20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Part 2, Chapters 19–21 | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 19: The Gulf Stream

The Nautilus continues its path north. Riding the eastern perimeter of the Gulf Stream, that fast-moving current underneath the Atlantic, it passes by the East Coast of the United States. Once the Nautilus passes the Carolinas and closes in on the Long Island coast, Ned Land gives Dr. Aronnax an ultimatum: talk to Captain Nemo, today, about releasing them, or he'll talk to the captain himself. Dr. Aronnax can see that Ned is despondent over their imprisonment, which is made even worse by their current location, just off the coast of his home. When Dr. Aronnax enters Captain Nemo's room, the captain, who is poring over some documents, doesn't even greet him. Instead, he asks, "What do you want?" He tells Dr. Aronnax he has been recording his life story and studies of the seas and adds he has instructed the last surviving member of the Nautilus to put the papers in a sealed container and fling it out to sea so that someone may eventually find his incredible reports. Seeing a potential opportunity, Dr. Aronnax asks why someone on the Nautilus couldn't distribute it more safely, in person, but Captain Nemo scoffs: "Never!" Dr. Aronnax then explains the purpose of his visit and makes an emotional case for being allowed to leave. "You are inflicting slavery on us!" he says, but Captain Nemo is unmoved: "I will answer you today as I answered you seven months ago: he who enters the Nautilus is destined never to leave it again."

Ned Land is unbowed by Dr. Aronnax's report. He vows they must attempt an escape to Long Island, regardless of the weather. That afternoon, however, a ferocious storm strikes the coast. Instead of descending to peaceful water, Captain Nemo leaves the submarine floating in the monster waves and ties himself to the platform as the tempest rages. At midnight he comes down from the platform and the submarine descends to 50 meters, finally at peace.

Part 2, Chapter 20: 47°24'N,17°28'W

The Nautilus heads northeast, passing by Newfoundland and the North Atlantic. Dr. Aronnax sees the transcontinental telegraph cable at the bottom of ocean and observes that the cod population, while robust, has clearly been reduced by massive overfishing. On May 31 the submarine is close enough to make out Land's End, so named for its position at the western tip of England. Dr. Aronnax wonders if they will pass through the English Channel, providing an opportunity for escape. Instead, the submarine meanders around slowly in place as if Captain Nemo is looking for something. On the platform, Dr. Aronnax sees Captain Nemo taking precise measurements of the sun and horizon. In the background, a large steamship eight miles east appears to be approaching their location. When the captain is done taking measurements, he exclaims, "It is here!" and then brings the submarine down to the sea floor. At the bottom of the ocean, Dr. Aronnax sees an old wrecked ship and tries to figure out its origins. Captain Nemo, speaking to him for the first time in weeks, explains the ship is a French vessel originally named the Marseillais, and it was launched in 1762. He gives a brief rundown of its battle history. During its last battle with a fleet of British vessels in 1794, its crew decided to scuttle the ship rather than surrender. According to the captain, as it sunk its crew gave the cry "Long live the Republic!" Dr. Aronnax recognizes the ship, which is presumably famous: the Vengeur.

Part 2, Chapter 21: A Massacre

Dr. Aronnax heads to the platform and finds Conseil and Ned Land there. As they're staring at the ship, now only six miles away and approaching their position rapidly, they hear a loud boom from a cannon. They notice it is a double-plated warship built for heavy duty battle, but they can't make out its country of origin. At first they think the ship is coming after them because it thinks the Nautilus is a whale. As shells land increasingly closer to the men, however, it dawns on Dr. Aronnax that the warship is hunting a much bigger menace: a submarine. The captain of the Abraham Lincoln, Captain Farragut, figured out that the "sea creature" it was pursuing was actually a submarine, and since then warships across the globe have been hunting the submarine. The reason for Captain Nemo's lack of interest in leaving the area, much less diving far beneath the water to evade it, now becomes horrifyingly clear to Dr. Aronnax: Captain Nemo is planning to sink the ship, like he surely must have done the night he locked the men in their rooms and drugged them.

Ned Land holds out a handkerchief to signal to the ship, but Captain Nemo emerges from seemingly out of nowhere and throws him to the ground. Hot with rage, he unfurls the same flag he had flown at the South Pole, black with a gold N. No longer interested in shielding the men from his designs, he commands them to go inside the submarine, explaining he is going to sink the ship. The men return to the salon distraught. Later that afternoon Dr. Aronnax returns to the platform to try to reason with Captain Nemo, but the captain responds with a ferocious declaration: "I am the law, I am the justice! I am the oppressed, and they are the oppressor! It is because of them that everything I loved, cherished, venerated—country, wife, children, parents—perished as I watched! Everything I hate is there! Keep quiet!" Dr. Aronnax realizes there's nothing he can say and rejoins Conseil and Ned Land downstairs. They agree to leave the Nautilus that night, as soon as they are close enough to the ship to be spotted or heard.

At 5:00 the men hear the shells fired from the ship getting louder and louder; it is time to leave. Just as they get to the bottom of the hatch, however, it closes and they hear the sound of water seeping in—the Nautilus is preparing to dive and make its assault. The submarine accelerates and then strikes the ship beneath its water line, an unprotected, vulnerable area. Dr. Aronnax finds Captain Nemo in the salon, watching the assault through the port window. Dr. Aronnax watches in anguish as the ship and the men on it go down. When the attack is over, Dr. Aronnax watches Captain Nemo head back to his room and sees him crying before a picture of a woman and two small children.


Ned Land's despair is unbearable. The fact that the Nautilus is traveling past the east coast of Canada, so close to his home of Québec, only compounds the harshness of his circumstances. "When I think that the St Lawrence is my own river, the river of my hometown, Québec ... I get very angry," he laments to Dr. Aronnax. His homesickness is so bad, in fact, he says he "would prefer to throw myself into the sea! I can't stay here! I'm suffocating!" Despite the fact that Ned Land appears to be closing in on a complete breakdown, Captain Nemo completely dismisses Dr. Aronnax's request to release the men. Dr. Aronnax pleads with him, insisting that the captain is "inflicting slavery on us!" Captain Nemo replies coldly: "Call it whatever you wish."

Captain Nemo's cruelty at this stage of the journey stands in marked contrast to his warm and accommodating demeanor over the first few months. Dr. Aronnax understands that obtaining a reprieve is unlikely, but in the past he at least offered comfort and understanding when Dr. Aronnax came to him to talk. The captain's heart has become frozen like the South Pole, but Dr. Aronnax isn't sure of the cause. Was it the near disaster at the ice cap? The death of his crew member at the hands of the squid?

What is clear to Dr. Aronnax is that Captain Nemo is a Republican sympathizer. He is in a rare decent mood as he shows Dr. Aronnax the remains of the Vengeur. As he recounts the ship's history, he refers to its final "heroic battle," and he speaks admiringly about the drastic actions its crew took to keep their ships from getting into English hands. He also dates the Battle to "11 and 12 Prairial of the year II," using the French Republican Calendar. His sympathy for the ship's last stand isn't surprising given his previous statements about oppressed people and oppressed countries.

Still, Captain Nemo's behavior after he sinks the warship strongly implies his anger is driven by something personal, not politics: He sobs next to a picture of (what are presumably) his wife and young children. Then again, maybe his attack was launched for both personal and political reasons. In his diatribe he tells Dr. Aronnax "it is because of them"—the warship, perhaps—"that everything I loved, cherished, venerated—country, wife, children, parents—perished as I watched! Everything I hate is there!" All this suggests the warship, or a country affiliated with the warship, is the source of Captain Nemo's hatred. Regardless, the scene is a terrible confirmation of Dr. Aronnax's suspicions about the captain, which have been growing since the night he, Conseil, and Ned Land were locked in their rooms.

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