20,000 Leagues under the sea

Despite the book being an obvious classic and well established in the collective cultural awareness, I was pretty blurry on a lot of the story. This meant I got to enjoy the thrill of wanting to find out what happens next, chapter by chapter — a joy that’s not often permitted with classics of this scale.

For example, the initial chapters are spent conjecturing about, and later chasing of, a presumed wondrous sea monster of incredible size. It has a horn that penetrates steel hulls, emits a bright bioluminescence at night, and can stay underwater for seemingly vast stretches of time. Much like the characters in the book, I was left fantasizing about what this mysterious being could be. The sense of wonderment reminded me of a series of sci-fi comics I read as a teenager.

The characters themselves are hardly to be called characters at all. Apart from their cliche’d personalities, they lack any depth or development. This seems to be a common aspect of adventure novels from the period (Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Christo, etc…) This is not to the novel’s detriment, though. They serve solely as vehicles for the novel’s actual goals. Captain Nemo only serves as the big, overarching enigma to be solved (though he is, to an unrealistic extent, kept a mystery for the entirety of the novel). The Canadian harpooner Ned Land only serves as a force of rebellion and comic relief (how many jokes about the man’s appetite can we take before it gets stale? Not many, it turns out…) Arronax, ostensably the protagonist, serves little purpose in the story, other than to match Nemo’s intellectualism, and to educate the reader with barrage upon barrage of subaquatic factoids.

That last one, while arguably phrased a bit uncharitably, is I think the biggest merit of the novel. For most contemporary readers, the ocean holds few mysteries. Many of us have visited aquariums, seen live sharks or stingrays, shoals of brilliantly colored tropical fish, bioluminescent plants, seen submarine footage from the bottom of the ocean, seen shipwrecks or sunken settlements. The amazement, mystery and education the book brought to readers when it was first published is somewhat lessened for us. It takes some amount of empathy, or maybe even role-play, to assume the role of a historic reader, and be overwhelmed by the increbible sights and adventures of the Nautilus.