Study Guide

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Themes

By Jules Verne

  • Exile

    Nemo's a man with no home but all of the world's oceans. Yeah, we don't feel too bad for him. When we read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we don't know exactly why Nemo left dry land behind. Sure, it had something to do with the death of his family and tyranny and evil men. But we do know that he has no intention of going back, so his exile is more self-imposed than anything else. In fact, he's gotten so good at living in the ocean, he's only got sea legs these days; putting this dude back on solid ground would give him a true taste of banishment from his homeland—er, homesea.

    Questions About Exile

    1. Can Nemo's exile really be called a punishment? Does he seem to be enjoying himself aboard the Nautilus?
    2. What would we think of Nemo if he lived in the ocean just for kicks—if he weren't consumed with hatred and obsessed with revenge?
    3. Nemo claims to love living in the sea, but are there any signs that he might not mind a chance to return to land?
    4. What if Nemo could live under the ocean alone? That is to say, how does his position as a captain of other exiles change our perception of him?

    Chew on This

    Nemo's exile is less a punishment than an opportunity to start fresh.

    By casting himself out of society, Nemo has everything to gain and nothing to lose. From the moment we meet him, we realize that he no longer had any good reason to remain in the "civilized world."

  • Hate

    There's a word for Nemo's particular brand of hatin': misanthropy. That's a fancy term for "a dislike of mankind." In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we never really know who has caused Nemo's pain. So, the ever-lurking, ambiguous nature of his enemies makes us feel like everyone could is his enemy. Nemo's hatred of mankind doesn't prevent him from liking certain individuals, however. He gets along with his crew just fine, he works with the Greek diver, and he saves the poor Indian pearl diver. Plus, despite their differences, he seems to like Aronnax. So Nemo's sort of a mixed bag of fiery hate and not-so-fiery like, after all.

    Questions About Hate

    1. Nemo demonstrates compassion and concern on more than one occasion. Can he really be called a misanthrope if he's capable of acts of kindness?
    2. Aronnax is convinced that Nemo is filled with hatred from the moment he meets him. What inspires this gut reaction in Aronnax?
    3. Would we empathize more with Aronnax if his hatred were more targeted?
    4. Aronnax calls Nemo an "archangel of hate." Are there any positive aspects to Nemo's anger? Does it give him a "holy" quality?

    Chew on This

    Hatred defines Nemo and powers his intellect; without it, he would be not only no one, but nothing.

    Though he may seem hateful on the surface, Nemo's commitment to the oppressed peoples of the world suggests that his feelings are much more complex.

  • Revenge

    What good action movie (or sci fi book) doesn't have a character who lives for revenge? "Do you think I am unaware there are suffering beings and oppressed races on this planet," Nemo asks Aronnax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, "wretches to be helped and victims to be avenged?" (2.8.75). The thing is, whether or not Nemo knows about these "wretches"—and he certainly seems to—he's not killing people just to right mankind's wrongs. He has a personal score to settle, one that he refuses to fully explain. And this confusion of personal motives and idealist, nation-state kinda-motives makes it hard for us to know how "good" or "evil" Nemo really is. Is Nemo using this whole business about "oppressed races" just to justify his personal vendettas?

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Does Aronnax feel like an accomplice to Nemo's final act of revenge? Should he, do you think?
    2. Aronnax tells Nemo that Ned might be motivated to seek revenge if he's not given his freedom. Are Ned's desires really that different from Nemo's? 
    3. Why does Nemo bring Aronnax to see the Vengeur? Is it a coincidence that the Nautilus encounters the mystery warship at that very moment?
    4. Nemo's last words are "God almighty! Enough! Enough!" Do we get sense that Nemo's "massacre" of the mystery warship helped him to finally fulfill some goal? Is there any reason to believe this is Nemo's his last act of revenge?

    Chew on This

    Nemo's thirst for revenge is entirely justified by the tragedies he has endured.

    Nemo's quest for vengeance is aimless and endless; his only missions are to survive and to allow the oppressed peoples of the world (whomever they may be) to continue fighting.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. 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?
    3. 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.

  • Justice

    We here at Shmoop are pretty suspicious of anyone who tries to enforce martial law. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Aronnax calls Nemo a "terrible lawgiver" (2.21.91). But we never get a sense of what those laws are. All we know is that Nemo's got a chip on his shoulder and a heck of a weapon—and this leads to some pretty questionable scenarios. Aronnax is forced to wonder whether Nemo's attacks can possibly be justified. And then there's that whole "You guys can never, ever leave my submarine" bit. Apparently, though Nemo may speak out against tyrants and despots, there's more than a little of his sworn enemies inside of him.

    Questions About Justice

    1. Nemo tells Aronnax not to hold him to society's standards. How does Nemo look if we do hold him to those standards?
    2. Aronnax tells us that Nemo does not have to answer to any man; he is only subject to the judgment of God and his conscience. But what if Nemo doesn't believe in God? What if he has no conscience?
    3. Nemo proclaims, "I am the law. I am the justice." What does he mean by this? What laws guide his actions?

    Chew on This

    No matter how we view them, Nemo's actions are neither just nor unjust at core. By separating himself from humanity, Nemo has separated himself from our normative ideas of morality and justice.

    Though he claims to have removed himself from all regular notions of justice, Nemo's actions contradict his words. When he deems one group of people the "oppressed" and another the "oppressors," he is adopting the moral stances of society at large.

  • Exploration

    Go West—um, we mean, sea-ward—my son! In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Verne crafts an oceanic world filled with marvelous sights and endless delights. But every expedition has its downsides. Nemo's quest to conquer the South Pole nearly gets him, and everyone else on board the Nautilus, killed. Plus, Arronax starts to wonder whether or not (wo)man was meant to see everything this group has seen. So, Verne seems to suggest that even the greatest, most amazing people, places, and things have a dark side. The book's also got us thinkin' that maybe man isn't meant to conquer every corner of the earth… or outer space.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. At the end of the book, Aronnax acts as though he has seen as much of the seas as Nemo. Can this possibly be true? Is Aronnax simply being arrogant, or is he trying to make some other point with this statement?
    2. Sure, Aronnax and company do a lot of sightseeing, but what about self-exploration? Do any of Aronnax's many questions lead him to discover something new within himself?
    3. After escaping from the ice at the South Pole, Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil act as though they've seen things that no man was meant to see. What motivates those feelings?
    4. Nemo has "conquered" much of his world, from the Antarctic to Atlantis. What's he to do once he's been to all the ends of the Earth?

    Chew on This

    Nemo's discoveries, however great they may be, are overshadowed by the incidents of violence that interpolate them.

    No matter how deep into the ocean Nemo goes, he cannot hide from his anger or his pain.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In some ways, Nemo has incredible freedom, yet he's confined to a cigar-shaped metal boat for most of his days. Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil enjoy a similar kind of freedom as Nemo while they're his captives: there's nothing to stop them from exploring the ship or the wonders of Nemo's world. But they must never leave the Nautilus. Confinement within freedom… This kind of contradiction is the name of the game in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For example, for Aronnax, the freedom to study comes at the price of the freedom to leave. And he has serious trouble deciding which is more important.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Conseil compares Nemo to an "argonaut," a mollusk that can leave its shell, but never does. Is his comparison fitting? Why or why not?
    2. Nemo talks a lot about being totally free and independent, and yet he must spend his days inside the Nautilus. What seems to be missing from Nemo's conception of freedom?
    3. Are Ned and Aronnax right to call their imprisonment on the Nautilus "slavery"?
    4. At one point, Aronnax guesses that Nemo may have fought on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. What if he guessed correctly? How would this change our perspective on Nemo?

    Chew on This

    Verne shows us that freedom is entirely subjective; while Nemo and his crew may enjoy the vast pleasures of remote undersea worlds while aboard the Nautilus, they can never truly escape the ship.

    By forcing Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil to stay on board his ship, Nemo undermines his own attacks on tyranny and despotism. His rules are just as arbitrary as any other ruler's.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Nemo may be able to order his crew around, but he can't control all living things… even if he really, really wants to. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo's underwater dominance does not go uncontested. And when certain forces of nature get in Nemo's way—giant squid, blocks of ice, huge whirlpools, certain species of whales that seem to unjustly "oppress" other whales (yeah, this guy is actually way crazy)—he's not shy about vanquishing them. So, yeah, the captain fancies himself a freedom-fighter. But he doesn't take kindly to other people breaking his rules. Kind of hypocritical, don'tchya think?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Time and again, we're shown how Nemo has mastered the ocean. But when is his dominance is contested, and by whom or what?
    2. During the fight between the Antarctic whales and the sperm whales, we learn that Nemo considers some animals "evil." What does this tell us about Nemo's view of the world?
    3. When it comes to animals, Ned classifies everything according to how it tastes. Conseil has a strictly academic point of view; he doesn't even know what a living cod looks like. What accounts for these characters' skewed perspectives? And why are both of them presented in this book?

    Chew on This

    Nemo is the ultimate symbol of self-reliance, a great example of a man totally in harmony with the world around him.

    It's no coincidence that the Nautilus gets stuck right after traveling to the South Pole. As Ned says, "You always have to stop when [Nature] has laid down her limits" (2.13.30). The group escapes that time, but when Nemo drifts toward the Maelstrom, he finds himself pitted against the very outer bounds of Nature… and he might've lost that fight.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Everybody loves a good super-genius, especially one who can construct a super-powerful submarine. Nemo's mastery of science and engineering—as demonstrated by his diving suits and electricity guns, in addition to his sub—is awesome. But it's also alienating. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo's achievements set him apart from humanity in more ways than one. They mark him as a genius, but they also make him an outcast. His inventions are a century ahead of time and so is he; he doesn't belong in the world into which he was born. Wamp wamp.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Why do people find it easier to believe in a giant narwhal than in a sophisticated submersible vessel?
    2. Why can't Nemo share the secrets of the Nautilus with the wider world? Couldn't he put them to better use in the service of "oppressed peoples"?
    3. Why is the Nautilus so often spoken of as if it's a living being?

    Chew on This

    Though the Nautilus provides ample evidence of Nemo's genius, it also speaks to his selfishness. His vessel is little more than a cocoon, a comfortable place to rest; odds are, he could be putting his gifts to much better use.

    Verne shows us that man is rarely willing to recognize genius in its time. Whatever his particular history may be, Nemo is framed as a victim of ignorance and the fear of innovation.