The book was highly acclaimed when released and still is now; it is regarded as one of the premiere adventure novels and one of Verne's greatest works, along with Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The description of Nemo's ship, the Nautilus, was ahead of its time, as it accurately describes features on submarines, which at the time were very primitive vessels. The book has been able to age well because of its scientific theories.
During the year 1866, ships of several nations spot a mysterious sea monster, which some suggest to be a giant narwhal. The United States government assembles an expedition in New York City to find and destroy the monster. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist and narrator of the story, who happens to be in New York at the time, receives a last-minute invitation to join the expedition which he accepts. Canadian whaler and master harpoonist Ned Land and Aronnax's faithful servant Conseil are also brought aboard.
The ship finds the monster after a long search and then attacks the beast, during which the three men are hurled into the water. They grasp hold of the "hide" of the creature, which they find, to their surprise, to be a submarine very far ahead of its era. They are quickly captured and brought inside the vessel, where they meet its enigmatic creator and commander, Captain Nemo.
The rest of the story follows the adventures of the men aboard the submarine, the Nautilus, which was built in secrecy and now roams the seas free from any land-based government. Captain Nemo's motivation is implied to be both a scientific thirst for knowledge and a desire for revenge on (and self-imposed exile from) civilization. Nemo explains that maintaining the secrecy of his existence requires never letting them leave. Aronnax and Conseil are enthralled by the undersea adventures, but Ned Land can only think of escape.
They visit many places under the oceans, some real-life places, others completely fictional. Thus, the travelers witness the real corals of the Red Sea, the wrecks of the battle of Vigo Bay, the Antarctic ice shelves, the Transatlantic telegraph cable and the fictional submerged land of Atlantis. When the Nautilus returns to the Atlantic Ocean, a pack of "poulpes" (giant squid or octopus) attacks the vessel and kills a crew member.
Throughout the story Captain Nemo is suggested to have exiled himself from the world after an encounter with the forces that occupied his country that had devastating effects on his family. Near the end of the book, the Nautilus is attacked by a warship of some nation that made Nemo suffer. Filled with hatred and revenge, Nemo destroys the ship, ramming it just below the waterline, sinking it into the bottom of the sea, much to Aronnax's horror, as he watches the ship plunge into the abyss. Nemo bows before the pictures of his wife and children and is plunged into deep depression after this encounter.
For several days after this, the protagonists' situation changes. No one seems to be on board any longer. And the Nautilus apparently now moves about randomly. Ned Land is even more depressed than ever, Conseil fears for Ned's life, and Aronnax, horrified at what Nemo had done to the ship, can no longer stand the situation either. Then one evening, Ned Land announces an opportunity to escape. But while they loosen the dinghy, they discover that the Nautilus has wandered into the "Maelstrom". They manage to escape the danger and find refuge on a nearby island off the coast of Norway, but the fate of Nautilus is unknown.
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