It is the year 1866, and the world has been startled by reports of a strange object or phenomenon in the oceans. An "enormous thing" has been sighted in various locations on the high seas; a long, spindle-shaped object, sometimes phosphorescent, and capable of traveling at extraordinary speeds. Initial speculations about some kind of sea monster are of course ridiculed in the popular press. This is, after all, the Nineteenth Century, not the superstitious Middle Ages. But when the Scotia, a steamship of the Cunard line, is struck by the mysterious object resulting in a large hole in its steel hull, the mystery shifts from the subject of scientific theory and becomes a matter of financial concern.
Monsieur Pierre Arronax, our narrator, is an assistant professor at the Paris Museum of Natural History and author of a book entitled Mysteries of the Great Ocean Depths. He usually gets shoved to the side in most adaptations of the book, being overshadowed by Captain Nemo; (and sometimes by Ned Land as well; or at least, in the Disney movie, by Ned Land's chin); but he is an interesting character in his own right. I've always thought of him as being a lot like Verne himself: passionately fascinated by science, but also possessing a poetical streak and a vivid imagination. He frequently refers to himself with a self-deprecating humor. I also get the idea he is a somewhat lonely man. Although his profession often buries him in solitary study, he craves companionship, and this tension is a small but important theme running through the novel.
He has naturally taken a great interest in the mysterious object. Because of it's great speed, it cannot be a piece of floating wreckage or some kind of reef. He rejects the idea that it is an artificial submarine vessel, because only a government would have the resources to build such a thing and no nation would be able to keep such a project a secret. The only possible answer is that the object is a hitherto unknown sea creature. Arronax is inclined to think it is a huge species of narwhal, a type of whale which sometimes grows a large horn-like tusk.
Professor Arronax happens to be in New York City, on his way back home after a fossil hunting expedition to the Nebraska badlands, (or "the disagreeable territories of Nebraska", as the clueless original English translator put it). Because of his scientific reputation, he is invited to accompany a new expedition being launched by the United States Navy to hunt down and kill the sea monster which has proved to be a menace to international travel and commerce.
He brings along his servant Conseil, an agreeable, easy-going young man who is completely devoted to his master. Verne tends to use national stereotypes with a lot of his characters: Americans are brash and reckless, Englishmen are eccentric, etc. Conseil is Flemish, and following the stereotype, he is phlegmatic; calm, even-tempered and agreeable. He is not a scientist himself, but has picked up a lot of knowledge about biological classification from assisting the Professor. An excellent servant, Arronax's only complaint about Conseil is that he insists on a formality in his conversation that the Professor sometimes finds vexing; he always refers to Arronax in the third person, as "Monsieur", never as "you." Arronax likes Conseil and wishes they were friends, but Conseil keeps the lines between their class differences strictly drawn.
On board the Abraham Lincoln, the warship which has been dispatched to hunt the sea monster, Arronax meets a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land, who becomes the third member of Arronax's troupe. Ned is tall, strong and brave. He has a short temper, but when it comes to his occupation he is a skilled professional. Arronax describes him as like "a powerful telescope that could double as a cannon and was always ready for action". In the original English translation, and in some adaptations, Ned comes off as an anti-intellectual blockhead, but this really does a disservice to the character. He is shrewd, and knowledgeable enough about his own trade; he has a certain skepticism about ivory-tower intellectuals like the Professor, but he's good-natured about it. And as an American, (North American to be technical, but in Verne's view they all share this trait), he has a passionate love of Liberty and a sense of Human Rights which become important later on.
Arronax is drawn to Ned because the harpooner is from Quebec and can speak fluent French. "It was a chance for him to talk, and for me to hear the ancient tongue of Rabelais, which is still spoken in some of the Canadian provinces." During the voyage they become good friends.
Early on in the voyage, Professor Aronnax is surprised to learn that Ned does not believe in the sea monster. "But Ned, you are a whaler by profession; you know all the great marine mammals; so you ought to find it easy to accept the idea of an enormous cetacean."
"That's exactly what misleads you," Ned replies. "Let ordinary people believe in extraordinary comets that travel through space, or in the existence of antediluvian monsters that populate the bowels of the earth, if they want to;" (here Verne is poking fun of his own previous novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth) "but astronomers and geologists don't believe in such fantasies..." He may be less educated than "Monseiur le Naturaliste" as he likes to tease the Professor, but he has a pragmatic skepticism based on his own personal experience. He is by no means stupid, and when the Professor lectures him on scientific principles, he can generally follow him and even provide counter-arguments which help clarify the science involved for the reader.
For several weeks the Abraham Lincoln sails, first doubling Cape Horn, and then cruising the Pacific looking for the mysterious sea monster. "There would have been a hundred good reasons for calling the ship the Argus," Aronnax observes, alluding to the giant of Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Every man on board the ship spends every possible moment scanning the waves for sight of the creature, with the exception of Ned, who watches when it's his shift but doesn't believe there's anything to find, and Conseil, who doesn't care one way or the other. After three months at sea, however, the crew begins to turn rebellious. The captain asks them to give him three more days, as Columbus was supposed to have done, and if the monster has not turned up by then, he will take the ship back to port.
Naturally, it is on the third day that the creature shows up.
Two cables' lengths away from the Abraham Lincoln, on her starboard quarter, the sea seemed to be illuminated from below. It was no mere phenomenon of phosphorescence, and there was no mistaking it. The monster was submerged a few fathoms beneath the surface and was radiating that intense but inexplicable light that had been mentioned in the reports of several captains.Now by this point one might think that the true nature of the "sea monster" would be obvious; but as Aronnax points out several times through the course of the novel, there are instances of natural phosphorescence in the ocean; and Aronnax, the naturalist, is focused on a natural explanation for what's going on.
The creature and the Abraham Lincoln play a game of cat-and-mouse for the next twenty-four hours. No matter how much steam the captain of the warship puts on, their quarry remains just out of reach. The ship's gunner fires a nine-pound shell at the creature which glances off it's back. Ned Land, hanging on to the superstructure under the ship's bow hurls his harpoon at it, which bounces off with a "deep ringing tone."
Then the creature shoots out two jets of water into the air, which wash over the deck of the ship and knock Professor Aronnax into the sea. He is soon joined by Conseil, who like the good servant he is, jumped overboard after him. The Abraham Lincoln, however, was damaged by the creature and is unable to rescue the two, even if the crew was aware they went overboard.
Aronnax and Conseil spend several hours treading water clinging desperately to a hope of rescue, when that hope is answered by a call from an unexpected source.
Ned Land was also thrown into the sea when the creature collided with the Abraham Lincoln, but he was luckier than the Professor. "...almost immediately I found a floating island... Or, should I say, your gigantic narwhal." He was able to scramble upon the creature's back, and it proved to be no leviathan of flesh and blood, but a submersible vessel constructed of thick steel plates.
As Ned tells his story, the vessel begins to move and they realize that it is about to submerse, drowning them. They bang on the metal hull to get the attention of the vessel's crew. It works, and the crew come out and swiftly drag the three men into the submarine and lock them in a cell. Ned is not pleased.
"A thousand devils!" he said. "These people must be descendants of the Scots for all the hospitality they offer you! I wouldn't be surprised if they were cannibals; but I can assure you they won't eat me without my having something to say about it!"Soon, two men arrive in the cell, one of whom appears to be the commander. The men speak to each other in a language Aronnax does not recognize. The Professor tells the mysterious commander who they are and how they came to be there, but their host shows no sign of understanding him. Guessing that the commander does not speak French, Aronnax suggests that Ned try telling their story in English; and so he does, (along with many complaints about human rights violations, illegal detentions, and the fact that they are starving). Since their captors do not seem to understand the language of either Arago nor that of Faraday (prominent scientists of France and England, respectively, with whom the inventor of such a submarine would presumably be familiar), Conseil offers to try speaking in German. Aronnax never realized Conseil knew that language, but since he came from Flanders, which lies between France and Germany, it makes sense he would speak both) Finally, Aronnax drags out his rusty schoolboy Latin, but with no apparent success.
The strangers leave the three alone in the cell; but shortly afterwards a steward brings food for them. Ned's complaints and miming of hunger had at least that result. Aronnax notes that the cutlery they are given to eat with each bears the initial "N" and the motto: "MOBILIS IN MOBILI", or "Mobile within a mobile element", an appropriate motto for a submarine. Aronnax guesses that the letter "N" stands for the master of the craft. Although Verne does not explicitly make the connection, his readers would undoubtedly thought of another famous "N", Napoleon Bonaparte.
Their mysterious captor does not return for a good long time. Another day goes by, with no sign of either the submarine's commander or crew. Or dinner either, to Ned's growing annoyance. Conseil takes it all philosophically, which only provokes Ned the more.
"That is just like you, Conseil," retorted the impatient Canadian. "You never show your temper, do you? Always calm! You are fully capable of saying grace before receiving your blessings and you would rather starve than complain!"
"What's the use of complaining?" asked Conseil.
"Well, at least you'd be complaining, and that's something! And if these pirates -- and I say 'pirates' out of respect for the Professor, who forbids me to call them cannibals -- if these pirates think they're going to keep me suffocating in this cage without listening to the curses I use to spice my temper, they're very much mistaken!"Ned wants to plan an escape, or barring that, to find some way to seize control of the vessel. Aronnax does not see how they can do this and counsel's patience. Ned does not do patience, at least not unless he's in a longboat with a harpoon in his hand. He grows more and more frustrated, and when the steward finally does open the door to their cell, Ned jumps the guy and puts him in a choke hold. But he is interrupted by a forceful command in French:
"Stop, Master Land! And you, Monsieur le Professeur, be good enough to listen to me."
NEXT: We meet Captain Nemo and get a tour of his submarine, The Nautilus.