20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Part 2, Chapters 16–18 | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 16: Not Enough Air

Clinical as always, Captain Nemo calmly explains the two possible ways of dying in the Nautilus: by being crushed between the ice blocks or asphyxiated due to the lack of fresh air. The submarine has already been underwater for 36 hours, so only 48 hours' worth of oxygen are left in its reserve tanks. The only hope is to have his crew, in their diving suits, manually dig out the wall. The men, including a newly solemn Ned Land, volunteer. To determine which of the four walls to attack, Captain Nemo carries out soundings to determine each wall's thickness. At 10 meters thick, the floor of their icy chamber is the most accessible. The crew members and Ned Land put on their diving gear and start hacking away at the ice. After two hours the exhausted men return to the submarine and are relieved by new crew members and Dr. Aronnax. He's struck by the difference in breathing capacity between the diving suit, filled as it is with fresh air, and the submarine, which is rapidly filling up with carbon dioxide.

The men work constantly but it's not fast enough to outpace the accumulation of carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, the side walls are expanding and inching toward the submarine. In a last-ditch effort, Captain Nemo decides to pump boiling water from the submarine into the compartment, which successfully stops the side walls. Finally, with the bottom layer of ice just a meter thick, the Nautilus crashes through. At this point Dr. Aronnax is staggering and nearly unconscious from the lack of oxygen. As the submarine races frantically back to the surface, Dr. Aronnax passes out, convinced he is going to die. Ned Land and Conseil give him the last drops of oxygen in a breathing apparatus, which brings him back. Finally, the Nautilus plunges full-speed through a thin layer of ice and opens its hatch.

Part 2, Chapter 17: From Cape Horn to the Amazon

Dr. Aronnax wakes up on the Nautilus's platform next to Ned Land and Conseil. He thanks them deeply for saving his life and pledges that "we are bound to each other for ever, and I am forever in your debt." Ned Land says not to worry: he will call on him shortly in order to leave "this infernal Nautilus." The submarine heads north up the South American coast at a rapid clip. It stays too far away from land and the seas are too rough to plot another escape. Dr. Aronnax once again enjoys observing the unique and dangerous marine life they encounter during the trip, particularly around the mouth of the Amazon.

Part 2, Chapter 18: Squid

Ned Land suggests having Dr. Aronnax ask Captain Nemo if he truly wishes to hold the men indefinitely. Dr. Aronnax is reluctant to do this, however. He worries it may tip the captain off to their discontent. Captain Nemo's disposition seems to have changed after the incident in the South Pole. He rarely comes to talk with Dr. Aronnax, who is puzzled by this new aloofness. While the Nautilus is passing through the West Indies, it's swarmed by a group of enormous squids. After one of the monsters gets caught in the submarine's propeller, stopping it, Captain Nemo informs the men they will have to fight the squids one by one with axes (and in Ned Land's case, a harpoon). When they open the hatch, a squid sticks several giant tentacles into the submarine and snatches a crew member. The rest of the crew, Captain Nemo, Dr. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land bolt up to the platform to free the trapped man. They hack off all of the monster's tentacles except for the one imprisoning him in its grip, but the squid shoots out its ink and blinds the men. Before they can recover, the squid pulls the crewman underneath the water. Enraged, the men slaughter the nearly dozen giant squids remaining on the platform. When the battle is over, Captain Nemo cries.


This section is the first time the Nautilus truly seems to be in danger. Up to this point, it seems to be indestructible. Neither warships (such as the Abraham Lincoln), giant whales, sharks, nor the weight of 10,000 meters' worth of seawater have been able to harm the submarine, and its adventures have, for the most part, been entertaining, not stress-inducing. Any dramatic tension onboard stemmed from the plight of Dr. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land—the latter of whom desperately wants to escape the Nautilus's grip. The crisis underneath the South Pole, however, with its prospect of imminent death, reads like a true page-turner.

Despite—or because of—its horror, the incident at the South Pole affirms the humanity of the men on the Nautilus. Every person onboard pitches in to free the submarine from the ice, working together through utter exhaustion. Even when death seems inescapable, they remain at work. Ned Land and Conseil are sacrificing, loyal friends to Dr. Aronnax near the end. As he nears unconsciousness, they offer him the last reserves of the ship's fresh air. As he seems to slip away, Conseil holds his hand to comfort him, one of the story's most touching moments. "Ah, if only I could refrain from breathing in order to leave more air for monsieur!" declares Conseil, and he means it.

Dr. Aronnax's admiration for the wonders of the natural world and his concern about its degradation come through again in this section. After the men spot a group of manatees around the Dutch coast of South America, he explains their critical place in the marine ecosystem, admiring how "far-seeing nature had given such mammals an important role." He believes the hunting of these animals, and others such as whales and seals, is a grave threat to the health of the oceans and the world. His level of concern tells us much about the worrisome state of the environment when the book was published in1869. Dr. Aronnax's (nay, Verne's) support for conservation runs throughout the book.

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