Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
The Deification of Captain Nemo
The Bible and ancient mythology, while primarily celebrating the divinity of their god or gods, also glorify mortal men. Most ancient Greek mythology involves a man using his own intelligence to outsmart and defeat all opponents, whether they be gods, men, or beasts. The leaders in the Bible rely on their own abilities and the powers of God to triumph over their oppressors. In the centuries since their birth, the heroes of both the Bible and of Greek mythology have been immortalized. Through repeated mythological and Biblical allusions in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne elevates Captain Nemo to a god-like status.
In response to “the monster” wreaking havoc upon countless ships, the United States government supplies the Abraham Lincoln to track and destroy the creature. With a substantial reward available to the person who spots the beast, crew members skip meals and sleep in order to watch the seas. As the decks were never void of watchful sailors, Dr. Aronnax, a scientist invited aboard, rightfully compares the Abraham Lincoln to Argus, a mythological creature who has a hundred eyes (Verne 13). The similarities between the Abraham Lincoln and Argus do not end at Aronnax’s superficial comparison of the eyes. Despite the fact that both Argus and the Abraham Lincoln are ideal for their tasks, they both fail. In a fit of jealousy, Hera commands Argus to guard Io, Zeus’s current lover. Hermes, sent by Zeus, lulls Argus to sleep, kills him, and frees Io (Hamilton 80). While in pursuit of the sea menace, the Abraham Lincoln is struck. Though its fate is unclear, it fails to destroy “the monster”, a submarine called the Nautilus, who remains free to explore the world’s oceans (Verne 26). Captain Nemo’s ability to outmanoeuvre the Abraham Lincoln and avoid capture puts him on equal footing with perhaps the most cunning Greek god, Hermes.
Odysseus, when faced with the cyclops Polyphemus, identifies himself as “Nobody” so that when Polyphemus yells for help, his neighbors believe that no one was attacking him and they ignore his pleas (Homer 148). While Dr. Aronnax has no opportunity to ask for a neighbor’s help as they were in the middle of the ocean, Captain Nemo went through great lengths to keep his true identity a secret. He uses his need for privacy to rationalize his imprisonment of Dr. Aronnax, Ned Land and Conseil:
No sir, it is clemency. You are my prisoners of war. I keep you when I could, by a word, plunge you into the depths of the ocean. You attacked me. You came to surprise a secret which no man in the world must penetrate, – the secret of my whole existence. And you think I am going to send you back to that world which must know me no more? Never! In retaining you, it is not you whom I guard – it is myself. (Verne 41)
The name he tells his prisoner to address him by, Nemo, is the Latin word meaning “no one, or nobody” (Verne 42, Foster). Aronnax and his companions never learn Captain Nemo’s real name, what country he came from, or his reason for fleeing civilization to roam the oceans’ depths in the Nautilus (Butcher 289). A sense of divinity comes from the shroud of mystery cloaking Nemo.
The story of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading his people from the chains and whips of their Egyptian masters and into the Promised Land is perhaps the most popular Bible story (KJV Exod. 14:13). In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo crosses the Red Sea in an entirely different, yet equally fantastic way: through an underwater tunnel. Although Nemo did not create the passage with a staff like Moses did, he discovers it and his vessel alone was able to use it (Verne 139). During the exodus, God allows only the Israelites to walk through the sea and drowns the Egyptian slavers who followed them (KJV Exod. 14:27). Similarly, any vessel that attempts to follow the Nautilus would either be incapable of submersion and run aground or be unable to sustain the underwater pressure and collapse, leaving Captain Nemo and his crew to enjoy their freedom (Verne 144). The concept of the Promised Land awaiting the Israelites at the end of their tunnel is also applicable to the prisoners aboard the Nautilus (KJV Exod. 3: 17). While Moses’s sole reason for crossing the sea is to reach a safe haven for his people, Captain Nemo does it simply because he could (Verne 138). In completing this feat, he inadvertently leads Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned to the safety of European waters (145). However, the Nautilus speeds so quickly through the Mediterranean waters that escape is impossible (152). Captain Nemo thwarted Ned’s plans to leave the Nautilus just as God drowns the Egyptians.
Captain Nemo’s sense of justice is perhaps the most striking similarity between himself and the God of the Old testament. When the Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites, God kills every firstborn child of Egypt, even though a vast majority of these families have no involvement in the enslavement of Moses’s people (KJV Exod. 12:12). Likewise, Captain Nemo regularly sinks ships that come from the country, never named, where his family’s murder occurred. None of the sailors that Nemo encounters killed his family, yet he still enacts his revenge (Butcher 289). Even the Florida, a simple passenger ship with women and infants aboard, was not spared from his wrath (123). Captain Nemo grants himself the same judicial responsibilities of God, as well. When Aronnax attempts to stop the Nautilus’s attack on an upcoming ship, Nemo responds, “I am the law, I am the judge!” (Verne 236). His remark bears a conspicuous resemblance to Isaiah 44:6, which reads: “…I am the first and the last; and beside me there is no God” (Butcher 290). While Nemo’s ambitious outburst may seem at best, egotistical, and at worst, unhinged, he is in fact “the law” while captain of the Nautilus. The crew follows his every order without question, the route is planned by himself alone, and no one, except for Ned Land on occasion, dares challenge his authority (74).
Though the Captain and God share the same vengeful spirit, they also have a shared compassion for humanity. Rather than use the riches he has collected from various shipwrecks for his own personal gain, Nemo offers it as charity to “suffering beings and oppressed races” (Verne 162). Throughout the New Testament, Jesus instructs his followers to give up their own possessions to help the less fortunate (KJV Lk. 12:33). Nemo goes further than simple donations; he risks his own life to rescue a diver who was being attacked by a shark. Captain Nemo also gives the man a string of incredibly valuable pearls. (Butcher 176). While Jesus also encourages those able to help their fellow man (KJV Phil. 2:3), Nemo’s good fortune is strictly limited to victims of atrocities with whom he sympathises (Verne 162). Although Captain Nemo is an avid philanthropist, his strict bias goes directly against the teachings of Jesus (KJV Rom. 2:11).
In the closing remarks of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Aronnax himself draws a parallel between God and Nemo (Verne 245). He claims Captain Nemo has the ability to answer what lies in the deep, a question previously only answerable by God (Butcher 302, KJV Eccles. 7:24). Ultimately, Captain Nemo has the cunning and mystery of a Greek hero, the charitability valued by Christians, and the wrathful judgement God exhibits in the Old Testament.
Butcher, William, translator. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas. By Jules Verne, Oxford Press, 1998.Foster, Timothy. “The Latin Dictionary.” Nemo, Wikidot, 1 Jan. 2010, latindictionary.wikidot.com/noun:nemo.Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Grand Central Publishing, 1942.The Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version, Gideons International, 1974.Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1997.Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Wordsworth,1992.