Jules Verne wrote using the conventions of the 19th Century. That way of telling a tale appears stilted and formal and makes a modern reader want to skim as much as possible without losing the thread of the story. Whether his audience was awed by the spectacular abundance of flora and fauna might well be a moot point. Even so he went to great pains to include as much description of what the voyagers encountered as would fit. He may well have been paid by the word and that would be another explanation of the somewhat cloying abundance of this animal and that plant. So with those caveats in mind let us begin his tale of 20,000 Leagues under the sea.
During the 19th Century a strange phenomenon appears in the sea. It wreaks havoc on sailing ships. Many think it is something akin to the Kraken of myth that rises up from the depths to destroy wooden ships on the surface. Academics and other experts present their opinions that drive to what appears to be an agreement that it is definitely a crazed cetacean. Finally it’s decided to send an expedition to find out exactly what sort of abomination threaten seafarers of all nations.
A French academic, M. Arronax, his servant Conseil, and Ned Land, a Canadian whaling man accompany the intrepid crew setting off to determine the nature of the danger that ships face in the open sea.
Day after day and there is no sighting of the dangerous creature. Then strange lights beneath the sea are sighted and the ship veers to investigate, but the closer the ship gets to the lights the faster they move away.
After many attempts the ship lowers a boat to give Ned, the experienced whaler a chance to throw a harpoon to see whether it will have any effect on the plated thing they have observed. Ned gives a mighty heave but his harpoon simply bounces off the creature’s back.
As Ned, Arronax and Conseil try to determine exactly what the thing they have attempted to harpoon it crashes into their boat and leaves them adrift as it moves off and goes in pursuit of the ship. They are left helpless in the wake of the creature. And they have little or no hope of regaining the ship.
After much searching Ned, Arronax and Conseil find that the ship has been sunk. They wonder whether they will be next on the creature’s destructive schedule. And they are as the creature comes back to their location. Just when all appears to be lost, the castaways are rescued by the very creature that has caused their distress by destroying their ship and their long boat.
Inside the-what-can-this-creature-be is found to be some kind of ship. The castaways attempt to communicate with the crew but all they hear is a strange incomprehensible language as they are fed but kept in a confined space not knowing what their fate will be.
At long last the commander appears. He is Captain Nemo who has abandoned any further contact with humanity and the land. Everything that the sea provides will be what he uses to feed his crew. The ship named Nautilus is propelled by electric power, something that strikes Arronax as marvelous and mysterious.
After some time the castaways are treated to a survey of the ship and even are invited to an undersea expedition using diving gear perfected by Nemo’s genius.
The Nautilus proceeds on its twenty thousand leagues under the sea journey with Arronax describing in great detail all of the marine flora and fauna that they encounter.
Finally arriving at the island of New Guinea and becoming fastened to a sandbank the Nautilus must await high tide. In the meantime the castaway guests go ashore and find various animals, birds and other flora for consumption. They also arouse the curiosity of the natives and hurry back to the ship before they can be attacked.
High tide arrives, the natives are shocked when they try to enter the interior and the ship sails away.
The first half of the book ends with one of the Nautilus crew being buried in an undersea graveyard.
In the second half, Nautilus continues on her voyage and Conseil lists page after page of sea life, which to a modern reader wanting to “cut to the chase” drags the story down in a hurry.
Arriving at Ceylon, the crew stops to watch and explain the oyster fishery and the nature of the pearls that the animals produce.
Captain Nemo decides that he will head the Nautilus in the direction of the Red Sea and ultimately to the Mediterranean. The only problem is that the newly opened Suez Canal isn’t deep enough for the Nautilus to operate in Nemo’s manner. Arronax is amazed that Nemo would tell him that even though they wouldn’t transit the canal they would still be in the Mediterranean the next day. It turns out that Nemo had discovered an underground tunnel he named “The Arabian Tunnel” through which the Nautilus would pass beneath the Suez Canal on its way to the Mediterranean Sea.
After an extremely fast passage through the Tunnel, the voyagers arrive in the Mediterranean. Nemo takes them to experience an underwater volcanic activity before turning the ship toward the Strait of Gibraltar. Ned Land contemplates taking the ship’s pinnace and escaping but is thwarted by the speed of the ship.
Heading toward the port of Viga where a treasure fleet was scuttled to save it from the English, Nemo sends his crew out of the ship to retrieve all the gold and silver still remaining in the wrecks. His ultimate goal for the specie since he has no use of it is to help the poor, which M. Arronax finds laudable.
Ned Land’s plan to escape the ship is thwarted again by Nautilus heading southward. Reaching the Sargasso Sea more information about the environment is forthcoming. Then Captain Nemo turns southward again.
The ship finds a passage to an underground grotto formed by an ancient volcano. Arronax provides a running commentary on all the flora and fauna the voyagers encounter.
Again, Ned cannot escape the ship because it is in the open sea after Captain Nemo shows the voyagers the remains of Atlantis. It appears as though Nemo intends to take the Nautilus to the South Pole.
And after a dangerous passage beneath the ice and land they arrive at the South Pole (years earlier than it was actually discovered). Attempting to exit the ice traps Nautilus and the voyagers appeared doomed to die from either suffocation or being crushed by the ice.
Escaping the frozen prison Nemo heads Nautilus north toward the Amazon River nexus with the Atlantic Ocean.
Another catalog of fauna and then more travel northward.
Somewhere off the Antilles, the voyagers run into giant poulps, a type of cuttlefish. One of them attacks the crew and kills the man. Nemo and the others use axes to hack off the arms of the poulps before the attackers leave and the Nautilus can go back to its normal cruise.
Off the American coast Nautilus runs into a hurricane and has to dive to a considerable depth to escape the fury of the waves.
Continuing north and east Ned determines that they can escape the ship when they are near the coast of Norway.
Unfortunately Nemo steers toward the Maelstrom, a vast whirlpool in the sea that swallows ships. Ned, Arronax and Conseil work the side of the ship to gain entrance to the pinnace.
Verne wrote himself into a corner and had to rely on that ancient device of the deus ex machina to get the pinnace free of the Maelstrom while Nautilus was sucked into the depths.
If you saw the movie of the same name you will have no trouble getting through the sometimes difficult and oftentimes boring passages that Verne used to captivate his audiences. The book is not a page turner and many readers will either skim it or put it down after reading some of the catalogs that Verne was keen on using. As far as a grade goes it probably lands in the B category, although that might be generous.