20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Summary
How It All Goes Down
Grab your life vests, Shmoopers—there's a monster out there. A mysterious beast is attacking ships the world over. The famous oceanographer, Pierre Aronnax, thinks that the beast is a gargantuan narwhale. You know, a marine animal with a freaking sword on its head. No big deal.
So, Aronnax is invited on a special mission by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy to board the USS Abraham Lincoln and begin hunting for this sea creature. After weeks of searching, the ship finally encounters the beast, but it's simply no match for it.
Aronnax is thrown overboard when the monster rams the ship, which leads his servant Conseil to go in after him. The two struggle to get back onboard the Lincoln, only to end up on the deck of some other vessel.
All is not well on the new ship. A bunch of men throw Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, into a cell below deck. Soon after, they are visited by their crazy cap'n, who reveals that he can speak all of the languages that they speak—French, German, English, and Latin—even though he pretended not to at first. Weirdo.
So we know very little about this guy who calls himself Captain Nemo, but he says already knows who Aronnax and his men are… which is super creepy, considering this whole story takes place in those pre-Facebook days. How did he know?! Anyway, Nemo tells the guys that he has "broken with humanity" and lives a secret life under the sea. Spiffy, huh?
Not really. Nemo's break with normal people means that our three main dudes can never go back on land. Nemo says they'll have freedom onboard his vessel, the Nautilus, except for the fact that he might lock them up again at any time… which doesn't sound much like freedom to us.
Nemo then announces that he will be taking the Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned on a voyage through all the world's seas. And boy do they voyage. They hunt in the underwater forests of Crespo Island and visit Vanikoro, the site of two famous shipwrecks.
One of their expeditions gets interrupted by cannibals. They travel through the Indian Ocean and visit a bed of pearls, where Nemo saves a pearl diver from a shark, and then has to be saved himself—by Ned.
Next, the crew visits some wrecked Spanish galleons carrying tons of gold, where Nemo solves his cash flow problems. Nemo even takes Aronnax on an expedition to see the lost city of Atlantis before setting a course for the South Pole. After some struggling, Nemo miraculously manages to plant his own flag on the Pole. (Sort of like what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would later do on the moon.)
And adventure, adventure, adventure, blah, blah, blah. Finally, while sailing north of England, Nemo himself becomes the target of revenge; he's attacked by an unknown ship. Aronnax is horrified when Nemo sinks this ship in order to get back at those people who Nemo says took away his family and his country.
Lastly, the Nautilus drifts aimlessly until it encounters… dun dun dun… the Maelstrom. Don't worry, it's just a gigantic deadly vortex of water. As the Nautilus is being pulled into this vortex, Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil manage to jump ship. They wake up in a cabin on a remote Norwegian island.
There, our first-person narrator Aronnax finishes recounting his wild and wacky voyage. But he hardly answers all of our questions. Or even most of them. He still doesn't know Nemo's home country or general backstory—or if he even survived the Maelstrom.
But, in trying to look on the bright side of life, Aronnax hopes that Nemo survived. And if Nemo did survive, he hopes that Nemo will be a changed man. Aronnax likes to imagine that Nemo will leave behind his vengeful ways and, you know, smile more.