20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Part 1, Chapters 16–18 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 16: An Excursion over the Plains

With the help of two crewmen, Conseil, Dr. Aronnax, Captain Nemo, and one of Captain Nemo's assistants get into their suits. Disappointed that they're not going to be hunting in the traditional way, Ned Land opts out of the excursion. Like the submarine, the suits are a wonder of form and function, "a far cry from the items of shapeless clothing invented and extolled in the eighteenth century." Water enters the chamber; after it fills up, a door leading outside opens. The men step out directly onto the ocean floor, 10 meters below the ocean. Captain Nemo begins walking away from the Nautilus, and the men follow. Dr. Aronnax is overwhelmed yet again by the natural wonders before his eyes: "flowers, rocks, plantlets, shells, and polyps," all appearing in the water-refracted light "with all the colors of the solar spectrum." They continue marching away and down into greater depths through fields of seaweed and strange plants and are buzzed by Portuguese men-of-war along the way.

Part 1, Chapter 17: An Underwater Forest

At about a depth of 300 feet, they arrive at the edge of Crespo Island's underwater forest—an expanse of tree-like grasses. The incredible pressure of the water keeps the grasses perfectly vertical as they rise from the floor. Several hours into their excursion, a wave of sleepiness comes over the men and they take a nap. When Dr. Aronnax wakes up, he comes face-to-face with a three-foot sea spider, but Captain Nemo's assistant neutralizes it with the butt of his gun. The party continues to descend on foot but don't have much luck hunting. Eventually, they reach the submerged landmass of the island, their cue to turn around and head back home. During the march back, Captain Nemo shoots a rare sea otter and an albatross flying just above the waves. As they close in on the Nautilus they—or at least Dr. Aronnax—get a frightful scare when two blue sharks pass just above them. When they arrive back into the chamber and undress, it is nighttime.

Part 1, Chapter 18: Four Thousand Leagues under the Pacific

The next morning Dr. Aronnax returns to the platform. He gazes longingly at the horizon with a new appreciation of the world in front of his eyes. As he's looking around, a large group of crew members pull in the submarine's fishing nets, retrieving a haul that is colossal in variation and size. He is surprised by the presence of Captain Nemo, who proceeds to ask the professor a number of rhetorical questions about the wonders of the sea. After this encounter, Dr. Aronnax does not see the captain much over the next few weeks. The ship heads southeast, skirting around the Pacific islands, offering Dr. Aronnax and his companions even more awe-inducing underwater views. On December 11, however, a darker sight comes into view when the Nautilus arrives at a depth of 1,000 meters: a wrecked ship. Tied to the deck, caught in its fatal grasp, are four sailors and a young woman holding a child.

Analysis

The journey to the forests of Crespo Island offers the reader (and Dr. Aronnax) an excursion that is both entertaining and dramatic. Since the men have been on the Nautilus, their encounters with the sea have been only observational. Their enchanting—and dangerous—march literally and figuratively plunges them back into the unruly world of the ocean. The combination of beauty, fantasy, and danger they encounter was a feast for readers' senses in the 1870s, and it shows why 20,000 Leagues under the Sea has captivated audiences to this day.

In addition, this section reveals more about Captain Nemo's philosophy on the freedom of the sea. In multiple conversations with Dr. Aronnax, he shows his conception of the sea goes well beyond admiration. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him a true believer. In his view the sea is a perfect creation, akin to man in the excellence of its design and function (though presumably he finds man far inferior). Captain Nemo says, "Look at this ocean, Dr. Aronnax, is it not endowed with an authentic life of its own? Does it not have its angers and its moments of tenderness?" Later, he continues, saying the ocean is a "deadly habitat for man ... a life-giving element for the myriads of animals—and for me!" For all of this he gives credit to the Creator. Whether he is religious or not is unclear, but it is certain he believes in God. What separates him from the rest of humanity, however, is the belief that the ocean is the apex of Creation.

The theme of freedom comes into play here with a touch of irony: Captain Nemo claims that he is freest in the sea, that he finds freedom only in the sea, and that it is death to men but life to him. How can this be unless he sees himself as not a man? Since meeting him, readers have known he is an outsider from civilization, but this statement cements his self-perception as an entirely different creature than other people. The irony is Captain Nemo isn't really free in the sea; he cannot swim about as the fishes. As he will soon find out, when he is trapped under the South Pole, the sea is just as inhospitable, just as merciless to him as it is to any other. The freedom he feels in the sea appears to be all in his head.

This section also features the theme of conservation. Verne develops it in Chapter 18 by describing the ocean as having a life of its own, with its own emotions. Captain Nemo remarks to Dr. Aronnax, "Does it not have its angers and its moments of tenderness? Yesterday it went to sleep just like us, and now it is waking up again after a peaceful night!" It is noteworthy that Captain Nemo describes the ocean as "just like us"; certainly, if the sea is a person, then it deserves protection and its rights and dignity must be respected.

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