20,000 Leagues under the Sea | Study Guide

Jules Verne

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20,000 Leagues under the Sea | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, first published in 1870, is such a fundamental work of science fiction that it is sometimes credited as the origin of the entire genre. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, sometimes considered the greatest adventure story of all time, takes readers on a journey where they encounter enemy warships, the panic of oxygen deprivation, and, perhaps most famously, the horrific giant squid.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea tells of Dr. Pierre Aronnax, a professor who leaves New York to investigate reports of an unusual sea monster sighted offshore. To the surprise of Dr. Aronnax and his companions, the creature turns out to be a submarine, a burgeoning piece of technology at the time of the novel's publication. When Dr. Aronnax's ship is destroyed by the submarine, he is taken aboard and meets the brilliant and enigmatic Captain Nemo. Nemo's creation, named the Nautilus, patrols the world's waters unbound to any sovereign country, diving to the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the world's oceans. Born from Nemo's desire to resist governmental authority and civilization, the Nautilus is used mainly to conduct research under the sea, as well as to provide a home for Nemo, who wishes to live independently of the world's countries.

1. The first English translation of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was riddled with errors.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea was first translated into English in 1873 by Lewis Page Mercier. Mercier's edition was notorious for its numerous errors in grammar and translation from the French edition. One particular error that was repeated in the text was translating the French word for ten as six, which caused confusion regarding the dates and passage of time in the novel. Some mistranslations were intentional, for political reasons, such as the omission of the nationality of the warships that Captain Nemo sinks in order to prevent the novel from being misinterpreted as political commentary. In addition to these types of errors, Mercier also cut about 20% of Verne's original text.

2. Verne's editor forced him to make his characters more politically ambiguous.

Verne had originally wanted to depict Captain Nemo as a "fallen Polish aristocrat" whose family had been eradicated during the war between the Polish and the Russians in 1863. Verne's editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, noted that due to his books' overwhelming popularity in Russia, this was a bad idea for sales. Instead, Hetzel asked Verne to craft a more ethnically ambiguous Captain Nemo, one whose quest for vengeance against the world's sovereign countries wasn't bound to any historical political conflict.

3. "20,000 Leagues" in the title refers to distance, not depth.

Many readers associate the title of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea with the extraordinary depths that the Nautilus reaches. However, this was not Verne's intention—he was referring to the distance the Nautilus travels across the ocean. The common misinterpretation of the title is due to an ongoing error in English translations, as the original French title specified seas, not sea. Since seas denotes movement across the world's oceans, the title was meant to imply that the Nautilus travels 20,000 leagues around the world while under the waves, not that it dives 20,000 leagues under the surface.

4. Captain Nemo's name is an allusion to Homer's Odyssey.

The word Nemo is Latin for "no one," the Roman equivalent of the Greek word Outis, which appears in The Odyssey. In Homer's epic, Odysseus identifies himself as "Outis" to trick a monstrous Cyclops. After Odysseus blinds the creature, it cries for help that "Outis" (or no one) is attacking it, leading the other Cyclops to believe there's no trouble. Verne alludes to this famous scene in order to reinforce Captain Nemo's ambiguity in terms of his origins, past, and true intentions aboard the Nautilus.

5. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea makes reference to several real-life oceanographers and explorers of the day.

Verne included the names of several explorers and oceanographers who had made discoveries or completed important expeditions in the years before 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was published. The novel mentions Matthew Fontaine Maury, a renowned explorer of the world's oceans who earned the nickname "Pathfinder of the Seas." By 1853 Maury's system for categorizing data from the ocean was being used throughout the world. Maury's 1855 publication, The Physical Geography of the Sea, was a major source of information for Verne's novel and is recognized as the first textbook about the study of oceans. Verne also mentions Jean François de Galaup, a French explorer whose expedition vanished mysteriously in the waters of Oceania in 1788.

6. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is believed to have sparked the ecological movement.

Throughout the novel, Verne shows that he understands the finitude of the world's species and the need to preserve wild places. This was a novel concept at the time of the book's publication, as the oceans, in particular, were often thought of as a limitless supply of bounty (as illustrated by the 19th-century whaling industry, which nearly drove several species of whale to extinction). Verne portrays Dr. Arronax as sensitive to ecological conservation, as he disapproves of the salty harpooner Ned's careless slaughter of marine life. Coupled with Dr. Arronax's profession of marine biologist as opposed to naval officer or explorer, this element of anticipatory ecological understanding has led some to view 20,000 Leagues under the Sea as a precursor to environmental movements.

7. At the time 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was written, there was no proof that giant squids existed.

The idea of a giant squid-like creature appears as far back as Norse mythology, which describes the dreaded Kraken—a massive, tentacled monster that could devour entire fleets. However, aside from some questionable carcasses that would occasionally wash ashore (such as a decayed specimen found in Shetland, Scotland, in 1860), there was no proof that giant squids actually swam the ocean's depths until 2004, when a specimen was caught in a fishing net off the coast of Argentina. Later, in 2012, the first live giant squid was observed in its natural habitat on a deep-sea expedition led by marine scientist Edith Widder.

8. The Nautilus was named after a much smaller cephalopod than the one the crew encounters.

Captain Nemo's ship gets its name from a cephalopod, a class of marine species that includes squid and octupuses. The creature is physically similar to the one the crew engages in battle but only a fraction of the size. The Chambered Nautilus is a marine creature resembling a squid with an ornate, curled shell for protection. Verne likely borrowed the name for his ship due to the creature's physiology, which allows it to control its movements by changing gas pressure within its shell. This natural mechanism is similar to that which allows modern submarines to dive and resurface.

9. Verne predicted developments in submarine technology in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

While manually-powered submarines existed around the time 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was published, the idea of a large, durable, and heavily weaponized submarine seemed completely farfetched in Verne's era. Yet one of the reasons that modern readers often find the novel so fascinating is the accuracy with which Verne predicted the creation of the modern submarine. In particular, his idea of a ship running entirely on electrical power (a concept that seemed impossible in the 1860s) would be realized during the implementation of naval submarines in the 20th century. Perhaps more noteworthy is that Verne's mechanical and engineering concepts weren't the product of any formal training—he studied law as a young man.

10. U.S. Homeland Security has developed a working version of Verne's Leyden Ball.

In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Verne describes a weapon aboard the Nautilus known as the "Leyden Ball," a bullet of glass and steel, charged with electricity to kill undersea animals. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security commissioned a similar device to function on land as a non-lethal weapon capable of shooting electrified rounds, similar to a stun-gun. Homeland Security's official description of the project is, "an untethered electro-muscular disruption non-lethal stun weapon based on piezoelectric technology for civil law enforcement officers and the military." While it's unclear whether or not Homeland Security was directly inspired by Verne's description of the Leyden Ball, scientists and literary scholars alike have noticed the similarities between the devices.

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