Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Look at Constipation and Stomach Ailments in Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"

In my ongoing research on obscure fantastic French literature, I often spend time reading long-forgotten books and journals. Recently, I was reading an issue of something called "The Journal of French Literature," from 1984. The article was on Jules Verne's classic novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas," and entitled "The Nautilus as Body." The author, Dr. Alexandre Figuier, shows how Nemo's famous underwater vessel is a stand-in for the human body, and the descriptions of its actions are descriptions of the "physical functions" of those on board.

While reading the article, I found a passage that would be of particular interest to fans of Arsole Fantüme. The author discusses the bowel movements, constipation, and stomach upset that would be experienced by those forced by Captain Nemo to live upon the Nautilus, and eat only seafood.

I've scanned the two pages, but because the journal was so cheaply produced, the pages are a bit blurry, so I've gone ahead and typed the relevant paragraphs into this blog post. This purely for historical/research purposes. There was no copyright notice in the journal itself, so if Dr. Figuier is out there and comes upon this, I hope he will take this in the spirit in which it's intended:


It seems difficult to believe that Verne, who spends so much time and effort explaining the fantastic mechanisms of the amazing Nautilus, and moreover spends as many pages detailing the all seafood diet that Dr. Arronax et. al. are forced to ingest, would not spend at least as much time detailing the physical effects of the change of diet and surroundings upon the conscripted men.

In fact, Verne does this very thing, in the 20th chapter of part one, “Torres Strait.” However, he does this with typical Victorian discretion. Verne sets it up by having Conseil discuss Ned Land:

“He is a positive spirit with an imperious stomach. Looking at fish and constantly eating them is not enough for him. The lack of wine, bread, and meat does not suit a pure Anglo-Saxon accustomed to steaks, and who appreciates his glass of brandy or gin!”
As we have already seen, the glass of brandy or gin is a reference to digestion. The “imperious stomach” of a one accustomed to eating steak and drinking gin might be expected to behave in a wholly different manner after months of nothing but fish and seaweed.


When the Nautilus comes upon the coral reef where Captain Cook’s ship was nearly sunk, Dr. Arronax confides “I very much wanted to visit this 360-league long reef, against which a permanently squally sea breaks with terrible intensity like rolls of thunder.”

The language with which Dr. Arronax expresses this sentiment is out of place with his other descriptions of the undersea world-- the prose has an almost poetic intensity in its description of discomfort. Why, for instance, would Dr. Arronax be so interested in visiting a “permanently squally sea,” after so many descriptions of the languid sea that came before? The answer is that, in this passage, Dr. Arronax is describing the sensations of his own bowels, after a diet of sea-food. With the very next sentence, the Nautilus leaves the coral reef, and plunges further into the depths of the sea, and Dr. Arronax “had to be content with the various specimens of fish brought up by our nets.”

The “squally” stomach breaking with terrible intensity will find no respite. There is plenty of food-- all of it of the stomach--churning variety.

It gets worse for the new residents of the Nautilus, as it ventures further into the Strait:

Around the Nautilus the sea was boiling furiously. The current... was breaking over the coral tips emerging here and there.

“A bad sea!” said Ned.

“Very bad,” I answered, “and not at all suited to a vessel like the Nautilus.”

We have already seen how the Nautilus represents the human body. Here, it is Dr. Arronax admitting that his bowel movements have been unsatisfactory. When the Nautilus runs aground, Dr. Arronax is describing constipation.

We had gone aground at high tide in a sea where the tides are not large, and unfortunate circumstance for the chances of refloating the Nautilus. So solidly constructed was the ship, however, that its hull was not damaged in any way. But if it could neither sink or be holed, it ran a high risk of remaining stuck on the reefs forever, in which case Captain Nemo’s submarine vessel was done for.

The submarine vessel remains aground, of course, until Dr. Arronax, Conseil, and Ned Land take a dinghy to dry land, where, according to Ned Land,

“We’re going to eat meat, and what meat: real game! Not bread I tell you! I don’t say that fish is a bad thing, but you can have too much of it, and a piece of fresh venison grilled on glowing coals will make a nice change from our usual fare.”

After the men have spent “a few days on land,” the tide again rises, and the Nautilus is finally able to “refloat.” Their constipation is over, bowels having returned to a form of normalcy, and their journey upon the Nautilus continues apace.


A submarine full of only men, and the leader of them a solitary and quite mad man indeed, is a submarine of lonely nights of desperate companionship. Again, Verne was bound by the strictures of Victorian mores, and was able to explore the themes implied in only the vaguest of

UPDATE: Order the novel Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist from amazon here.

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