On page three of Jules Verne’s Classic Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers, Professor Arronax is giving a report on the recent caricatures of the great “monsters” of the sea: From the opinions of Aristotle and Pliny, who admitted the existence of these monsters, to the legend of “Moby Dick, des regions hyperboréennes”, the question of these monsters have “inflamed all minds”.

“Le monster redevient îlot, rocher, ecueil, mais ecueil fuyant, indeterminable, insaisissable (The monster becomes again an island, a rock, a reef, but a fleeting, indeterminate, elusive reef).

For those of you who have been following my blog for the past few years, you can see the fantastic collision of two of my passions, My Quest for Moby Dick [see blogs: ] with  My Vernequest, and celebrate this new discovery with me! This should not have been a great surprise for me as Melville published Moby Dick in 1851 and Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues soon followed, published in 1867.

In discovering this new treasure, several questions came to mind:

What is the connection between Verne and Melville–Nineteenth century Classic literature? The obsession with the undersea world and Leviathan? Was Verne inspired by Melville and did he intend to write a sequel to Moby Dick?

For this blog, I will look at several intersections I have found in Melville’s Moby Dickand Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea:

  • Life on the Atlantic seashore. We do know that both Melville and Verne had a great love of the sea. Herman Melville had many voyages on whaling ships around the world and lived much of his life near the Atlantic coast of New England. He lived in Berkshire while writing a revision of Moby Dick “I look out of the window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic”.

Just ten years after Melville was born, Jules Verne came into the world across the Atlantic, in Nantes, on the Brittany coast in north-western France. He spent many hours standing on the Atlantic shore and dreaming of the great voyages of the three-masted schooners which left the port every day. I like to imagine both young men staring across the same ocean, on opposite shores,  dreaming up adventures that they would write and share with the world.

  • Research of underwater life: Melville sought most of his documentary evidence of the sperm whale for his great “monster” from two sources: Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale and Cuvier’s De l’histoire naturelle des cetaces, ou recueil et examen des faits don’t se compse l’histoire naturelle de ces animaux, (Paris 1836).

In the French translation, Verne also references Cuvier, “Ni Cuvier, ni Lacépède, ni M. Dumeril, ni M. de Quatrefages n’eussent admis l’existence d’un tel monster”[ neither Cuvier… would admit the existence of such monster] (2). This is unfortunately omitted from the English translations-see my post on the many discrepancies between French and English translations:

  • Melville’s voyage takes place ON the sea, Verne’s UNDER the sea. The French edition of Moby-Dick was published in French by Gallimard in 1941 so we know that it was impossible for Verne, who died in 1905, to have read the complete novel in French. However, the first notice of Moby-Dick appeared in French in the Revues des Deux Mondes in 1853; therefore, Verne would have had access to Melville’s classic before he wrote his novel.

In Moby-Dick, Melville’s protagonist, Captain Ahab, must make his quest for the great white whaleaboard the Pequod ABOVE the aquatic life. The only way that whalers could even see their prey in this era was the brief surfacing by the whales for air or after they were killed and hoisted alongside the whaling vessels for harvesting.

Now, I can imagine Verne, the “Man Who Invented the Future”, according to Franz Born (see blog post), taking this to the next level for his Protagonist, Captain Nemo. Nemo’s vessel, the Nautilus, submerged UNDER the ocean, at times 20,000 leagues under the ocean, where he could exist in the same world as marine life. Through science fiction, Jules Verne introduced the world to the idea of underwater exploration. Many world renowned explorers and inventors would later be inspired by this and bring it to life.

  • Monsters in the Sea: In Chapter 1 “Un Écueil Fuyant” of 20,000 Leagues, Verne recounts the strange events of 1866 which inspired his story. There were a series of mysterious and inexplicable phenomena in the maritime industry. Ships from all over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were reporting encounters with an “object” referred to as “an enormous thing; a long object spindle-shaped”.  These reports came AFTER Moby-Dick was published. Melville’s monster was a mammal; Verne’s monster was the steel-plated Nautilus.

  • Religious themes: Both Moby-Dick and 20,000 Leagues have religious themes. Ishmael makes many references to God and the Bible. He believes that his expedition aboard the Pequod is similar to Noah’s journey abord the Arc. Many scholars believe that Moby-Dick is a symbol of God and Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is a symbol of natural man’s futile attempt to destroy this deity (R. C. Sproul). An addition religious theme is Melville’s chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” , “But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity”(Moby-Dick, 205).

In 20,000 Leagues, “Captain Nemo creates a symbol of the deep, a manifestation of God’s huge wonders, submersible, long-ranging, capably destructive, submissive to Nemo’s commands”(Ray Bradbury, Introduction). Melville offers a metaphor of a monster within us; Verne believes that we are the monster.

While standing on opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean brought a sense of adventure and a great connection between Verne and Melville’s classics, Moby-Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, their motivations for sharing these adventures with the world were quite different.

Melville stated, “the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. The whale’s undersea realm might remain unwritten to the last”.

And ten years later, Jules Verne wrote, “How can I retrace the impression left upon me by that walk under the waters? Words are impotent to relate such wonders! When the painter himself is incapable of reproducing the precise qualities of the liquid elements, how can one hope to achieve it with the pen?”  

Works Cited

Born, Franz. (1963). Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future. Translated from the German by Juliana Biro. Prentice Hall Publishers.

Butcher, W. (2005) “The Manuscripts of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues’”. Science Fiction Studies. Retrieved December 1, 2020 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4241320

Sproul, R.C. The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby Dick. Ligonier Ministries.

Voyages Extraordinaires par Jules Verne: Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers (collection Hetzel) French edition. 72 rue de Rochechouart, Paris. 2019

Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)