20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Theme of Identity
People often say that you should always remember who you are and where you came from. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo sure ain't forgettin'; but he's not telling us a whole lot, either. So if you're looking for closure, well, you've come to the wrong book; it's never a good sign when the second-to-last paragraph of a novel contains the sentence, "Will I finally discover his name?" (2.23.5). But let's be honest: answers are overrated. What fun would it be if we found out that Nemo was a Spanish guy named Juan whose family was killed by some English dudes? Wouldn't you rather have your own theories about Nemo's "true identity"?
Questions About Identity
- Can we be sure about anything regarding Nemo's identity? We know that he's smart, and that his family and country were "taken away" from him, but what else do we know?
- During the squid attack, one of the sailors cries out in French. What does the revelation of this one sailor's identity tell us about Nemo's crew?
- The book begins with a debate about the identity of the sea beast. Aronnax spins a "giant narwhal" theory, and it seems totally plausible to people. But Aronnax, a renowned expert on marine life, is soon proven incorrect. What does this faux pas tell us about Aronnax? What do we think of the others who readily accept his theory?
Chew on This
Ultimately, the specifics of Nemo's identity—his nationality, the reason he abandoned land for the sea—are meaningless. His actions speak for themselves.
Without a definite identity, Nemo can become something more than a simple human character. He can become an idea, a principle. When he cries out, "I am the law! I am the justice!" he's not kidding.