#2: The Great Nemo Debate

Image taken from the original illustrated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Image courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

Swashbuckling sky pirates are an iconic steampunk archetype (or cliche…), but the genre’s most famous pirate did not rule the uncharted skies but the seven seas. Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s most infamous underwater sea captain, has raised much discussion about whether he would serve as steampunk’s #1 pirate and antihero.

History & Interpretations
Captain Nemo is an interesting figure because of how he has evolved from the enigmatic “no one” that is the meaning behind his moniker to a character that has become symbolic of colonial rebellion by academic scholars today. Nemo was created by Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (a book published in two parts: the first published in 1869 and the second in later 1870), and briefly reappearing again in The Mysterious Island, which was published in three parts between 1874-1875. In 20,000 Leagues, the book’s protagonist Professor Aronnax and his companions Conseil and Ned Lands are part of an expedition on the hunt for a mysterious sea creature who had been blamed for several ship sinkings; when their own boat is attacked and sunk, they are rescued by Captain Nemo and taken on board his submarine The Nautilus.

From there, the trio are taken for a undersea journey around the world, with the Captain serving as their jailer and guide. Nemo is at times intellectual, compassionate, and adventurous, but he is also short-tempered, tyrannical, and driven by an arrogant misanthropy that leads him to attack civilian and military warships and fund revolutions. There are hints that he has suffered some political tragedy in his past that caused him to hate the world above with their repressive governments, but in 20,000 Leagues this past remained a mystery. His hypocrisy concerning his hatred of oppressive rule while commanding self-declared mastery over the sea and those living in it (especially represented by his merciless slaughter of sperm whales), speaks volumes to scholars and steampunks alike about what he symbolizes both as a Victorian literary figure and as the product of the system of oppression that created him.

Originally when his character was conceived, Verne had wanted to make him a fallen Polish aristocrat whose family and fortune was destroyed during the 1863 Polish insurrection against the Russians. However, mindful of the success Verne’s work had in Russian markets, his publisher urged him to change the background of his character. As a result, in 20,000 Leagues, Nemo’s physical description does not indicate any racial or ethnic distinction:

The second stranger deserves a more detailed description. A disciple of such character–judging anatomists as Gratiolet or Engel could have read this man’s features like an open book. Without hesitation, I identified his dominant qualities—self–confidence, since his head reared like a nobleman’s above the arc formed by the lines of his shoulders, and his black eyes gazed with icy assurance; calmness, since his skin, pale rather than ruddy, indicated tranquility of blood; energy, shown by the swiftly knitting muscles of his brow; and finally courage, since his deep breathing denoted tremendous reserves of vitality.

I might add that this was a man of great pride, that his calm, firm gaze seemed to reflect thinking on an elevated plane, and that the harmony of his facial expressions and bodily movements resulted in an overall effect of unquestionable candor—according to the findings of physiognomists, those analysts of facial character.

I felt “involuntarily reassured” in his presence, and this boded well for our interview.

Whether this individual was thirty–five or fifty years of age, I could not precisely state. He was tall, his forehead broad, his nose straight, his mouth clearly etched, his teeth magnificent, his hands refined, tapered, and to use a word from palmistry, highly “psychic,” in other words, worthy of serving a lofty and passionate spirit. This man was certainly the most wonderful physical specimen I had ever encountered. One unusual detail: his eyes were spaced a little far from each other and could instantly take in nearly a quarter of the horizon. This ability—as I later verified—was strengthened by a range of vision even greater than Ned Land’s. When this stranger focused his gaze on an object, his eyebrow lines gathered into a frown, his heavy eyelids closed around his pupils to contract his huge field of vision, and he looked! What a look—as if he could magnify objects shrinking into the distance; as if he could probe your very soul; as if he could pierce those sheets of water so opaque to our eyes and scan the deepest seas . . . !

Quoted from Wikisource.

However, Captain Nemo’s background is revealed in The Mysterious Island, where Verne revised his past identity as Prince Dakkar who had orchestrated the Sanpoy rebellion in 1857 against the British Raj.

Jess Nevins, in his Captain Nemo entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana states that general critical analysis suggests that Nemo’s misanthropy reflects Verne’s own growing pessimism during this time period: around the year 20,000 Leagues had been written, Vernes also suffered from a series of personal tragedies: the death of his mother and close friend and publisher, and a twarted murder attempted by his nephew which left him with a crippled leg. Nevins, however, suggests that this is not the case, but that Nemo fits the Gothic Romantic hero-villain type instead, which explains his redemption in The Mysterious Island.

Other academics has advocated for Captain Nemo to take up the steampunk antihero mantle as figure who had rebelled against an oppressive system by subverting its power to his own benefit. In a thorough and detailed analysis, Mike Perschon examines Captain Nemo’s character development from Prince Dakar the rebel to Captain Nemo the vengeful pirate to Nemo’s final humanist redemption in The Mysterious Island in a conference presentation also available online: Finding Nemo: Verne’s Antihero as Original Steampunk. Dru Pagliasotti also suggests an argument for Nemo as a steampunk hero in her essay Does Steampunk Have Politics?

Representations in film & media

Interestingly enough, Nemo’s “no man” appearance has been interpreted as the “default white, European male” and has carried through the many media representations of Nemo throughout the years.

Out of the nineteen film and TV portrayals of Captain Nemo, only two portray him as a person of color: by Omar Sharif in the 1973 European miniseries La Isla misteriosa y el capitán Nemo (left) and Naseeruddin Shah (right) in the 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Omar Sharif

Naseeruddin Shah

Nemo in the Future?

Disney had announced its plans to create a 20,000 Leagues prequel film for 2011. IMDB.com currently lists the title role to be played by Sam Worthington, after shooting down rumors that Dywane “The Rock” Johnson or Will Smith had been up for the role. Perschon has offered his own opinion about who should have been considered: Faran Tahir. Read his opinion on why, which I agreed with. Alas.

But this won’t be the last we’ll see of Nemo on film. Another rumor has it that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie On Stranger Tides will be based on Tim Powers’ book of the same name. Those already familiar with Powers’ work know that Powers’ The Anubis Gates is considered one of the first steampunk novels in modern sci-fi. Indeed, rumor has it that Pirates is going steampunk, with a Captain Nemo-esque villain.

Who is destined to play him then? I only hope he doesn’t become an Evil Foreigner or a card-carrying member of the Yellow Peril.

Additional Reading:
Complete Original texts
20000 Leagues Under the Sea on Gutenberg.org

The Mysterious Island on Gutenberg.org

Further Research:

Captain Nemo on Wikipedia

Karen Crisafulli’s Literature Gallifrey page on 20000 Leagues Under the Sea -An interesting article about the various translations and film adaptations now available of 20,000 Leagues.

Spotlight on The Heliograph

Note: Thanks to DW user winter for pointing out a couple of historical errors in this post. I always try my best for accuracy, but sometimes, that gets slipped up.


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