20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Themes



What does it mean to be free? This question is examined closely in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Captain Nemo and Ned Land would answer in vastly different ways. For Captain Nemo freedom is living alone, by his own rules, completely separate from society. He sees nothing of value in the world humans have made, and as a result has taken it upon himself to create an entirely new civilization underwater. With a loyal, subservient crew under his command, and his indestructible travel and war machine, he has become master of his destiny.

It's strongly implied in the story that Captain Nemo wasn't always a man apart. He was educated as an engineer and studied in New York, London, and Paris. His fiery remarks to Dr. Aronnax that "it is because of them that everything I loved, cherished, venerated—country, wife, children, parents—perished as I watched!" are a thick insinuation that in the past he did find meaning in the normal world. Something terrible happened (it's never revealed what), though, and now his only desire is to rule the seas.

Ned Land's views of freedom couldn't be more different. Though he is an accomplished harpooner and devoted man of the sea, he suffers horribly from homesickness and existential claustrophobia during his stay on the Nautilus (much more so than Dr. Aronnax or Conseil, who seem to grudgingly accept their imprisonment until the very end of the story). His last name is no coincidence. The harpooner desperately longs for the simple pleasure of terrestrial life such as eating meat and ambling around his hometown. He explains this to Dr. Aronnax while they are plotting their final escape: "When I think that the St. Lawrence is my own river, the river of my hometown, Québec; when I think of all this, I get very angry ... Look monsieur, I would prefer to throw myself into the sea!"

Captain Nemo's and Ned Land's completely contradictory ideas about freedom show that the term is wide open to interpretation. One man's freedom is another man's prison.


Although commonly considered a work of science fiction, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is also a celebration of the natural world and an implicit treatise on conservation. Throughout the story, Dr. Aronnax never tires of observing the nooks and crannies of the sea and remarking on their brilliance. In fact, during some segments of the Nautilus's journey, the professor's descriptions of the fish, mammals, and plant life outside the submarine's windows go on for multiple pages, reflecting his admiration of the ocean. Given his disposition, it's not surprising that he frequently criticizes overfishing and other forms of man-made degradation.

"Look at this ocean, Dr. Aronnax, is it not endowed with an authentic life of its own?" Captain Nemo muses after they return from the diving trip to the forests of Crespo Island. He deeply values this "authentic life," and as a result he's vehemently opposed to hunting for fun, as Ned Land often tries to do. In the ocean he sees God's finest work: "The sea provides for all my needs ... I have a vast property which I alone farm and which is always replanted by the hand of the Creator of all things," he explains to Dr. Aronnax just after the three men come aboard the Nautilus. Thanks and appreciation for the delights and marvels of the ocean are given to "the Creator" throughout the story. By linking the ocean and its health to God, the characters—and by extension, Verne—make the case that treating the ocean well is a moral imperative.


Captain Nemo sees himself as a defender of those who have been wronged. He expresses sympathy for the colonized and oppressed of the world, but he also takes action. After he rescues the poor Sri Lankan pearl diver from a shark, he leaves a handful of valuable jewels with the man, explaining to Dr. Aronnax that "that Indian, doctor, is the inhabitant of an oppressed country. I am his compatriot, and shall remain so to my very last breath!"

Later, he fumes at Dr. Aronnax when the latter implies that the captain is using the gold he recovers from shipwrecks for himself: "Do you think that it is for my own benefit that I take the trouble to gather these treasures? ... Do you think I am unaware there are suffering beings and oppressed races on this planet, wretches to be helped and victims to be avenged?" Captain Nemo's remarks reveal his deep commitment to justice—and potentially, to bloodshed since carrying out vengeance often involves violence of some sort.

Dr. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land realize this horrifying truth when Captain Nemo sinks the warship in the North Atlantic. Before it is attacked, Dr. Aronnax tries to talk the captain down, but he won't budge. "I am the law, I am the justice!" he declares. His terrible actions are clearly meant to avenge some past trauma, as evidenced by the captain's sobbing over the picture of his family. However, by sinking this warship and killing dozens of men (perhaps more), has justice been served? Under Captain Nemo's own code of justice, the answer is yes, but under Dr. Aronnax's, the answer is a resounding no.

Questions for Themes

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