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The Four Humours in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the seas

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August 2014
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I am amazed this did not occur to me before. Maybe it did and I’ve just forgotten. I should re-read my doctoral dissertation. Some other scholar has certainly already noticed this…

Anyway, there are four main characters in Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. They very obviously correspond to the four humours of medieval medicine (still respected perhaps in 1870 when the novel was published). Conceil, the valet is not only Flemish but Phlegmatic. Ned Land has a chapter titled “Ned Land’s Choleres” so he is clearly choleric — always hungry and prone to violent outbursts. These are almost explicitly stated by the author. But Nemo is clearly the Melancholic humour and Aronnax is Sanguine. The last of these is the most interesting because the least obvious. Aronnax is, however, not only happy and content most of the time; he is also prone to excitable reactions and “going overboard” with his theories about the giant narwhal. He literally goes overboard…

What does this do for the literary critic or the reader? That is a good question and one I will have to ponder further. However, one thing it does for the book is turn the relationships between the characters into a study of human personality types and opposites. Ned and Conseil are often paired and serve as foils for each other. Nemo and Aronnax are another couple and also opposites in temperament.

Nemo on cliffWhat happens when we think of these humours as the four elements? Ned is Earth — easy-going and Sensate in his ay of seeing the world except when he erupts like a volcano. Conseil is Air, cool, rational, adaptable. Aronnax is Fire, enthusiastic, largely happy and engaged, seeing the world in a mental and spiritual way.Nemo (not surprisingly) is Water, engaging with the world and others through emotions and feelings. There is a chapter title called “The Man of the Waters” which is usually mistranslated as “The Man of the Seas.” In terms of Jungian personality functions, this would make Ned a Sensate type (which fits), Conseil a Thinking Type, Aronnax an Intuitive, and Nemo a Feeling type. The characters are not kept to these narrow frames, but on the whole they seem to fit.

It is especially interesting to see that the phlegmatic thinking type with his cool analytical reason is Conseil, the classifier who cannot actually identify animals when he sees them — he just has the artificial classification nomenclature memorized so that given the name of a thing, he can place it into an artificial structure of order. This is the mentality we associate with Science. Is Verne actually making fun of the modern Scientific way of thinking? Could be, given that he was a devout Catholic, and a bit of a trickster to boot. It is obvious that Conseil is a parody of the Scientist, but what if he is actually the representative of Rationalism?

Prof. Aronnax, the real scientist, supposedly, is ruled by his heart and his will — that is, his delight in nature, and his excitement. He goes astray in his deductions and hypotheses; he almost starts babbling when faced with a “swim with the sharks” scheme and is intensely loyal and a little over-dramatic.

Nemo, who you would think was representative of science and technology is nothing of the kind. He is an engineering genius and an avid collector, but his temperament is Byronic, melancholic, brooding and motivated by dark emotions: unhappiness, grief, isolation, loneliness, and a desire for vengeance.

All of which goes to show that Verne might have been challenging us to examine our assumptions about scientific objectivity and rationalism and to consider that none of these four humours are in fact sufficient alone. Each fails in some way to deal with life, but together they complement and correct each other. In the central relationship, Aronnax encourages Nemo to rediscover happiness and throw off his discontent and self-destructive isolation. Nemo introduces Aronnax to melancholy and the darker side of life that he has never himself experienced. Aronnax has never — so far as we are told — had to struggle against misfortune or endure personal tragedy.

Ironically, perhaps, what Aronnax ends up losing in the end of he story is his friend Nemo, to whom he had grown attached even though he never knew his real name. True to his nature, Aronnax ends his narrative with questions and the hope that Nemo survived, but one feels he must also be experiencing a deep sense of loss. We sometimes think that we all could do without melancholy, and maybe that’s why so many of us are on anti-depression meds. But in fact melancholy is not bad. It is one of the four humours that must be kept in balance to create a whole human being.


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