My reaction while reading the initial chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was one of utter amusement. As I remarked to Ben, anyone who says the classics are boring isn’t reading the right classics.
I was vastly entertained by the plot and characters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. One of Verne’s classic adventure novels, this book is the origin of numerous names and tropes that would live on in the science fiction genre in perpetuity.
The novel follows narrator Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist who joins an expedition on an American frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, in hot pursuit of what is believed to be a rowdy narwhal causing trouble in the open seas.
Of course, the narwhal turns out to be that contraption you see on the cover of the book, a uniquely designed submarine called the Nautilus, which boasts a full crew commanded by the formidable Captain Nemo.
I knew the name Captain Nemo, but didn’t know where it came from. Isn’t it funny how bits of culture become so universal that you can be aware of them most of your life without knowing the origin?
This is exactly why I take joy in the classics challenge. I feel like I am getting an education on all the important books I missed in school, despite having covered a lot of ground as an English major.
Noteworthy notes about the book:
- The most interesting conflict in the book, to me, is the fact that the professor and his two companions are held captive on the Nautilus. From the time they are rescued from death at sea by Captain Nemo, he warns them that they are to live out their days on the submarine. Death at sea is the other option and they are alive at his pleasure. So, while traveling in the submarine is a grand adventure, it is also a prison for the three captives which keeps the reader asking “Will they escape?” until the end.
- Team Ned Land forever. Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, is along for the ride. He’s a classic jock/meathead type who is quite disgruntled at having been taken captive and eager to get back to land. One of my favorite lines of his is in reaction to Aronnax encouraging him to look forward to their first meal aboard the Nautilus:
“Bah!” said the angry harpooner, “what do you suppose they eat here? Tortoise liver, filleted shark, and beef steaks from seadogs.” Lol.
- This is very much a book of its time, by which I mean there is racism. When Aronnax and his companions come upon the people of Papua New Guinea, I’m afraid they refer to them as savages, cannibals, and wretches. Ick.
- Science fiction readers will be accustomed to some of the technical descriptions in the book. These are especially lengthy while Captain Nemo is explaining the workings of the submarine to Aronnax.
I found passages like these mind-numbingly boring, however:
“When you are about 1,000 feet deep, the walls of the Nautilus bear a pressure of 100 atmospheres. If, then, just now you were to empty the supplementary reservoirs, to lighten the vessel, and to go up to the surface, the pumps must overcome the pressure of 100 atmospheres, which is 1,500 lbs. per square inch.”
Sorry, but I have no patience for this sort of thing.
- I loved the awe-inspiring scenes of underwater travel. Coral reefs, an ice tunnel, an underwater volcano, majestic ocean animals, and schools of fish are all featured.
- That said, I should have known that spending time, even in my imagination, in a submarine under the sea would give me anxiety. Anything that hints remotely at possible loss of oxygen makes me nervous and cringey and moments in this book were no exception. I had to remind myself to breathe at times.
- The ending was not. satisfying. at. all.
I’ll leave it there as I’ve run on much longer than I intended, per usual. Overall, worth the read. But I’m still mad about the ending.