Places: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1869-1870 (English translation, 1873; substantially revised English edition, 1965)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Science fiction

Time of work: 1866-1867

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedUSS <i>Abraham Lincoln</i>

USS Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaAbraham Lincoln. American naval frigate sent to investigate reports of a mysterious sea monster that is destroying warships on the high seas. Under Commodore Farragut–named after Civil War naval hero David G. Farragut–the Abraham Lincoln encounters not the sea monster it expects when it leaves New York but a mechanical wonder the likes of which did not exist in the civilized world. The encounter between the conventional warship and the exceptional submarine occurs only after the former’s long and exhausting search of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, two hundred miles off Japan, where the Nautilus sinks the Abraham Lincoln. The Nautilus takes aboard three of the frigate’s survivors: French scientist Pierre Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and Ned Land, an expert harpooner.

Verne’s love of the sixteenth president of the United States is evidenced in his choice of name for this novel’s frigate. Lincoln is also honored in the sequel to this novel, The Mysterious Island (1875), as the name of a Pacific island.


Nautilus. Submarine on which most of the novel is set. Verne’s love of ships and technology is evident in his descriptions of the technologically marvelous Nautilus. He knew the kinds of keels that could be manufactured in France, the kinds of shafts that could be cast in London, the screws that could be forged in Glasgow, the instruments that could be invented in New York City, the powerful engines that could be devised in Prussia, and the steel battering rams that could be forged in Sweden. From his store of mechanical lore, he invented the novel’s submarine. Verne also had knowledge of the battle of the American ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimack, during the U.S. Civil War.

Astounding for its time, the Nautilus is a submersible metal ship 232 feet long and 26 feet wide with a displacement of 1,500 tons of water. It possesses all the amenities of civilized life, including a twelve-thousand-volume library, an art museum, a collection of natural specimens, and even a pipe organ. It cost more than one million U.S. dollars to build–an amount that only a wealthy outlaw-prince, such as its Captain Nemo (a name meaning “no one”) could afford to pay.

The world does not hear of this ship before it begins its reign of terror on the seas during the late 1860’s because its parts had been secretly obtained and assembled on a desert island. This “Sailor” (for Nautilus is simply the Greek word for “sailor”) can turn a wilderness into a garden. Once again Verne returns to his familiar theme of technology having the ability to free humankind from imprisonment in space–be it on earth, over or under the seas, or in the air.


*Oceans. Nemo takes his uninvited guests on a tour of the world’s seas. To most people, the oceans are a watery wilderness, as hostile as the primordial oceans in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. To Captain Nemo, however, the watery desert is the “Living Infinite,” from which he obtains fuel for his ship, food for his crew, seaweed for his cigars, textiles for his clothing, and forbidden treasures from pearls, sunken ships, and the lost civilization of Atlantis. He has accumulated wealth enough “to pay the national debt of France.”

Aronnax and his cohorts are prisoners, but their prison is an elegant one. They sail under the South Pole (an impossibility in the real world), explore Plato’s legendary Atlantis, and navigate an unknown submarine passage under the Isthmus of Suez (where the Suez was being constructed at the time this novel is set). They experience high adventure–hunting with air guns in submarine forests, escaping attack by headhunters in New Guinea, and struggling with a notorious maelstrom off the coast of Norway, until they escape from Nemo’s grasp and return to normal society.

BibliographyAllotte de la Fuÿe, Marguerite. Jules Verne. Translated by Erik de Mauny. London: Staples Press, 1954. A biography of Verne by a member of his family which includes a commentary on his works, including the chapter “Nemo, Genius of the Seas.”Butor, Michel. “The Golden Age in Jules Verne.” In Inventory. London: Cape, 1970. An excellent essay which discusses the symbolic significance of Nemo and his vessel in the context of Verne’s oeuvre.Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978. Chapter 8 of this critical biography deals with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.Miller, Walter James. The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. New York: Crowell, 1976. The first full translation of the text, elaborately annotated.Verne, Jules. The Complete Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A New Translation of Jules Verne’s Science Fiction Classic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Eman-uel J. Mickel’s introduction offers a comprehensive study of the novel’s background and a survey of critical analyses of Verne’s work.
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