Major Themes in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Rebel or Terrorist?

Captain Nemo represents the best and worst of human nature. Bent on exacting vengeance for the killing of his wife and children, he will stop at nothing to destroy his oppressors. Yet his scientific, technological and exploratory achievements belie a genius of a man, who offers financial and scholarly wealth to the world. A most relevant question for today’s audiences is whether Nemo is a rebel with a justified cause or a terrorist with no rational justification for his actions. What distinguishes the actions of “rebels”, such as the colonists in the United States in 1776, from the actions of “terrorists”, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001?

Is Technology Good or Evil?

The Nautilus symbolizes the ultimate in human technological achievement. Yet its purpose is uncertain. In benevolent hands, the Nautilus offers a splendific look at another world--the ocean world--strange and capricious, serene and beautiful. But in the hands of malevolent forces, the Nautilus transforms into a weapon of mass destruction. This delicate balance between technology for good or evil permeates Verne’s novels. Of particular interest is how this issue faces us today in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Should those who develop new technologies, such as nuclear weapons or aircraft, be held accountable for the uses to which they are put?

Respect or Reverence?

Professor Aronnax (and Peter in the play) fall victim to a zealous attraction for Captain Nemo’s technology and achievements. Enamored by his wisdom, grace and experience, they fail to see his dark side and become quietly complicit in his schemes of destruction. Oftentimes, we idolize people in the public eye without considering their entire nature. When we discover they have done something morally or legally wrong, we are sorely disappointed. How much reverence should we place in any person lest we become blind followers of an immoral cause?

Science for One or for All?

Nemo’s scientific achievements dwarf those of any man yet remain a secret and the Professor accuses him of withholding knowledge that would benefit the larger world. In Mast’s play, Nemo courts Peter as his successor yet Peter would reject his own world in doing so. In the modern world, first-world nations excel in their ability to help other nations with food, medicine and technology, yet withhold it for economic advantage and security reasons. Who should decide whether certain medicines, such as AIDs drugs, should be made widely available to third-world nations? How can we decide whether technological achievements, such as supercomputers, should be made available to the world? Should scientific achievements be shared with all of humanity or belong solely to the men and nations that discover them?

Exploration versus Exploitation

Nemo’s remarkable undersea journeys underscore man’s penchant for adventure and exploration. His discoveries of vast natural resources, famous shipwrecks, giant pearls, and the lost city of Atlantis would profit many an entrepreneur or travel agent. Yet Verne skillfully develops environmental themes throughout the novel, condemning the killing of animals for killing’s sake and warning of the near-extinction of animal species such as whales, dugongs and the gentle manatee. What is the balance between exploration and exploitation? How can we insure that our desire to travel to exotic places and witness the natural wonders of the world don’t end up destroying those very places that we treasure?