Study Guide: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

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CHAPTER 10: “The Man of the Sea”


The man speaking French was the commander of the vessel. He had been one of the men at the first meeting, and was capable of speaking all of the languages they had tried to communicate in. He had not responded because he was interested in listening to them and reflecting on what they said. The commander spoke calmly and with great ease, though Aronnax suspected he was not French. The commander explained how he was a man “broken with humanity,” and was unsure of how to deal with these intruders. Aronnax tried to explain that the intrusion was unintentional, but the commander pointed out that chasing his vessel, shooting his vessel, and hitting the vessel with a harpoon were each intentional actions.

The captain explained to the men that he believed he had the right to treat them as enemies. When Aronnax pleaded that the captain was a human not a savage, the captain angrily rebuked him, yelling that he had broken with society and was no longer subject to its rules. The captain decided that the men could stay on board with freedom if they accepted one condition: the men must obey his command to stay in their cabin when requested, so they did not see what the captain wished to keep secret.

The freedom offered to Aronnax, Conseil and Land was the same as the other men on the ship: they could walk around as they wished and observe all that happened; they only had to return to their cell on rare occasions. However, they men would never be allowed to return home. Outraged, Land said he would not give his word that he would not try to escape. Aronnax argued that the captain was cruel. The captain stated he was being merciful. The captain contended that the three men had attacked him; they had boarded his ship. He was protecting himself by not letting them go--he did not want anyone to know of his existence.

The captain promised Dr. Aronnax that he would enjoy his time in the vessel. The captain had Aronnax’s book in his collection, but told him he was bound to earth science--he did not know everything and would soon enter a wonderland. Aronnax was compelled by the captain’s offer and accepted the terms of their stay. Aronnax was displeased when the captain did not offer his hand to seal their agreement.

The captain said his name was Captain Nemo, and that he would simply call Land and Conseil passengers of the Nautilus. Land and Conseil were given a meal in their cell and Aronnax was instructed to eat in the dining hall with Captain Nemo. The dining hall was well decorated with oak and ebony. While eating, Captain Nemo exuberantly explained to Aronnax how the sea provided for all of his needs. He was much more jubilant than he had first appeared.


Verne calls the ship that tries to catch the creature, the Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States from 1861-1865, presided over the American Civil War and is credited with preserving the Union. He was assassinated in April, 1865--one year before the book begins. The captain of the Abraham Lincoln, Farragut, is named for a Union admiral, David Farragut. Farrugut was credited with saying “Damn the torpedoes--full speed ahead!!!” This statement may be construed as brave or insane, and Farragut can be seen in the same light. The actions of the Abraham Lincoln, which appear rash and arrogant may be yet another classification of the United States (similar to Ned Land, the gruff “American”). In the 19th century the United States was an emerging nation, that was quickly gaining in economic and military might; yet, it was not always a match for its European neighbors across the Atlantic. Many Europeans scoffed at the young nation and its belief in manifest destiny of the 1840s (the belief that God wanted the United States to reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific).

This section strongly develops the air of mystery that pervades the novel. The men are placed in a dark cell, no one seems to speak their language, and they have no idea what is happening. While the men inhabit the Nautilus they are slowly stripped of their national identity. They live among a foreign language that they do not understand, in a vessel that inhabits no nation, and they are subject to a new set of laws--Nemo’s laws.

Another important aspect of this section is Ned Land’s reference to cannibalism. This is a reoccurring fear he will have. Literally, he is afraid his fellow man will eat him alive. The symbolism of Land’s name should not be forgotten. Unlike Aronnax, he can only survive on the tangible--he is not please to sit and consider theoretical ideas or philosophy. He is, in every sense, a creature of the land. The land is what Nemo has tried to escape, because he has a deep hatred for his fellow man. Perhaps Land and Nemo are correct to fear their fellow man will eat them alive, both literally and figuratively.

This section also develops the characters of the men. Ned Land continues to be easily angered and demanding (the gruff American); Aronnax continues to be refined and concerned with protocol (note the French word for arrogance is the same as the English-strikingly similar to Aronnax); Conseil continues to serve (note the French word for counsel is conseil-- although Conseil is said to never counsel, he almost always does, with permission of course).

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