Jules Verne is arguably one of the most prescient science-fiction authors in history – his works are remembered for their vast imagination and endlessly prescient views into the future of science and the exciting nature of their adventures. One of his most well known works, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is on its surface a fantastical tale of a group of men who stumble upon the secret submarine Nautilus, commanded by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. However, closer examination of the novel itself reveals Verne’s penchant for social commentary and intricate political subtext, as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea becomes a mirror for the historical context of the times and a harsh critique of the expansionist and imperialist attitudes of the British Empire at the time of the book’s release.
On a thematic level, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is essentially about the conflict between the ideologies of Aronnax, the protagonist, and Nemo. Nemo is a pioneer of the first order, wishing to live and work beyond the reach of any government or state system; he is in self-imposed exile from civilization, wishing to not involve himself in the affairs and problems of others. He is merely interested in scientific marine research and biology, wishing to perform his work free of oversight from society and civilization. Aronna, meanwhile, is still fairly connected to his English origins and civilization as a whole, with Nemo becoming an object of fascination (and later horror) for him.
Nemo’s self-imposed exile and his own autonomous action seems antithetical and deliberately rebellious in the face of British imperialism, which is the kind of society Arronax hails from and is one of the dominant social forces in the world at the time. In an era when sea-faring vessels were used for warfare, trade and colonization, the Nautilus’s pure focus on scientific exploration, without the need of approval or funding from a nation state for its own purposes, is revolutionary for the time. In a way, Verne meant to show his audience the way people could live without the need to belong to a potentially corrupting society like the British Empire.
One of the more interesting theories involving literary criticism of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is Captain Nemo’s character being sourced from the French revolutionary and intellectual Gustave Flourens (Kallivretakis 208). A friend of Karl Marx, Flourens was a revolutionary who often fought in Polish, Cretan, and Irish uprisings, writing intellectual screeds about the need for freedom and revolution (Kallivretakis 208). Nemo’s original nationality was Polish; he was meant to be a scientist who became mad after a Russian czar killed his family, making his backstory a reference to the Second Polish Revolution of 1863 (Kallivretakis 210). However, Nemo’s background was made more enigmatic after his editors complained about the political subtext. Arguing, then, that these origins are still there as an inspiration for the character, Nemo himself is shown to be a flawed yet idealistic engine of social change. This is still present in the book, as Arronax sees pictures hanging on Nemo’s wall of “great men of history who had spent their lives in perpetual devotion to a great human ideal,” such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Leonidas and other freedom fighters (Verne, Part I Chapter 8).
Nemo’s ultimate Indian identity is revealed, as well as his revolutionary spirit, when he attacks a vessel that had attacked the Nautilus previously, ramming it in order to destroy them. When Arronax attempts to change his mind, Nemo responds, “I’m the law, I’m the tribunal! I’m the oppressed, and there are my oppressors!” thus revealing his revolutionary nature (Verne, Part I Chapter 21). Throughout the novel, Nemo acts as a rebellious character, decrying what he sees as the corrupting and violent nature of civilization in favor of solitude for the sake of scientific research and self-governance, illustrating Verne’s ideal of a revolutionary who violently objects to the state system.
In addition to Nemo’s presence as an iconic social revolutionary, Verne also seemed to advocate for the utility and progression of advanced technology such as Nemo had on the Nautilus. Nemo, being a mad genius and scientist, creates a number of technological advancements that thrill audiences reading the book, from the size and capabilities of the submersible Nautilus itself to the diving suits and electricity guns that he creates as well. Because of the immense power Nemo holds, Verne seems to fetishize these elements, believing that these kinds of gadgets are the future of mankind, and can revolutionize research and societal progress. While Nemo is presented as an insane loner who does have his own problems to deal with, the implementation of such technologies and their detailed description within the book offers a brighter future than Verne likely saw in contemporary society. Arronax clearly sees the wonder inherent in the Nautilus, as he says to Nemo near the end of the book, “your ship is a century ahead of its time, or perhaps several. What a shame that such a secret must die with its inventor!” (Verne, Part II Chapter IV). At the same time, nature does end up willing out over even Nemo’s advanced technology, as ice floes end up being the death of the great ship: “ One can disdain human laws, but not resist natural ones” (Verne, Part II Chapter XV). The novel doubles as a prideful declaration of how far we’ve come and a chilling reminder of how much we still did not know about the world and nature (Evans 156).
In conclusion, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is not just a thrilling adventure story, but the allegorical tale of man versus nature/society/technology/imperialism, and more. Captain Nemo, as a figure, is highly inspired by revolutionary figures of Verne’s time, as his emphasis is on social justice and revenge in the rare moments he is confronted with the dangers of imperialistic seafaring navies and civilization. Nemo’s self-imposed exile is meant to be somewhat of an ideal situation, as he is able to live independently of others, focusing purely on research and scientific discoveries. Verne conceptualizes brilliant new technologies he believes mankind should work toward, while also warning of the dangers of believing oneself to be better than nature. The arrogance of British imperial arrogance (in the form of Arronax) compared to the enigmatic lack of identity Nemo represents is the key ideological constant, as the book is essentially about these two ideas colliding. By showing Nemo’s radical exile as a way to escape the kind of stifling civilization Arronax represents, Verne idolizes him and creates a fascinating character which audiences can find endlessly fascinating.
Evans, Arthur B. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. No. 27.
Greenwood Publishing Group, 1988.
Kallivretakis, Leonidas. "Jules Verne's Captain Nemo and French Revolutionary Gustave
Flourens: A Hidden Character Model?." The Historical Review/La Revue Historique 1 (2008): 207-243.
Panshin, Alexei, and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest
for Transcendence. JP Tarcher, 1989.
Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 1870. Print.