious incidents take place on the high seas. First, a passenger ship traveling in the Atlantic at full speed strikes a rock that seems to appear out of nowhere, damaging the ship. Three weeks later the metal hull of a passenger steamer on the prestigious Cunard line, the Scotia, is pierced by something while making its way across the Atlantic, also seemingly out of nowhere. From then on, any ships lost in the ocean are blamed on the monster.

Part 1, Chapter 2: Pros and Cons

As this mystery is unfolding, the narrator, a French naturalist named Dr. Pierre Aronnax, is in the United States doing scientific research. He is something of an authority on ocean life, having published a two-volume work called The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps some years earlier. As a result, the American press pesters him for his opinion on the recent unsettling events. He acquiesces, publishing an article in a New York paper on April 30 speculating that the "creature" is a "sea-unicorn [or narwhal] of colossal dimensions" with an exceptionally strong spur.

Despite Dr. Aronnax's misgivings, the state of New York commissions a frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, to hunt the underwater scourge. Hours before the frigate is set to depart, Dr. Aronnax receives an invitation from the U.S. Secretary of the Navy to join the excursion.

Part 1, Chapter 3: As Monsieur Pleases

Unable to pass up the opportunity to be part of such an intriguing mission, Dr. Aronnax accepts the invitation. He asks his longtime personal assistant, Conseil, to accompany him, and the two rush to pack and get to the pier on time. They are greeted by the commander of the Abraham Lincoln, Captain Farragut, and then quickly set sail for the Atlantic. On their way out of New York harbor, they pass by hundreds of thousands of excited bystanders.


The first three chapters show many of the social and technological changes taking place in the rapidly industrializing West. By the late 1860s, the world has grown smaller and more connected. Frequent and predictable passenger-ship travel and regular postal service between America and Western Europe are taken for granted. Newspapers in ever-growing cities reach tens of thousands of people, who read about events taking place all over the world. Popular science and newspapers go hand in hand during this era. Books by European authors, such as Dr. Aronnax's The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps, are available—and popular—in the United States. The power of the media is strong enough to "[inflame] people's minds" about the mysterious deep-sea menace; indeed, public hysteria over the creature motivates government authorities to "do something" about it, thus launching Captain Farragut's monster-hunting expedition.

From a stylistic standpoint, the beginning of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea unfurls like a work of mystery and suspense. It begins with a few reports of strange occurrences. At first they don't seem to be a huge deal: some sailors catch fleeting glimpses of what appears to be a large whale in the middle of the ocean. Slowly, however, the incidents become increasingly dangerous and the threat increasingly dire. By the end of this section, the enigmatic creature has transformed from a novelty into a public menace that must be destroyed. This sense of hysteria gives the narrative its dramatic tension and thereby raises the stakes of Captain Farragut's expedition.

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