Part I, Chapters I–IV

Summary: Part I, Chapter I, A Shifting Reef

The story begins with events spanning the summer of 1866 and the spring of 1867. The story introduces a mysterious phenomenon and the controversy it instills in the global scientific community and the general population. American and European sailors report seeing something enormous in the water, but no one is sure if it is an animal or object. It can travel at impossible speeds and shoot columns of water 150 feet into the air. At first, the object/animal is the subject of gossip, humor, and speculation, but when two incidents happen that threaten passenger ships, the tone of the response becomes more serious. The Moravian suddenly strikes an object and may have sunk, and the Scotia is pierced by a triangular object and takes on water. Now, any wreck or loss is blamed on the “monster.”

Summary: Part I, Chapter II, Pro and Con

In this section the reader meets Dr. Pierre Aronnax, the novel’s principal narrator and Assistant Professor in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He narrows the possible explanations of what the mystery could be to two: a colossal monster or an enormous submarine. All major governments reject the idea that the mystery is a submarine as the technology of a craft such as that seems too impossible. Aronnax writes an article in which he states that since Nature still holds ichthyological secrets, the phenomenon could be a giant narwhal, a hypothesis that prompts the U.S. Navy to commission the Abraham Lincoln to pursue such a creature. Hours before the frigate is to depart, Aronnax receives an invitation to join the expedition.

Summary: Part I, Chapter III, I Form My Resolution

Aronnax accepts the invitation without hesitation despite longing to return home to France. He summons his servant, Conseil, and bids him prepare and pack their belongings. They meet Commander Farragut at the Abraham Lincoln and are shown their cabin. As the ship leaves New York, thousands of spectators cheer and wave handkerchiefs. An escort of boats sees the ship out of the harbor. The Abraham Lincoln runs full steam into the dark Atlantic Ocean in search of the mysterious creature that is plaguing the seas.

Summary: Part I, Chapter IV, Ned Land

This chapter describes the well-armed frigate, its passionate crew, and the presence of the world’s finest harpooner, the Canadian Ned Land. Farragut has offered a reward to the first man to sight the monster. Land and Aronnax develop a friendship because of their shared French heritage, and Land is the only crew member who doubts the existence of the monster because of the damage it did to the iron plates of the Scotia. In response to Land’s doubt, Aronnax argues that a creature who lives in the greatest ocean depths would require a structure of enormous proportions and strength to withstand the pressure. His points seem to sway Land’s opinion.

Analysis: Part I, Chapters I–IV

These first chapters introduce many of the major characters and themes of the novel. Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land, three of the four main characters, are introduced with descriptions of their histories, qualities, strengths, and weaknesses, but Aronnax emerges as the narrator and likely protagonist. Readers also meet the phenomenon that will drive the plot: the enigmatic creature/submarine that puzzles the world’s finest scientific minds.

Scientific data about water pressure dominates much of Chapter IV, a motif that will prevail throughout much of the novel, establishing that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is primarily a work of science fiction. The novel is considered by many critics to be one of the first great examples of the genre and Verne its grandfather. Verne refers to Moby Dick in Chapter I, another novel that draws content from scientific data about ocean creatures and in which nonfiction supports fiction.

Verne’s style is also established immediately. His narrative combines exposition, vivid description, and lively dialogue. After the first chapter, the story uses the first-person point of view of Aronnax, a highly educated voice whose syntax and diction are formal and eloquent, full of scientific detail and geographic specificity. The language of the time may seem dated to modern readers, such as the professor’s reaction to Land’s exclamation of disbelief, “Very well, my worthy harpooner.” However, the style is perfectly suited to the content as Verne remains at the same time articulate and highly entertaining.

The novel begins in 1866, an era on the cusp of American and European industrialization, scientific inquiry, technical innovation, and increased global exploration, travel, and communication. This was the age of the steamship, a machine that was faster and more reliable than sailing vessels. This was also a time in which mass media could create or abate hysteria or curiosity, evidenced by the crowds who bid the Abraham Lincoln farewell and who are caught up in the gossip and intrigues of the creature or machine that threatens the safety of anyone who travels on the seas.

These chapters establish the fact that whatever challenges, successes, and failures this mission may hold, the narrator, Aronnax, will survive long enough to tell the tale. Aronnax is not telling the story as it happens in the present tense. He is looking back on events that he can recall, interpret, choose, and even exaggerate as he sees fit to serve the tale he tells. This approach doesn’t necessarily mean Aronnax is an unreliable narrator, but it does emphasize that he will be able to edit the narrative to serve his own ends.