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Ever notice how close the name Aronnax is to arrogance? Well, we don't think that's an accident. Pierre Aronnax is billed as a scientist's scientist, a Professor of Marine Biology who lectures at hoity-toity European museums. But the dude begins 20,000 Leagues by claiming that the creature currently terrorizing the world's oceans is a giant narwhal. Boy, is he wrong.
So, our introduction to Aronnax isn't exactly flattering. He thinks he knows everything, but he misses a lot. And he gets kinda agitated when other people seem to surpass his own capabilities.
For example, Professor Arrogance didn't build any submarines. And when he boards the Nautilus, he's very suspicious of how Captain Nemo could have put the thing together on his own. Sure, we admit it: it's pretty hard to imagine how Nemo could have constructed such a crazy futuristic piece of technology all by his lonesome. But Aronnax's response to the Nautilus reeks of envy and insecurity:
That a private individual had at his disposition a mechanical contrivance of this sort was improbable. When and where could he have had it built, and how could he have kept its construction secret? (1.2.6)
Dude is really trying to save face here. Similarly, Professor Arrogance often puts the preservation of knowledge and the upholding of social norms above humanity. Like, even above his own, and others', safety.
For most of the novel, Aronnax and Ned Land engage in verbal fisticuffs about their potential escape from the Nautilus. Aronnax is so often paralyzed by indecision that he just sits and watches the pretty fishies swim by the sub's giant windows. And what might wrest him from his own inaction, you ask? Further self-absorption, of course:
We had not been made to break with humanity. For my part, I did not wish my intriguing and original studies to be buried with me. (1.18.7)
Ah, now here's the real reason Aronnax must return to land: if he doesn't, no one will ever laud him for all of the fantastic discoveries he made aboard the Nautilus.
We're guessing that you're also wondering why our protagonist seems so darn obsessed with people's nationalities. At least with Nemo, this shtick kind of makes sense, because Aronnax is trying to figure out how his Captain ended up so ragey. So Aronnax thinks deep thoughts like, "Would I ever know to what nation this strange man belonged, that boasted of belonging to none?" (1.14.24).
But that's not the whole story, is it? Clearly, Aronnax's got a lot of national pride. He gets all excited when other people can speak his language, and he's evidently a little disappointed that the ol' harpooner is French-Canadian—a.k.a, not the real (French) deal. Plus, when the group gets into a little fracas with those cannibals, Aronnax seems less concerned with getting eaten alive than he is with acting like a good European should:
I could easily have shot this native, within close range, but I believed it better to wait for really hostile behaviour. When dealing with savages, it is better for the Europeans to riposte, rather than attack first. (1.22.39)
In part, Aronnax's obsessive nationalism is a product of Verne's times. But it also furthers the book's theme of the questionable defensibility of violence; is there any backstory Aronnax could dream up for Nemo that'd justify Nemo's killings? What do you think Aronnax is trying to justify by obsessively focusing on his and others' nationalities?
The Professor is what you might call a pedant. He loves to shows off all of his book smarts, often at the cost of missing really obvious stuff that's going on in the world around him. Like the fact that Nemo is a scary, vengeful wacko.
Really, it's kind of astounding that he doesn't put some of Nemo's puzzle pieces together till the end of the book. The truth is, he doesn't see Nemo for what he is—crazy—because he doesn't want to. Sure, Aronnax is suspicious of the guy. Early on, Aronnax says this of Nemo:
I saw the enigmatic individual as essentially pitiless and cruel, as he was forced to be. I felt him as being beyond the pale of humanity, insensible to feelings of pity, the remorseless enemy of his fellow beings, against whom he must have sworn an undying hatred. (1.9.63)
But Aronnax is so in love with the Captain, as a kind of pseudo-scientist rebel-man of the high seas, that he totally romanticizes him as well:
Was he one of those unrecognized scientists, one of those geniuses 'who had been hurt' to use Conseil's expression, a modern Galileo; or he was he one of those scientists […] whose career was ruined by a political revolution? (1.14.24)
Now, it's easy to feel for Aronnax. Nemo has helped all of Aronnax's wildest scientific dreams come true—and more. While aboard the Nautilus, he's got a quiet study, an awesome library, and an unbeatable window into the undersea world.
But Aronnax has gotten himself into quite a pickle. Even before the whole "this-nut-kills-innocent-people" issue comes up, Aronnax has qualms with the terms of his and his friends' captivity. When Aronnax argues that only a "savage" has the right to keep them locked away, Nemo shuts him up right away.
Aronnax spends the rest of the voyage wondering if he should submit to Nemo's rules, if he should escape, and if he even has the right to escape:
What terrible hours I spent, now seeing myself safe on land with my companions, now wishing, despite my rational side, that some unforeseen circumstance would prevent Ned's plans from unfolding. (2.8.20)
All of these thoughts—and questions about Nemo's identity—swirl around in Aronnax's head like water in the Maelstrom. It takes the terrible massacre of the unidentified warship to jolt Aronnax into action. The man who claimed that Nemo "never spills the blood of innocent creatures without good reason" (2.14.34) is forced to admit that he might have been wrong.
As we know, this isn't the first time Aronnax has been wrong. So at least he ends the book considerably wiser than he started. And at least he knows more about the ocean now than he did, given that he's gained some firsthand experience. But he still probably doesn't know as much as he claims. Aronnax writes:
'So, to that question, which the Book of Ecclesiastes posed 6,000 years ago,' he writes, ''hast thou walked in search of the depth?', two men, amongst all men, now have the right to reply. Captain Nemo and I. (2.26.6)
But while Aronnax has walked a mile in Nemo's shoes—or floated 20,000 leagues in his submarine, as it were—the sea will never be his home. And Aronnax's knowledge will never be as deep or comprehensive as his host's.