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Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, Page 2

Jules Verne

  Getting into so many scrapes does imply that something is going on. At the beginning, when the Nautilus keeps exposing itself to ships, rubbing up against them, or even penetrating them, the captain may indeed be drawing attention to his marvellous equipment. But Nemo also has a secret agenda that will become slightly clearer only at the end.

  The Nautilus conditions the whole structure of the novel. Because of its hothouse atmosphere and Nemo’s aversion to setting foot on land, those occasions when he does leave the submarine are all the more heightened. During such episodes, Aronnax has to be there as well, to tell the tale; but Conseil and Ned are often excluded. Typical is Nemo’s sudden night-time invitation to visit the underwater realm in diving suits. This poetic adventure is worth studying in detail.


  Aronnax is fidgety from the start. He jumps when he hears rain pattering on the surface and feels acutely conscious of his leaden feet crunching a ‘bed of bones’. He wonders at the giant furrows on the ocean floor, the distant glow, and the clearings in the petrified forest. His over-excited mind starts imagining castles and cities — even seabed friends for the captain. His photographic vision sees everything in fine black-and-white silhouette and his movements are light: leaping tree trunks, snapping creepers, flying over chasms. Aronnax’s exaltation, Nemo’s pace, and the imperfect tense produce a strange mood. A metaphor converts the sea back into land, the living into the man-made, tentacles into brush, and crabs and lobsters into suits of armour. After a climb up a volcano, after the vegetable and animal kingdoms have led the way up the Great Chain of Beings, Aronnax again imagines human works.

  But an eruption suddenly steals the scene — revealing a glowing sunken city. In an elegiac vision and the longest sentence of the book, teasing glimpses appear of technology and religion, Greece and Tuscany, triremes and temples, even a sea within the sea. All this provides an unusual chance for Nemo and Aronnax to communicate in depth, for although they cannot talk, they do touch, speak through their eyes, and even use the intimate second-person singular form; above all, Nemo uses a convenient piece of chalk and rock-wall to write the briefest of messages: ‘atlantis’.

  Feverish as he is, Aronnax runs through the whole gamut of legends about the lost continent. He conjures up, pell-mell, biblical and prehistoric scenes, a land bridge to America, the giant contemporaries of the first man. He conflates geological, biblical, and mythological time to return to the origins where, paradoxically, man was at his most evolved. But he is careful to leave his mark on the living past, subtly smudging the backdrop so as to prove to himself that it is not a dream. The transcendental scene closes with the footlights on a rare relaxed Nemo. He is ‘leaning on a mossy stele’, as if on his reading desk, contemplating time past, empathetically ‘turned to stone’ in ‘his’ landscape. ‘Was it here that this strange being came to commune with history and relive ancient life — he who wanted nothing to do with modern times?’

  And this is the Verne who has been argued to be a positivist, a scientific apologist, a blind technological anticipator! He is in fact a high Romantic, with his poetic language, nostalgia, and mystical yearning for significance. The grandeur of the novel comes not only from the many ‘privileged’ locations the submarine takes us to but from its reference to a higher destiny.


  The structure of Twenty Thousand Leagues is punctuated — punctured? — by many long lists. Even the paroxysm of Atlantis is interrupted at the vital moment by the eruption of names of authors on the lost continent. The lists apocryphally made the poet Apollinaire exclaim, half in admiration: ‘What a style! Nothing but substantives!’ There are indeed a bewildering number of common and proper nouns in the novel.

  In the carefully crafted opening chapter about the ‘monster’ terrorizing the seas, ambiguity is already maximized between fact and fiction, persistent legend and documented reports, authorial information and the narrator’s misinformation. The lists are similarly a massive importation of real-world documentation, proof that Verne has done his homework, a guarantee of seriousness or plausibility. On another level, nevertheless, they are devoid of significance. A procession of obscure fish hardly advances the plot. Scientific knowledge does not consist merely of the names of scientists, nor exploration, of those of explorers.

  Although Verne’s lists may no longer have the resonances they had for a contemporary French reader, some do provide an archaeology of knowledge. The substantives often come from Verne’s sources, to which he adds adjectives and context. The resurgence at the South Pole of Nemo’s romantic, rebellious ecstasy is again suspended by the quoting of authorities on the question. Complete with date, nationality, and successively greater latitudes, they provide a structured but reductionist history of Antarctica.

  Hidden amongst the names of the pro-Atlanteans are allusions to Bailly’s notions of a tropical Atlantis at a North Pole heated by exhalations from the Earth’s core; and to Malte-Brun, from whom Verne undoubtedly derived the idea of going ‘around the world in eighty days’. His passing mention of George Sand may acknowledge an inspiration for the novel; his reference to ‘Edom’ again points to biblical influence, and thence to a brilliant short story of that title published in 1910 under his name.


  Another way of approaching the complexity of Twenty Thousand Leagues is to study the characters themselves. Their number is severely curtailed: apart from the four main protagonists and Captain Farragut, no speaking part survives for more than a paragraph or so. Nor does a single woman feature in the work, apart from Nemo’s dead and nameless wife: the painter Rosa Bonheur and a painting of a ‘courtesan’ were deleted at proof stage. Even the ships’ names, including the submarine’s, are in masculine mode.

  As Roland Barthes has brilliantly noted, Verne’s vehicles provide a near-absolute division of the world. On the exterior can be interplanetary space, flowing lava, or murderous savages, but within all is calm, security, food, and — in Twenty Thousand Leagues — the world’s 12,000 best books. Nemo, Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned inhabit a closed universe. As in Pinter or Beckett, the submarine is the in camera locus for the intensive interaction of the four possible threesomes and the five pairs: only Nemo and Conseil never communicate with each other.

  Verne’s first-person narrators seem shadowy sorts of people. They are generally middle-class and comfortably off, a similar age to the author, and long-term travellers without family or attachments. Most come from hard-nosed professions like journalism or science, with their work their publication. They exist to narrate, and narrate to exist.

  Aronnax is no exception. He is practical, serious, cautious, detached, unimaginative, characterized indeed by what he himself calls his ‘cowardice’ and ‘complete negativity’. Or, as Nemo tells him, ‘you only see snags and obstacles’. The doctor mainly serves to organize knowledge, to ask naïve questions, to act as a foil, and to transcribe Conseil’s classifications. Even his manservant is sometimes livelier, with his acrobatic ability to ascend and descend the biological hierarchy; he alerts his master when unduly hypocritical or intellectually lazy.

  If nothing else, Aronnax is systematic. He is an adept of Linnaeus’s binomial taxonomy, with its ‘phyla, divisions, classes, sub-classes, orders, families, genera, sub-genera, species, and varieties’. His deductions follow sequences of branching alternatives, separating the known knowns from the unknown unknowns, order from chaos. He considers many objects whose shape is a branching ‘arborescence’: spiders, squid, and especially coral, characterized by its multiple ‘branches’, ‘ramifications’, and ‘arborizations’. His science, in other words, has the same positivistic structure as many of the objects it studies.

  Just as Aronnax’s lists attempt to cram everything in, so his classifications go down to the finest detail. Everything inside is neatly labelled, as in Nemo’s museum; but the unintelligible or uncontrollable are banished. His systems give up in panic on encountering the new. The good
doctor exhaustively picks over the meagre details of Nemo’s visible life, often revising his perceptions, but cannot answer any of the essential questions about him. What he lacks is the ability to connect, to go beyond. Creativity is absent from his reproductive, convergent mind-set. He is almost schizophrenic in his attempt to abolish the murky subconscious and to conceal his lack of invention. Perhaps his real problem is a fear of writer’s block?

  Aronnax exploits his position as narrator. Thus he only notices the body being carried on the crewmen’s shoulders after two hours underwater; and he does not spot the portraits of Nemo’s heroes and family until his second and third visits to his bedroom. In his discussion with Ned about the monster, the uneducated sailor is a model of accuracy while the scientist’s affirmations are dubious. The naturalist is conditioned by his immediate impressions, which he does not correct when he records his notes or writes them up. An unreliable narrator is an unusual feature in the popular literature of the nineteenth century. Many readers will give Aronnax the benefit of doubt — but may have to think again before the end of the novel.

  The plot may leave the reader confused on first reading. All information is filtered through Aronnax’s first-person narration, and although his observations attempt to be scrupulously exact, his forecasts are invariably wildly out. Many of the events of the novel are indeed beyond the ken of a naïve bachelor from a sheltered background. The episodes of Atlantis, the underwater burial, and the Maelstrom are typical in being misinterpreted by him until nearly the end — when it is too late to study the evidence. The central enigma, above all, remains unsolved, for we never know Nemo’s real name or nationality, his past life, or his reason for going round sinking ships — apart, that is, from self-defence.

  Verne thus has the best of both worlds. Aronnax’s stolidity lends credibility to his fantastic descriptions. But his unreliable interpretations conceal the captain’s nature until the end. Nemo’s wish not to be ‘judged’ is respected, for we only see him tête-à-tête with Aronnax and so never have an objective basis for assessing him.


  What we do know about the captain is that he shares many of the characteristics of Verne’s heroes, who emulate Renaissance man in the variety of their intellectual, physical, and cultural qualities. Evans neatly sums these up as: ‘courage, aesthetic sensitivity, idealism, devotion to justice, humor, thirst for glory, compassion, love of freedom, and “grandeur” in general’.4 But Nemo and other heroes also have paranoid and self-destructive tendencies: abrupt withdrawals alternating with impassioned speeches or cold anger.

  From the beginning, conflict is probable. Aronnax, Conseil, and Land arrive uninvited on the submarine, indeed as part of an attempt to destroy it. As Nemo explains, his only choices are to betray the secret of his life, throw them back into the sea, or take them in for ever. One reason for his decision is that he already knows Aronnax from his learned work, The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps (c.1865?). But he appears disappointed by the man behind the book. In any case, the two have opposing interests: Nemo’s, to conceal information about his mission; Aronnax’s, to gather it for his next book.

  The Frenchman gets off on the wrong foot. Nemo intones: ‘Our voyage of underwater exploration begins at this precise moment.’ Aronnax (or perhaps Hetzel) replies: ‘May God protect us!’ The remark is unflattering for the submarine, untactfully religious — and results in the captain taking his leave. Nemo will repeat his sharp exit after his ardent speech about an under-sea utopia, and indeed whenever his guest appears lacking in understanding.

  Aronnax apparently embodies Nemo’s social life, for the captain seldom goes out — and Conseil and Ned never come in. His only external contacts seem to be wordless signs to a diver, dreams of launching a message-in-a-bottle, and violent interchanges with passing ships. Outside his submarine he is only too aware of humanity’s depredations and unprovoked attacks; within his bedroom he appears anguished, lost in mathematical calculations or memories of his heroes or family. Even on the platform Nemo is less than welcoming, perhaps because it is part of his workplace or because Conseil and Ned are often there. Although Aronnax visits him in his room, with unfortunate results, the captain almost never goes to his and rarely seeks out the naturalist’s company.

  One exception is when Aronnax is about to escape, having already put on his coat. On this occasion Nemo takes deliberate pleasure in spinning out the conversation, leading even the doctor to wonder whether his plans have been discovered. The captain chooses this precise occasion not only to reveal his financial contributions to the ‘oppressed races’ and especially the Cretans, but also to invite him to visit Atlantis — which persuades Aronnax to stay after all.

  Stretching out on the sofa is Nemo’s only relaxed posture. The huge ship’s library is the only place where he and Aronnax can freely meet. Unlike later heroes, Nemo has none of Verne’s books, despite his collection of ‘the modern and ancient masters’: indeed, there are virtually no nineteenth-century novelists. The library — the true control room of the submarine — may contain hints of Verne’s father’s study or of Hetzel’s bookshop in the Latin Quarter; in any case it symbolizes established authority. Hetzel was himself a well-known writer, older than Verne. The presence within Nemo’s library of Aronnax’s volumes reflects this complex relationship. It also focuses two connected tensions: change and stasis; and reproduction and creativity.

  The yellowing newspapers are a sign of the problem. Like the prehistoric but nineteenth-century cavern in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Nemo’s library is both brand-new and classical, contemporary and passé. New books are of course no longer arriving. Nemo claims that the concept of ‘modern artist’ no longer exists for him: they are out of time or else ‘two or three thousand years old’; he is an exile in time or a time-traveller. His decision to halt his world is a conscious one: ‘I would like to believe that humanity has thought or written nothing since then’ (I 11 — Part One, chapter 11). The captain uses ‘you’ to mean Aronnax or France but also for ‘terrestrial’ or ‘living’ objects. Everything is perfect in his library, the perfection of death. His timeless existence means that he too is ‘dead’, as he himself implies. And the tragedy of the living-dead is that, although eternally young, they are prone, like Rider Haggard’s She, to topple over into exponentially accelerating decay.

  The library is stranded uneasily between the 1865 newspapers and an adolescent or artistic eternity. The only disruption to the sterile stasis would be by creative works. Aronnax asks Nemo whether he is an ‘artist’, who seems to reply in the affirmative, but then paraphrases it as being a mere collector: creation is tantamount to accumulation. But in fact Nemo does write. For a start, he annotates Aronnax’s book, but this was perhaps done in the past. As in a Beckett endgame, however, the slightest sign of change must be sought, the most roundabout route out of the existential cul-de-sac. The notes may form an embryo of Nemo’s story or even of Aronnax’s next book, for both men eventually admit to writing first-person sea tales. Both authors look as though they might have no readers (except each other?); both books may indeed end up in the sea whence they came; and neither volume can admit to its title or its author’s name. Writing is a secretive, even shameful activity.

  Other aspects of Nemo’s character develop more slowly. Although most of the incidents initially puzzle Aronnax, many are in fact connected: hindsight (and a good memory) are required to put the plot back together again at the end.

  More of Nemo’s deeds are going to be influenced by Aronnax’s presence than he will admit. One example is the decision to open the hatches when the submarine is grounded and covered with aggressive-looking Papuans. The result, predictably, is an invasion, soon repelled by administering an electric shock. But there is little reason to open the hatches so soon before leaving — apart from a wish to impress the Frenchman. The scene is more surprising when juxtaposed with Aronnax’s pompous but humane remarks about merely retali
ating against ‘savages’. It anticipates the killing at the end of Part Two, which in turn echoes the incidents with the liners in the opening chapter. ‘A pure accident,’ says Nemo of the collision with the Scotia. Possibly, but he omits to account for those with the Moravian and the Etna.

  Equally unclear is Nemo’s attitude towards Aronnax. He often ignores his presence; and at the end knocks a telescope out of his hand. Aronnax decides that he is not the object of the hatred, on the debatable basis that Nemo is not looking at him. Common sense will tell us that when confronted with an unwelcome guest, a man without friends or intellectual equals is likely to oscillate between extremes, that any apparent indifference may be feigned. On the other hand, there are occasions when the captain does seem unaware of the naturalist; and his last words, ‘God almighty! Enough! Enough!’, sound sincere enough. But does Nemo dislike his guest enough to wish his death? If we think Nemo is aware after all of the evasion plans, is it impossible that the captain hopes his captives will go, but chooses for them the spot ‘from which no ship has ever been able to escape’?

  The ultimate mysteries, carefully built up in the episode when Aronnax is secretly drugged, are the motive for Nemo’s attacks and the nationalities of his adversaries. Revenge may possibly be at work, but in the published version the rest of the evidence is inconclusive.