20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Part 1, Chapters 10–12 | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 10: The Man of the Sea

Ned Land releases the steward and comes face-to-face with the submarine captain. In perfect French the captain explains he left the men waiting because he was considering how to deal with them. He understands all of the languages they had used in their attempt to communicate with him, and because all their stories were the same in each tongue, he concluded they are telling the truth. He justifies holding them and treating them as enemies because their ship had attacked his submarine. He also believes he has the right to leave them where he found them—floating in the middle of the ocean. Dr. Aronnax objects, saying this is the "right of a savage ... but not that of a civilized being." The captain replies he is "not what you call a civilized being! I have broken with society for reasons which I alone have the right to appreciate." The captain then offers the men total freedom as long as they confine themselves to their cabins when instructed by the captain. This freedom, however, is limited to the submarine; as witnesses to the captain's secret world, they can never be allowed to return to human society. Effectively given a choice between life and death, the men consent.

The captain then explains to Dr. Aronnax that his new life aboard the submarine will awe him beyond his wildest dreams. The captain has read the professor's acclaimed work on the sea, The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps, and Dr. Aronnax now has the opportunity to learn the truth about the "mysteries" he has devoted his life to studying. He then tells the men to address him as Captain Nemo, and that they're traveling on the Nautilus. Captain Nemo calls for a steward, who leads Ned and Conseil to their cabins to eat, and then instructs Dr. Aronnax to join him for lunch. Dr. Aronnax is astonished at the quality of the food, which seems to include fresh meat from the land. Captain Nemo explains that everything on the menu, and all of the raw materials used by the ship, come from the sea.

Part 1, Chapter 11: The Nautilus

After lunch Captain Nemo gives Dr. Aronnax a tour of the Nautilus. First they visit the ship's library, an incredible vault of books comparable in size to anything similar on land. The captain offers Dr. Aronnax a cigar made of materials from the sea, which he thoroughly enjoys. They move on to the salon; it contains a remarkable collection of reproductions of classic artwork and sculptures, sheet music of the world's best composers, and well-preserved artifacts from the ocean.

Part 1, Chapter 12: All by Electricity

Finally, they arrive in Captain Nemo's bedroom, which is tight and Spartan with the exception of various instruments on the walls. They are navigational instruments powered by electricity, Captain Nemo tells Dr. Aronnax. Dr. Aronnax is incredulous; in his understanding, electricity is only capable of generating a very modest supply of power. Captain Nemo, however, has developed a way to produce electricity from minerals in the ocean. Electricity powers the entire submarine: the lights, the instruments, the kitchen stove, and the propellers, which move the submarine at speeds of 50 knots. Dr. Aronnax becomes more and more dumbstruck with each new revelation.


Captain Nemo's declarations about life on land versus his current existence show he has deliberately withdrawn from society. "Independence is possible only here! Here I recognize no master! Here I am free!" he exclaims to Dr. Aronnax over their meal. He loves the sea because of the freedom it provides. He believes the men, too, may find liberation in his secretive underwater life in due time. After Dr. Aronnax complains about never seeing their family and friends again, Captain Nemo replies that "to give up the insupportable yoke of the land which men equate with freedom is perhaps not such a great sacrifice as you may imagine."

Captain Nemo comes off as a solitary adventurer who has gone rogue and never looked back. He has libertarian instincts—thus his disdain for "state [monopolies]" that license cigars (and, presumably, many other things). He is proudly self-sufficient, relying only on the bounty of the sea for survival. "I owe everything to the sea: it produces electricity and electricity gives the Nautilus heat, light, and movement—in a word, life." This ethos is held by other iconic individualists, among them pioneers, back-to-the-landers, 19th-century writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, and many, many others.

For his part, Dr. Aronnax—at least at this point—is much more interested in the ship's scientific advances. He is amazed to see the incredible capabilities of electricity in particular. Importantly, all of the advances in the Nautilus fall within the bounds of science as it was understood in Verne's time. Gravity and physics still apply in this world, as do chemistry and biology. However, it is not right to claim that Verne is not a science fiction writer, as many commentators have done. Science fiction, properly understood, can include "real" science as its premise and is not confined to imagined science. He doesn't conjure aliens or people who can fly, but these are not the sole domain of science fiction.

In this section, especially in Chapter 10, Verne begins to develop the theme of conservation. Readers already know a great deal about Dr. Aronnax's scientific endeavors but are just now seeing his unabashed awe at the abundance of life and the complexity of the underwater landscape. His awe, along with Captain Nemo's descriptions of the bounty of the sea in providing all his needs, develop Verne's theme. He also waxes eloquent about the universality of sea life and the ubiquity of the sea as all life's final end. Notably, Verne has no trouble mentioning the Creator side by side with conservation.

Captain Nemo's organ is first mentioned in this section when Dr. Aronnax is surveying Captain Nemo's art, literature, and music collection. When Dr. Aronnax asks Captain Nemo about the composers whose scores litter the top of the organ, Captain Nemo first expresses his esteem for musicians by calling them all contemporaries of Orpheus, the mythological composer and musician. He then says that, like them, he is dead. The bluntness of this statement and its proximity to the organ's first mention set up the organ as a symbol throughout the novel. It symbolizes Captain Nemo's isolation, his despair, and his "death" to all human connection.

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