Verne uses a single narrator, Professor Pierre Aronnax, to describe what occurs onboard the Nautilus throughout the novel. Little is revealed about Captain Nemo and his crew besides what Aronnax observes. This leaves readers with many blanks to fill in and questions to answer about who Nemo is and why he created his massive submarine.
Professor Pierre Aronnax
Professor Pierre Aronnax is the story’s narrator and a Professor of Marine Biology who lectures around Europe. When the story begins, he believes the “creature” damaging ships around Europe is a giant narwhal. (He cites the holes it creates in the sides and bottoms of ships as evidence.) He presents himself as someone of immense knowledge (playing into his last name, which is intentionally similar to the word “arrogance”).
The Professor is baffled by the fact that Captain Nemo built the submarine and was capable of keeping it a secret. He’s unwilling to leave his captivity, instead insistent that he, Ned Land, and Conseil remain where they are and see how things play out. This is in part due to his immense curiosity about the submarine and the various wonders that Nemo keeps inside it. He notes the following in regard to their captivity:
We were growing fast to our shell like snails, and I swear it must be easy to lead a snail’s existence. Thus, our undersea life began to seem natural to us, and we no longer thought of the days we used to spend on land.
Also of interest is the narrator’s obsession with other characters’ nationalities. He believes, if he can figure out where Captain Nemo is from, he’ll better understand the man. Throughout, Aronnax attempts to demonstrate his wisdom. But, he ends up missing critical pieces of information and context. For example, rather than seeing through the facade that Nemo presents to him and the rest of the crew (of a wise, albeit rebellious scientist), he romanticizes the Captain. In one passage, he describes Captain Nemo as:
Was he one of those unrecognized scientists, one of those geniuses ‘who had been hurt’ to use Conseil’s expression, a modern Galileo; or he was he one of those scientists […] whose career was ruined by a political revolution?
Captain Nemo is the mysterious captain of the Nautilus submarine. He built the ship in secret in order to, as he tells the captured Aronnax, Ned Land, and Conseil, to get away from land and the people on it. Throughout, it remains unclear exactly who Captain Nemo is. His nationality, age, and real name are unknown. He chose to exile himself, he implies, but why is a mystery that Aronnax is obsessed with. Aronnax describes Nemo in the following lines early on in the novel:
I saw the enigmatic individual as essentially pitiless and cruel, as he was forced to be. I felt him as being beyond the pale of humanity, insensible to feelings of pity, the remorseless enemy of his fellow beings, against whom he must have sworn an undying hatred. This is prior to the realization, at least for the narrator, that Nemo is not as sane or reliable as he seems.
Throughout, Nemo implies that he has studied a wide range of subjects and has a sympathy for oppressed groups. This suggests that he may be a member of one such group or understand their plight because of what he has personally suffered. One particular nation manifested at the end of the novel through a single ship is at the receiving end of his rage. It’s suggested that the people aboard the ship, or people from the same country, are responsible for killing Nemo’s family. In a later Verne novel, The Mysterious Island, it’s revealed that Captian Nemo is Prince Dakkar, son of the raja of Bundelkhand.
Ned Land is one of the three captured members of the crew of Abraham Lincoln who ends up both saved and imprisoned by Captain Nemo on the Nautilus. He’s middle-aged and a skilled harpooner. This means that he is enlisted on various ships in order to hunt and kill large game, like whales. He is French-Canadian (something that Aronnax implies links the two and also separates them (as Aronnax is purely French)).
He is one of the characters in the novel who is entirely uninterested in the sights and discoveries found inside and outside the Nautilus. For example, when Nemo invites the men to go on a hunting trip, Land elects to stay behind, unwilling to risk his safety in Nemo’s modified diving gear.
Throughout, he expresses his eagerness to escape from the ship. He wants to do everything he can to leave Nemo and his crew, something that Aronnax is unwilling to do. His personality sometimes comes across as abrasive, but other times, he seems to be the only one who sees Nemo for who he truly is—a dangerous exile bent on revenge. In Chapter Eight, while speaking about escape, Ned Land says:
Freedom may come high, but it’s worth paying for […] Who knows but that tomorrow we may be a hundred leagues away? Let chance but favor us, sir, and by ten or eleven o’clock we shall have landed on terra firma, dead or alive.
Conseil, French for “counsel,” is the servant and companion of Professor Pierre Aronnax. He’s thirty years old, Flemish, and a loyal devotee to his employer. He provides some elements of comic relief in the novel through his use of language and interpretation of events. He only refers to the Professor as “master,” refusing to use his real name. He also attempts to sacrifice himself to save Aronnax multiple times in the book. He also forms a surprising friendship with harpooner Ned Land. He’s willing to do whatever Aronnax does, including remaining on the Nautilus for the rest of their lives or trying to escape.
The Nautilus Crew
The Nautilus crew is a mystery and one that is never genuinely described by Verne throughout the book. They speak in a seemingly made-up language defined by the phrase “Nautron respoc lorni virch” (which is repeated numerous times). No one can figure out where they’re from or how Nemo enlisted them onto his submarine. At one point in the novel, one man speaks in French (as he’s being attacked by the squid). This suggests to the narrator that he shares some kinship with the men on the ship.
Commander Farragut is the commander of this ship, Abraham Lincoln. On this ship, Aronnax, Ned Land, and Conseil start out their journey. Farragut is tasked with finding the creature plaguing the ocean around Europe and dispatching it. He’s determined in his mission and willing to pay the first man who spots the beast on their journey out into the sea. He believes that he is meant to go into battle with the monster. His fate is never fully defined, but he likely died when Abraham Lincoln sunk.
Who is the narrator of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?
The narrator is Professor Pierre Aronnax, a well-off and intelligent Professor of Marine Biology. At the beginning of the novel, he believes the creature they’re hunting is a giant narwhal. He becomes entranced by the Nautilus and Captain Nemo’s intelligence and is unwilling to attempt to escape.
What is the conflict in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?
The main conflict is the confinement that Professor Pierre Aronnax, Ned Land, and Conseil face in the Nautilus at the hands of Captain Nemo. Ned Land is willing to do anything to escape, while Aronnax is less willing and more interested in seeing how things play out.
Where does Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea take place?
The novel takes place in the depths of the oceans throughout the world in 1869. It is narrated by a single character— Professor Pierre Aronnax, who is intrigued and amazed by the various sights he observes.