Front cover of an 1874 German translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (French:Vingt mille lieues sous les mers) is a science fiction fantasy adventure novel by the French author Jules Verne. It was first published in 1870. The main characters are a French scientist named Aronnax and the mysterious Captain Nemo. In order to escape repression in his homeland, Nemo has built a submarine called the Nautilus and roams freely through the world's oceans in it. The "twenty thousand leagues" of the title refers to the distance traveled, six times the diameter of the Earth. The greatest depth that the Nautilus descends to is four leagues.[1]

The novel was first published in English in 1873, in an abbreviated translation by Lewis Page Mercier, a British clergyman. Mercier's translation remained the standard one for a hundred years and changes that he made to the French text have continued to be incorporated into more recent translations. These changes include the name, the original title has "seas" in the plural.


The novel is narrated by Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist who is visiting New York with his assistant Conseil. At the time of Aronnax's visit, there have been several reports of a large sea creature of unknown species. An ocean liner has been damaged by the creature, thought by some to be a narwhal. Aronnax is asked by the United States government to take part in an expedition to seek out and destroy the creature. Aronnax and Conseil join the crew of the Abraham Lincoln, on board which they meet and befriend Ned Land, a French-speaking Canadian harpoonist.

The Abraham Lincoln sails around South America and into the Pacific Ocean. The monstrous sea creature is sighted, the ship charges at it and is damaged. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land are thrown overboard, find themselves on the back of the creature and discover that it is a machine made of metal. They are taken inside the electric-powered submarine, the Nautilus, and introduced to its creator and commander Captain Nemo.

Captain Nemo watches the squid from a porthole of the Nautilus. 1870 illustration by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.

"Nemo" is Latin for nobody and clearly a false name that the character has adopted.. Nemo has abandonned his former life and built his submarine not only out of scientific curiosity but also to roam the world free of the influences of the governments of any nation. Nemo apparently comes from a country with an oppressive government. It is suggested that the rulers of his country were responsible for the deaths of Nemo's wife and children.

The Nautilus travels around the world. Nemo and his companions see shipwrecks off the coast of Spain, the corals of the Red Sea, the ice shelves of Antarctica and the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis. The Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid[2] which eats one of the crew members. Nemo and his companions sometimes put on diving suits to leave the submarine and hunt for sharks.

Nemo is happy to have Aronnax, a leading scientist in the field of marine biology, on board and to be able to talk with him. However, Nemo insists,Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land can never leave, for fear that they will reveal his secrets to the world. For his part, Aronnax is delighted to take part in the undersea voyage. Ned Land, however, constantly tries to escape.

Captain Nemo, an accomplished musician, plays the organ. 1870 illustration by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.

Towards the end of the novel, a ship from the oppressive government from which Nemo escaped begins to track the Nautilus. Ignoring Aronnax's pleas, Nemo attacks the ship and sinks it, drowning everybody on board. Nemo becomes increasingly gloomy after having sunk the ship and either intentionally steers the Nautilus into the Moskstraumen whirlpool off the coast of Norway or does not try hard to steer the submarine away from it.

Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land manage to escape and make it to shore. The fate of Captain Nemo is uncertain.

Nationality of Captain Nemo

Jules Verne had originally intended Nemo to be a Polish nobleman who was seeking revenge on the forces of Tsarist Russia which had murdered his wife and children. Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, dissuaded him because the Russian Empire was an ally of France and Verne's books were popular there. Instead, Nemo's origins and the identity of his enemy are left vague in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In one of Verne's later novels, The Mysterious Island, Nemo is revealed to be an Indian prince and a descendant of Tipu Sultan whose enemy is the British Empire.

There are suggestions that the British are Nemo's enemy in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo has a portrait of Daniel O'Connell, a well known advocate of Irish independence.

See also


  1. A league is equivalent to 4 kilometers or approximately 3.45 miles.
  2. The original French text says poulpe, which means "octopus", but it usually appears as "giant squid" in English translations.

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