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Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: An American Classic for AH Ages Margaret R. Higonnet Nous roulions pêle-mêle au milieu de ces tronçons de serpents qui tressautaient sur la plate-forme dans des flots de sang et d'encre noire. Jules Verne, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers AT TWELVE OR THIRTEEN, already familiar with texts like Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and Ivanhoe, I discovered Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, and its mysterious underwater journey drew me in. I happily immersed myself in the gloomy illustrations by Edouard Riou and Alphonse de Neuville, starting with the frontispiece, where Professor Aronnax and his guide Captain Nemo look through an archway at diving whales, a narwhal, a submerged volcano, sea serpents, and a giant squid. Just as the narrator Aronnax felt he could lay claim to "mon Atlantique," and Captain Nemo staked his black flag at the South Pole, I laid claim to this tale of a reclusive, wounded man in his strange domain of exotic and dangerous sea creatures.1 By reading, I became an insider in Captain Nemo's submarine, along with rebel outsiders who had secluded themselves while continuing to enjoy luxuries that they had collected or manufactured themselves. Verne's densely suggestive descriptions built up an arcane aquatic world energized by rhetorical excess amid a tempo of escalating crises that charged his breathtaking narrative with floods of blood and ink, "des flots de sang et d'encre noire" (2.19.545).2 At an age when I was testing the boundaries of my own identity, I had found a story of exploration that tested not only physical boundaries , but moral and imaginative frontiers as well. Since the theme of the frontier has a special American resonance, I was not surprised to discover a tsunami of editions available in English for young American readers, full-length as well as abridged. The book responds to a thirst for rebellion and exploration, adolescent passions with a special place in American history. Vingt mille lieues sous les mers is exceptional in Verne's oeuvre: it boldly challenges conventions about the lines between child and adult readers, between didactic and entertaining fiction, and between realistic representation of scientific fact and a surrealistic romance quest. Blurring such conventional lines, its power wells up from mythic structures that I was unconscious of as a child and that continue to fascinate Verne critics today. Beneath the surface of the narrative lie aegri somnia, troubling questions 34 Winter 2005 Margaret R. Higonnet about the capacity of language to communicate, the undecidability of knowledge , and the enigma of death. These themes, I suggest, have a strangely American, gothic resonance that reinforced the novel's appeal. The centenary of Verne's death invites us to reconsider Verne's relation to his readers—by gender, age, and class. Philip Schuyler Allen, in his 1922 introduction to an edition put out by the famous mapmaker Rand McNaIIy, praised Verne as "a great teacher of youth" who "created for boys a new and wonderful kind of story."3 Although a girl, without hesitation I entered this world of men using the narrator, Pierre Aronnax, to lead me in. Indeed there is scarcely a child or woman with whom one might identify in the narrative. The "garçon" in the novel is the thirty-year-old manservant Conseil, whose stereotypical devotion to the professor is mocked and patronized by his master, himself a student at the feet of Captain Nemo. True, one shipwreck carries a dead mother holding out her child, and later we see a dead baleen whale whose pup still clings to her fin. These symbolic victims stand in for Captain Nemo's loss of wife and children, whose portrait we briefly glimpse near the end. Otherwise, the underwater world like Crusoe's island is exclusively masculine. The girl who reads this novel must therefore project herself into the novel across the line of gender. Students of children's literature, however , know that 'girls will be boys.' 4 In a queer way, the very absence of women neutralizes gender binaries in the text and allows Verne to develop an array of masculinities and male...


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