#65 “Steampunk” Characters: About Characterization in Jules Verne’s Novels–Guest Blog by Harry Markov

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1871 title page. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Did Verne create “steampunk” characters in his novels? Though I cannot define Verne as being a steampunk writer, I can say that Verne’s works, while written in a cut and dry cataloguing style, nonetheless emphasizes moral and social qualities as much as it does scientific ones. Given these circumstances, I will consider what are considered important values that a person should have according to the characters in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1 and The Mysterious Island. 2 Moreover, by investigating the value systems these characters hold, we can compare how they hold up to the characters in today’s modern steampunk books.

Characteristic for both novels is the strong moral compass typical for all characters. Aronnax has his own convictions about what is just and while sees Nemo as having suffered injustice, he still recognizes Nemo’s vengeful sinking of ships as unacceptable and chooses to escape, even at the expense of the knowledge he received from the journey on the Nautilus. Similar to him, the colonists in The Mysterious Island strive to do what is morally best. Even though odds for Cyrus Smith’s survival are slim, the rest continue to search for him even through the violent storms that struck the island. Then when the colonists find a message in a bottle and later on discover a castaway, who during the years of solitary has turned into a savage, they take it upon themselves to return him to civilization on Lincoln Island. These honorable deeds in The Mysterious Island are the product of duty as the driving motivation behind their actions. First, Neb’s duty towards Cyrus and then the colonists’ duty towards their fellow man in the face of the savage Ayrton. Duty, as clean and moral as presented here, can be found in Allan Campbell’s “Scar Night,” where Dill is eager to follow in his species’ footsteps and fulfill his duty towards the church.

Hard work is also central to Verne’s writing. In The Mysterious Island Verne illustrates how inexhaustible human resourcefulness is, when faced with the task to recreate a whole world from scratch. How unstoppable man is even when he had been dragged back in time, having to work with materials in their rawest of forms. The colonists on Lincoln Island don’t settle for a simple settlement with wooden huts. They don’t settle with having to gather, hunt and fish their food. On the contrary, they settle for nothing less than the maximum their new home can provide. It’s the same determination to push oneself harder and above the average, to distill the best from humanity’s achievements that is responsible for the technological marvel that is the Nautilus. The same concept, for hard work without compromises surfaces in “Scar Night” as well – although twisted – in his scientific experiments to create potion out of human souls.

When I pitched the idea to revisit steampunk’s origins, Ay-leen suggested to also read The Mysterious Island, the conclusion to Captain Nemo’s story, who was first introduced in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. One of my tasks is also to use the Captain as a bridge and draw parallels between the two books. Although Captain Nemo plays a secondary role in the first book and a near episodic, behind-the-scene one in the sequel, as a character he functions on several levels.

I can’t defend the argument that Nemo is the carrier of Victorian morality. That function fits Aronnax better as he is never out of line. He strives to be correct in his manners to everyone, even that is simply impossible. Yet, Nemo exhibits positive traits that could be considered as Victorian. He is merciful towards Aronnax, Conseil and Ned, even though in his words he is no longer bound to society’s morality. Nemo announces the three to be his prisoners, but at the same time, he treats them with respect and entertains them as most venerable guests.

Verne portrays Nemo as a man of duty. He’s brave in the face of danger, when squids attack the ship, and is in the first line of defense. His humanity shows through, when two of his crew members die. One could think that through Nemo Verne hoped to create an ‘ideal male,’ a man of strength and bravery as well as a man of brilliance and scientific ingenuity. It’s worth to mention how Verne uses Nemo’s appearance to reinforce Nemo’s superiority as a character by using the ‘kalokagathos,’ the harmony between inner beauty and outer beauty. Here’s what Aronnax thinks of the captain, when he sees him for the first time in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

“I immediately recognised his dominating qualities: his confidence, for he held his head nobly on an arc framed by the line of his shoulders, and his black eyes looked at me with a cold assurance; his calm, for his skin, pale rather than colored, exhibited the quietness of his blood; his energy, which was seen in the quick contraction of his muscles; and finally his courage, for his great respiration implied a big heart.

I judged that this man could be trusted, for his close looks and his calm seemed to reflect deep thoughts, and that the homogeneity of expressions in the gestures of the body and face, following an observation of his physiognomy, resulted an inscrutable frankness. I felt myself involuntarily reassured in his presence, and this augured well for our interview.

This person had thirty five or fifty years, I was unable to judge more closely. He was tall, with a wide forehead, a straight nose, a clearly drawn mouth, magnificent teeth, fine hands, a lengthy and eminent body…all of which seemed worthy to serve such a high and fascinated soul. This man formed certainly the most admirable type that I had ever met.”

Even so, Nemo is flawed as a character and not the entirely wholesome idealization as Cyrus Smith in The Mysterious Island turns out to be. Nemo has suffered great injustice and that has rendered him vengeful. Although he announces that ‘I have broken with society entirely’ and demonstrates so as he reaps all the resources that he needs from the seas, Nemo funds revolutions on the land and sinks ships as a form of vendetta. His moral integrity is breached because of his bitterness and hypocrisy, much unlike Cyrus Smith who is a saint-like figure without a fault. Thankfully, when in The Mysterious Island Nemo does reveal himself to the colonists as their mysterious aide, Nemo has come to terms with himself and had found peace. Despite his disconnection with the world above the ways, Nemo finds it within his heart to come to the colonists’ needs, usually in the nick of time.

Nemo’s morality, however, is less important in comparison to the functions that he performs. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Captain Nemo is a teacher figure and a possible substitute for Verne in the sense that Verne educated the audience (which is represented by Aronnax). In a sense the journey under the sea and the wondrous world that opens up its doors for Aronnax is a metaphor for the transition from ignorance to education, which is the secret mission of the tales Verne has published. Perhaps that is a bit pretentious to state, but also explains the slow pace and the impromptu history, geography and engineering lessons Nemo subjects an eager Aronnax to. The teacher role is later on embodied by Cyrus Smith in The Mysterious Island as the resident genius and most capable man.

Last but not least, Nemo functions as Verne’s attitude towards technological progress and the importance of scientific knowledge. On one hand, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea serves as a warning against the creation of powerful weapons, because the Nautilus in several instances serves as a weapon against sperm whales and ships. Here the Nautilus stands in for its creator as well as the human urge to continue with the mechanization and industrialization, processes that developed during Verne’s lifetime. While the Nautilus may serve for the greater good of people by revealing more about our planet and furthering our knowledge, it can also be more than dangerous should such a weapon fall in the wrong hands. Nemo’s far from innocent as he exacts his vengeance not only on warships, but on civilians as well.

On the other hand, Verne understands how far we have moved from the natural order to even exist without bringing civilization with us. The colonists succeed to survive, but because they set to alter their habitat. They capture and domesticate animals, they grow their crops and master the elements to their advantage instead of attempting a harmonious co-existence. Verne gives us a second chance at starting over and we do the same things. Cyrus Smith creates nitroglycerine and remodels the island for the colonists’ convenience. Despite these skills that the colonists develop in shaping the land, Verne underlines how helpless we are once we have been thrown back into the wilderness without preparation. Before they had storage food, they didn’t starve because Nemo had shot boar for them as humans can’t hunt for food anymore without gun. Vern also shows our dependency on medicine, when Herbert contracts malaria and his body is unfit to cope with the disease on its own, but needs quinine, which Nemo – acting as a rather dramatic deus ex machina – provides in the nick of time. Nemo is the reminder that humans are as good as their creations and inventions and without them, we are nothing as special. But this is all covered up and hidden, because the colonists are more than noble, just, caring and compassionate. Their victories are the victories of honest men, triumphs of human resilience and dedication. Their hardships are tragedies sent as tests.

Jules Verne puzzles me. His stories are flights of fantasy, but grounded in reality as they seek the natural sciences as foundations. The fictitious beginning fascinates and entertains, but the lectures within expand on my knowledge. Textbooks mask themselves as novels and within this impersonation Verne’s concerns about industrialization and globalization dress as some of the more memorable and thrilling adventures. What’s most certain about Jules Verne, however, is that he did not father steampunk, though his characters nonetheless embody his attitudes about Victorian virtues.


1. For those not aware of the plot I’ll relay it as shortly as possible to prevent any confusion. This is the story of three men [French professor Aronnax, his servant Conseil and Canadian harpooner Ned Land] who after chasing a supposed sea monster are held hostage in a submarine unlike any and forced on a voyage under the sea.

2. In short: Prisoners of war during the US Civil War escape on a balloon during a vicious storm and are stranded on a deserted island, where they apply their knowledge and virtues to survive. During their three year stay these colonists tame the island and face the mysterious, benevolent stranger, who has been aiding them during various moments of crisis.


1. Jules Verne: An Author before his Time? ~ http://www.unmuseum.org/verne.htm
2. An Ordinary Treatment of Les Voyages Extraordinaires ~ http://jv.gilead.org.il/taves/taves73.html
3. Jules Verne, a desperado? ~ http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/williams-verne-1210.html
4. Science, Technology, Literature ~ http://www.bookrags.com/research/verne-jules-este-0001_0004_0/science-technology-and-literature-este-0001_0004_0.html
5. The Victorian Age ~ http://www.atuttascuola.it/risorse/inglese/the_victorian_age.htm

Harry Markov tries to fix his status from unpublished to a published, while at the same time not shutting up about the books that he reads. He’s a reviewer at Temple Library Reviews, The Portal, and he rambles about writing and the journey of a procrastinating writer at Through a Forest of Ideas. He’s always available for a chat on Twitter @harrymarkov.

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One response to “#65 “Steampunk” Characters: About Characterization in Jules Verne’s Novels–Guest Blog by Harry Markov

  1. Li Carlson

    A very good friend of mine has pointed out to me that the works of Verne are actually “technothrillers” by modern parlance, as they represent fictions utilizing the state-of-the-art technology of their time. With this as a given, his characterization is at least on a par with J.D. Robb, or Tom Clancy.