The Secret of Captain Nemo in ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’

TIMENovember 28, 2021

It’s been 150 years since the publication of a classic story, one that lurks imperishably beneath the depths of the literary ocean. It may not be a volume that most have read—more’s the pity—yet most know of its existence, as they might know of some deep-sea creature. At the very least, all know the name of its nameless hero-villain, whose fame subsists in his obscurity.

The man’s secret is as inscrutable and impenetrable as the sea’s profundities, for some mysteries are only a pleasure when they remain unsolved, and the mystery of this man remains inviolate. Such is the mystique of the sea’s greatest fictional captain—a man with no name that everyone knows as “No one”—a man whose aura of benevolence and brutality resembles the mystery of the sea itself. The man? Nemo.

Frontispiece from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"
Frontispiece from “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Illustrated by Édouard Riou in the 1871 Hetzel edition. Houghton Library, Harvard University. (PD-US)

The Making of a Man of Mystery

Pierre-Jules Hetzel was Jules Verne’s editor and publisher—and, as such, responsible for altering many aspects of Verne’s books. In the case of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Verne originally wove a sensitive political situation around the 1870 novel’s central character. Verne created a Polish noble bent on avenging the deaths of his family members during the Russian suppression of the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection known as the January Uprising of 1863.

Hetzel, fearing the book would affront the Russian Empire, which was an ally of France, demanded that aspect of the plot be removed or obscured. Despite the author’s objections to the ambiguity, the editor prevailed in order to avoid a ban and retain marketability.

The obscurity was brilliant, however, for it concealed the controversy but not the clues that suggested it. What resulted was the irresistible identity and motivation of Captain Nemo, allowing him to remain true to his name and not, as he himself says, what one would call a civilized man. Instead, he’s an anonymous anomaly, undefiled even by the voyeurism of civilized readers.

Nemo at the organ
Captain Nemo may battle against the civilized world, but he also enjoys its creations. Édouard Riou’s illustration featured in the Hetzel edition. (PD-US)

Captain Among Captains

“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is an epic that is not so much about the innumerable mysteries of the sea as it is about the individual mystery of a man—a mystery which, even in its smallness, is far greater than any ocean. The exploration of the mysterious depths accentuates the deeper enigma of the man who treads where no man has trod. He is as silent as a fish, as solitary as an oyster, as strong as a current, and as violent as a storm.

Here is Nemo; here is no man. Nemo is at once “Nemo,” Latin for “Nobody,” and at the same time, in Greek, it means the man who doles out what is due. Captain Nemo is the quintessential tortured genius seeking revenge. His madness is the source of both miracles and mayhem.

Nemo showing off his engine room
Nemo showing off his engine room to his “guest” Aronnax. (PD-US)

Although no man, he is also an everyman. It is part of the mystery of mankind to desire to exist where he cannot—where living is nearly doomed. Though this suicidal tendency has fathered heroes, there are places on this man-inherited planet where no man may have his home. The kingdom of Nemo is preeminently one of those sanctuaries.

He is arguably the greatest in the catalog of literary sea captains, with actions that either test or trump the swashbuckling paragons of the genre. When hunted by oppressors, Captain Billy Bones of “Treasure Island” hides in an uninhabited inlet; Captain Nemo hides in an uninhabited element. When exasperated by the quandaries of existence, Captain Ahab of “Moby Dick” is bent on destroying its monstrous symbol; Captain Nemo creates the monstrous symbol as his refuge. Captain Hook of “Peter Pan” would have revenge on a pack of boys; Captain Nemo would have revenge on a nation of men. Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood uses science to heal; Captain Nemo uses science to slaughter. Captain Van der Decken of nautical lore helms “The Flying Dutchman” with a wretched crew of the damned; Captain Nemo helms the ghostly “Nautilus” with a wretched crew who would damn.

Nemo is a captain among these captains, a technological prophet who takes up quarters and commands like a new self-submerging Jonah in the belly of the whale he built for himself. Scorning his fellow men, he’s a sailor who becomes one in soul with the sea.

Paradoxes and Puzzles

Agony and horror skulk behind this character, driving him like furnace fires to the extremity of forsaking dry land and the inhabitants of the earth. Nemo’s extremism is an element that muddies the waters of his past because it frames him in endless paradoxes and puzzles.

Nemo is a man who would be a fish. He flees domination only to become a despot, imprisoning in the name of liberty. He gives up everything to inherit riches untold. He doles out death to spread the sea’s peace. Nemo is a mad mastermind, an ethical criminal, a villainous hero.

The riddle of Nemo and his mysterious nemesis is somehow more compelling than marvels of machine and monster. These phenomena only serve to illuminate the point of true interest—the marvel of the man. While readers enjoy learning about the electronic pressure gauge of the “Nautilus,” it is only because Nemo is the teacher. While the 25-foot shark enthralls readers, it is because Nemo is battling it with a dagger in a diving suit.

Sunken ships. The North Pole. Leviathans. Atlantis. Wonders every one, yet reduced to windows to simply peer through, compelled by an overpowering curiosity to gain further clarity into a withheld identity—for even such wonders are eclipsed by the mystery of the man who is their monarch.

A Man of the Infinite

The questions concerning Captain Nemo are much like the impossible realm where this brilliant lunatic dwells, plots, and fumes, commanding the secrets of a secret world to survive and strike at his enemies.

In him, the charisma of the sea spreads before those who undertake the journey of 20,000 leagues submerged beneath its surface aboard the “Nautilus”—and, of course, Captain Nemo does not disappoint. His is the very voice of the sea, of the deep calling unto the deep:

“The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.”

Captain Nemo showing off the wonders of his world. (PD-US)

Even though Captain Nemo will keep readers at arm’s length along every league of the voyage—pounding at his pipe organ or piecing together his plot of war and revenge—he nonetheless engages us in his aquatic adventure with an eagerness to exhibit the wonders of his kingdom. These creations and creatures Jules Verne’s famous scientific romance proffers in abundance.

Whether one will find Nemo hero or villain is uncertain. What is certain is that Nemo and his mystery will not disappoint.


Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals, including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.