M Aronnax and Captain Nemo: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

I may be a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Jules Verne classic tale, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It’s a story I highly suggest for any one interested in the ocean, for his descriptions of the seas and their other worldly inhabitants are wonderful.

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Captain Nemo is simultaneously an intriguing character, and an unsympathetic jerk.  My main critique of his person is that he is cocky.  He believes that the ocean exists for his taking (although this was not a thought confined to just this man). He tries to impose his reign over its subjects, and takes deeply of its bounty without ever offering anything in return.

“Captain Nemo pointed with his hand to the enormous heap of oysters.  And I could well understand that this mine was practically inexhaustible, for nature’s creative force is always in advance of man’s instinct for destruction.” (pg 138).

oyster_dalian

Would that this were so.  Unfortunately, humans are learning that this is not the case, as we quickly deplete our ocean as a resource.  For all his precocious views of submarine travel, diving apparatuses and what might be found at depth, Jules Verne seemed to think that the ocean could provide for man’s thirst of more.  Perhaps he could not foresee that mankind’s thirst is more boundless than to what even the impossibly deep ocean could supply.

Another interesting idea was that of humans as the defender of the ocean, against itself.  In the chapter entitled “Cachalots and Whales”, Captain Nemo slaughters a family of sperm whales for attacking a pod of southern right whales, which is a very interesting form of vigilante ocean justice. Why is one slaughter better than the other? “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, is not figurative.  But in defeating the “evil” whales (meat eaters) and saving the “innocent” whales (filter feeders), what is Nemo saying about human beings? Is preemptive war ever justified?

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Sperm Whales. 

And yet, moments before this slaughter, Nemo prevents Ned the Harpooner from killing a Right Whale for the sake of sport…

“Here it would be killing just for the sake of killing.  I know very well that this is a privilege reserved for men, but I do not approve of these murderous pastimes.  The destruction of these harmless and inoffensive creatures, such as the southern and right whales, by whalers like you, Ned, is a crime.  You have already depopulated all of Baffin’s Bay, and you will exterminate, eventually, a whole class of useful animals.”

Unfortunately, Sperm Whales are currently learning this lesson now, as they are considered vulnerable to extinction to this day, and could one day disappear completely from our ocean if attitudes like this don’t change. This scene was easily the most upsetting in the novel.  In fact, while reading it I had to pause and restart, i was so shocked at the abrupt change of tone. It felt like reading the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

Jules Verne is a master of adventure. Read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to visit all the places you cannot, and enjoy the wonders of our world.

happy reading,

-merbabe

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