Study Guide

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Man and the Natural World

By Jules Verne

Man and the Natural World

Part 1 Chapter 2

The human mind enjoys grandiose conceptions of supernatural beings. Now the sea is their best vehicle, for it is the only environment which can produce and develop such giants; beside them the land animals, the elephants or rhinoceroses are mere dwarfs. (1.2.25)

Maybe the sea is also the only place big enough to contain Nemo's human ambitions. The oceans' vast wonders capture Nemo's imagination… and Aronnax's too.

Part 1 Chapter 10

The sea is nature's vast reserve. It was through the sea that the globe as it were began, and who knows if it will not end in the sea! Perfect peace abides here. The sea does not belong to despots. On its surface immoral rights can still be claimed, men can fight each other, devour each other, and carry out all earth's atrocities. But thirty feet below the surface their power ceases, their influence fades, their authority disappears. Ah, sir, live, live in the heart of the sea! Independence is possible only here! Here I recognize no master! Here I am free! (1.10.79)

Nemo speaks as though he were born in the sea… as if he were no longer a man, but rather a creature of the ocean. What about Nemo's character allows us to think of him as more than a man—as a symbol or a mythical creature?

Part 1 Chapter 18

It can be seen that the ocean provided its most marvelous sights during this crossing, incessantly and without count. It varied them infinitely. The sea changed its backdrop and its scenery for our pleasure, and we were called on to contemplate the works of the Creator in the midst of the liquid element, but also to penetrate the most fearful mysteries of the ocean. (1.18.36)

Nemo allows Aronnax to feel as though he's the master of the entire ocean. We think this is part of Nemo's tactic for convincing Aronnax (and his buddies) to stay on board… as well as his tactic for convincing himself that his lifestyle is both awesome and justified.

"Look," he continued; "it is waking up in the sun's caresses! It is going to live its daily life again! How absorbing to study the full life of its organism!" (18.11)

When it comes to the ocean, Nemo's able to see the forest and the trees, as it were. It's both one huge organism and a place filled with a huge variety of life. Even though Nemo has a conflicted relationship with nature, he sure does respect it.

Part 1 Chapter 19

But I will add that the days of the Bible are simply eras and not the time between two sunrises, for, according to the Bible itself, the sun does not date from the first day of creation. (1.19.11)

Aronnax is able to take the Biblical idea of nature and reconcile it with his own scientific views. Pretty impressive, if we do say so ourselves.

Part 2 Chapter 5

"And so, captain," Conseil said seriously, "if by chance this were the last of its race, would it be better to spare it—in the interests of science?"

"Perhaps," responded the Canadian; "but in the interests of the table, it is better to hunt it."

"So go ahead, Master Land," replied Captain Nemo. (2.5.44-6)

Ned lets his stomach, not his brain, do the thinking. It's surprising that Nemo doesn't intervene. But if Nemo doesn't view Ned's prey as "oppressed," we're guessing he actually doesn't care that much what Ned does.

Part 2 Chapter 10

I can see, captain, that nature serves you everywhere and on all occasions. (2.10.33)

Aronnax is right. Nemo's truly the master of the ocean. Except that the ocean can probably wipe him out anytime it wants; like, by dragging him into the Maelstrom, for example.

Part 2 Chapter 12

Here, it would be killing for killing's sake. I realize that it is one of man's privileges, but I cannot condone these murderous pastimes. By destroying the Antarctic whale like the right whale, inoffensive and good creatures as they are, your fellows commit a damnable action. (2.12.96)

Nemo does side with the animals sometimes. He doesn't like seeing these whales massacred for vengeance, rather than carefully (and respectfully) hunted for food. Ned, evidently, believes his killings have a noble purpose. However, he views Nemo's somewhat arbitrary division of animal species into "good" and "evil" as ignoble. We have to side with Ned on this one.

Part 2 Chapter 13

"Monsieur," Land said to me that day, "if your captain goes further…"


"Then he will be a master amongst men."

"Why, Ned?"

"Because nobody can cross the ice-cap. Your captain is powerful, but hell! He is not as powerful as Nature, and you always have to stop when she has laid down her limits." (2.13.26-30)

According to Ned, Nemo is a master among men; he does not respect the supposed limits of Nature. What do we think Jules Verne's qualms are with man pushing past Nature's limits? What common themes of sci fi novels do we see a-brewing in this novel?

Part 2 Chapter 15

"And how did we run aground?"

"From a whim of nature, not from human error. There were no operational failures. However, we cannot prevent the effects of equilibrium. One can disdain human laws, but not resist natural ones." (2.15.31-2)

Master of the seas though he may be, Nemo cannot ignore all of nature's laws. Kinda like how gravity is always gravity, no matter where on earth you go.

"When we are back on land, and take for granted so many of these brilliant works of nature's," added Conseil, "what will we think of the grey landmasses and insignificant works of art man has hand-crafted! No, the inhabited world is no longer worthy of us!" (2.15.67)

Conseil thinks that man-made crap pales in comparison to all of the wonders of the natural world. We're pretty sure Aronnax agrees, except that he wants to be a famous scientist and all. You know, a man among men.