A Brief Book Review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

In a time where those other than you are filming destruction and not filming it, posting infographics, and not making infographics about others; in a time where the history of US intervention and murder is being blatantly ignored; I am choosing to write this. As I write, I am thinking about those in Ukraine, but also those in Palestine who go through this every day, those in Iraq who our beloved American presidents bombed. Those in the 70s in El Salvador who were just children when US troops trained them how to be soldiers so they could murder their own parents. I am not a saviorist journalist “so brave” to enter a country struck by war— when a country with brown people as its population has been needing coverage for decades. But for right now, I am not escaping twenty thousand leagues under the sea, merely providing a space to enter for those that need it. 

Verne is inherently flawed. And I have to recognize my own issue in this story. You see I found myself falling into the trap of this romanticized ideal of a new colony: that yeah, life on land kinda sucks and so maybe we should escape to the sea like Captain Nemo. That goes against everything I stand for. Nemo gives me Elon Musk vibes in a way: so rich he can go colonize another place because his bourgeois behavior had “inadvertently” created a hellscape on dry land. He speaks of it as if not only is he superior but that he is ostracized, he claims that he went into undersea exile after his homeland was conquered and his family slaughtered by a powerful imperialist nation. Occasionally he’ll do something that is supposed to make the reader feel sympathetic in his morality: help the pearl diver or give refugees money. Yet much like Musk’s occasional performative actions, I find it hard to sympathize with a man who is perpetuating their system of oppression by hoarding his wealth and choosing to not lead a revolution to create a fair system. The riches he has put him in this unbelievable position. You know who is ostracized truly: the proletariat, the global south, people of color in America. 

On a positive note, I am fascinated by The Nautilus. Perhaps it is because of my time spent aboard the Schooner Shenandoah: my fascination with little floating islands that are inescapable: a whole universe in a little section that lies on top of the ocean. Or in the case of this book: on top, in the middle, below, and in all realms. Self-sufficient once again I am taken back to this idea that The Nautilus and Nemo can separate themselves from the outside world: that they have the choice to do so; that is merely a privilege within itself. 

While I expected to read of my love for oceanic travel and deeply creative ecology (which I did) I was so caught up in this image of the hero. Perhaps I am all wrong and for Verne’s time, Nemo was truly radical. But just today I was reading José Carlos Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality and so all empathy I had for this rich reclusive man went out the window. This isn’t to say I wish Nemo traversed the globe’s waters in his Nautilus being the perfect savior and performance. I guess I wish his angst against the “oppressive force” that took his family would go towards helping no one else lose theirs. And as much as we can romanticize and imagine how easy it would be to escape into the sea after such a tragedy it is not fair in my opinion. Captain Nemo could have been a real hero if he hadn’t recused himself from society but instead used his brains, money, and resources to help revolutionize a better one. 

So to Captain Nemo and the heroes in global battles against oppression; from Nemo’s family to those in Ukraine and Palestine, let us not be neutral or reclusive. Let us educate and talk and use our resources and keep reading so that we can dream of a new world. So we can end these wars for a class war and create a society that is equitable for all. And at risk of sounding cheesy, let us do this so that we do not have to escape to a new colonized world under the sea.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: