Study Guide

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Identity

By Jules Verne

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Part 1 Chapter 1

But it did exist, there was now no denying the fact; and given the inclination of the human mind to seek the fantastic, it is easy to understand the sensation that this supernatural apparition caused worldwide. (1.1.5)

In the absence of scientific explanations for the great sea beast, people fabricate magical, religious, or otherwise exciting explanations. It's human nature to want to tell stories. In fact, some people think unexplained scientific phenomena are what prompted us humans to form religions in the first place.

Part 1 Chapter 2

Now the latter theory, admissible after all, was unable to survive the researches carried out in the Old and New Worlds. 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)

Even Aronnax the Scientist seems to prefer more fantastic explanations for the Nautilus. Maybe his own limitations as a human being make it hard for him to believe that a fellow man could do something so extraordinary. Because if Nemo could build such a submarine, why hadn't Aronnax already built one? (Yeah, super egotistical people think this way sometimes… it's unfortunate.)

Part 1 Chapter 9

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)

Aronnax doesn't even know Nemo's name, but he's already come up with a pretty detailed analysis of him. Is he being a little premature, do you think? Why or why not?

Part 1 Chapter 14

Would I ever know to what nation this strange man belonged, that boasted of belonging to none? Who had produced the hatred he had sworn for the whole of humanity, the hatred which might perhaps seek a terrible vengeance? 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)

Perhaps Nemo is none of these things, though. Perhaps Nemo is something far less noble: a renegade whose personal vendetta has caused him to blow up ships around the world.

Part 1 Chapter 19

Captain Nemo went back to his room, and I did not see him for some time. But how clearly sad, desperate, and irresolute he was, if I can judge the state of his soul from our ship, which reflected all his moods! The Nautilus no longer maintained a fixed course. It came, it went, it drifted like a plaything of the waves […] The Nautilus was sailing at random, unable to tear itself away from the scene of its great battle, the sea which had swallowed up one of its members. (2.19.4)

In Nemo's absence, the Nautilus takes on his characteristics. It's an extension of his body, affected by his mood. In this way, our everyman, Nemo, becomes larger than life. When you've got no defined backstory, you can come to stand for anyone… or anything.

Part 1 Chapter 22

"What about the savages?" asked Conseil. "If monsieur pleases, they do not seem to me to be very ill-interested after all."

"They are cannibals, my good fellow."

"One can be a cannibal and a good man," replied Conseil, "just as one can be a glutton and honest. The one does not exclude the other." (1.22.44-6)

Conseil also doesn't want to identify or define another human being by a single characteristic. We can get behind him on this one; if you exclude those deity types, no one is really all good or all bad.

"Savages!" replied Captain Nemo in a sarcastic tone. "And you're surprised, Dr Aronnax, that when you set foot on one of the lands of this globe, you find savages? Where are there not savages, and, in any case, are those that you call savages any worse than the others?"

"But, captain…"

"For my part, sir, I have encountered them everywhere." (1.22.23-5)

Nemo's misanthropy makes him sort of race-blind. Sure, he doesn't like people, but he doesn't discriminate in his hatred. Such distinctions in identity aren't important to him because it's really that vague evil of oppression that he abhors. When you think about it, pretty much anyone could be considered an oppressor, when viewed through the right lens…

Part 2 Chapter 3

I began to reflect upon the incidents of our excursion to Mannar Bank. Two reflections inevitably followed. One was the outstanding bravery of Captain Nemo; the other his devotion to a fellow creature, a representative of the human race that he shunned under the seas. Whatever he might say, this strange man had not yet totally succeeded in killing his heart.

When I said as much to him he replied, with some little emotion:

"That Indian, doctor, is the inhabitant of an oppressed country. I am his compatriot, and shall remain so to my very last breath." (2.3.87-9)

Though Nemo doesn't tell us much about himself, he does let us know that he is an opponent of oppression. The problem is, "oppression" sounds pretty vague to us. Kind of like the "terrorism" bit of the "War on Terror"—how do we know who qualifies as a terrorist (and to whom)? We're not taking sides here. We're just curious literary types.

Part 2 Chapter 8

At that moment, my attention was caught by a few etchings on the walls that I had not noticed on my first visit. They were portraits of those great men of history whose lives were entirely devoted to a great human idea: Kosciusko, the hero who fell with the cry Finis Poloniae, Bozzaris, the Leonidas of modern Greece, O'Connell, the defender of Ireland, Washington, the founder of the American Union, Manin, the Italian patriot, Lincoln, who fell shot by a supporter of slavery, and finally John Brown, that martyr to the freeing of the black race, hanging from his gallows, as so terribly drawn by Victor Hugo.

What link existed between these heroic souls and the soul of Captain Nemo? Could I finally solve the mystery of his existence by this collection of portraits? Was he a champion of the downtrodden peoples, a liberator of enslaved races? Had he taken part in the political and social upheavals that had recently marked the century? Had he been one of the heroes of that terrible American Civil War, that frightful but forever glorious battle? (2.8.30-1)

Nemo's photos give us more clues to his identity, but few answers. Mainly, Aronnax just likes to speculate about Nemo's identity. We think he spends so much time speculatin' because the dude's not sure what to do or who to be himself. He certainly has a tough time deciding whether to flee the Nautilus or keep on having wacky adventures (while in Nemo's captivity) for the rest of his life.

Part 2 Chapter 18

What a scene! The poor man, seized by the tentacle and glued to its suckers, was being rocked in the air at the whim of its enormous trunk. He was groaning as he suffocated, and he was shouting: "Au secours! Au secours!" These words in French flabbergasted me. So I had a compatriot on board, perhaps several! I will hear his heartbreaking appeal in my ears till the end of my life. (2.18.101)

It takes a disaster to shed some light on Nemo's crew. And even then, Aronnax only gets to hear a few words… in French. He's happy that he's had a fellow countryman aboard all this time, but disappointed that he's missed out on the man's company. Clearly, Nemo is captaining a ship full o' exiles; maybe he's some kind of Leader of Lost Souls. Does the potentially multi-national crew make Nemo's warpath seem any more or less noble? Why or why not?

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