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The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Adventure & Romance
Who is Victor Hugo
Believe it or not you are almost certainly very familiar with the works of the world famous, French author Victor Hugo. You might not be able to name any of his works off the top of your head but I'd bet you know them when I tell you. Among other things he wrote The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Les Miserables both of which are known and loved the world over. In fact, Les Miserables was just made into a blockbuster film again, recently and won a whole skew of awards, including three oscars. Not bad for an author who died in 1885.
Les Miserables, the Movie
The Plot of The Toilers of The Sea by Victor Hugo
The plot of Victor Hugo's "The Toilers of the Sea" is a little different and yet completely familiar to us. Our protagonist, the young, reclusive fisherman, Gilliatt, who falls in love with the beautiful Deruchette. Her uncle and caretaker, Mess Lethierry's steamship is wrecked on some rocks near the Isle of Guernsey and he faces financial and spiritual ruination unless someone can salvage the boat's engine. Seeing his opportunity to win the eternal gratitude and love of the lovely, young maiden, Gilliatt instantly pledges that he alone will bring back the massive engine. Of course this task is impossible, even a team of experienced salvagers could not accomplish it. Yet Gilliatt is a man possessed by love and so is determined to do the inconceivable. But does he succeed?
Victor Hugo's Style
If The Toilers Of The Sea is the first Victor Hugo book you have read then it quickly becomes apparent to you why his works The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables have been made into scores of operas. His dramatic, theatrical style beg to be displayed on the stage and the silver screen. I think that, with his his powerful style, he would have made a perfect drinking companion for the fiery spirit of the composer Beethoven. Both men had an elemental energy about them that is best described as epic.
Overall Review of The Toilers Of The Sea by Victor Hugo
A really good book that starts slow. You'll be tempted to put it down but about 25% of the way through you will have renewed hope. Then, at about the half way mark, a plot twist is revealed and your mind will be blown. After that, there is no way you will be able to put this book down.
A more detailed review of this wonderful book can be read below where I have gone into many aspects of the story and the characters in-depth.
Although this is a long book, over 500 pages, and the pace is quite slow, when Hugo wants to deliver action he holds nothing back. His descriptions are so vivid and, paradoxically, so efficient and economical that the action sequences seem even more dynamic by comparison to the rest of the prose.
Our poor hero valiantly and unceasingly battles the ocean, starvation, dehydration, man-eating octopuses and, ultimately, himself. The action in this story is larger than life and only Victor Hugo could rise to the challenge of bringing it to us.
The Love Story
Gilliatt's desire for Deruchette and the mammoth undertaking he is prepared to endure to show her that desire is the material for a truly legendary love story. We suffer with him, we endure his trials with him because we know he is doing it out of love for Deruchette. We begin to dream of the day when they will be reunited and he can proudly pronounce "All this, have I done for you." We imagine her swooning and them embracing, his hard earned reward won at the cost of blood, sweat and tears. A love story for the ages in which the hero, Gilliatt, always behaves nobly and with self sacrifice.
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The Industrial Revolution
In The Toilers of the Sea Victor Hugo also seems to be making a commentary on the way different people reacted differently to the Industrial Revolution. Hugo uses the character of Mess Lethierry to show that the advancement of humankind through the developments of science and industry is an extremely positive thing and that it should be embraced for the obvious betterment of all people. On the other side of the argument he shows that those benefits offered by new technologies is resisted by the superstitious, the ignorant and the simple minded. While I'm not sure that I 100% agree with that position, I definitely appreciate the benefits of modern technologies, even though I use very few of them myself.
Victor Hugo does an excellent job of giving us three dimensional characters that feel real, even if they happen to also feel quite strange. His insights into people natures and his varied experiences with different types of people allows him to flesh out his characters with consistent behavioral nuances. There doesn't seem to be a throw away character in his universe, except, I am sad to say, the poor damsel of the piece, Deruchette, who is given a bit part to play in a story where she needed more to do and to be.
Hugo amuses us with straight faced observations about people's bigotries and beliefs and the thought processes they go through that leads them to their conclusions. Deductions that are nearly always completely wrong. You are left wondering if this is how Hugo himself felt about the inhabitants of the island when he first arrived in exile. You imagine him interacting politely with the locals while taking mental notes and stifling a series of amused grins behind his hand.
Toilers of the Sea
Clubin and the Subplot
Some reviewers also said that the subplot, involving Clubin was unnecessary but it's hard for me to agree with that assessment when Clubin's story was so captivating. Clubin was a joyful surprise gift that I was not expecting. Completely taken unaware as I was, Clubin's part in the piece was a knock-out punch that literally made me sit upright in bed and exclaim "I did NOT see this coming!"
SPOILERS BELOW! Skip to the next module to avoid spoilers
The revelation that the respected and honored personage of Clubin was an evil man through to the core was shocking and fantastic. He is one of the most underrated, and certainly the least talked about villains in story telling lore. This was the banana I found in the bottom of my strawberry ice-cream. Unfortunately, it has ruined Star Wars for me because now, When Vader holds forth his hand and emotes "Luke, I am your father!" I'll be compelled to yell at the screen "Who cares? Clubin turned out to be evil! Now THAT'S a plot twist!"
More Victor Hugo
Much has been written about Victor Hugo's tendency to digress often and volubly from the main thrust of the story. Some find this trait delightful, believing that this detailed description of the world in which the story takes place is an ingenious way of pulling the reader into the story and making it a better, more emotional experience for them.
For me, in The Toilers Of The Sea, I had four different reactions to these abundant interruptions. At first I found them a little dull and unnecessary. Excellently written but you have to understand that it takes nearly a quarter of the book for the plot to even start and when I pick up a book, I want to start having the experience, not get a history lesson or read a documentary before I can start enjoying the story. You could literally skip entire chapters of this book and not miss a single important element of the story. He's verbose almost to the point of being annoying, telling you the same thing over and over again but in a different way.
His sidebars, disguised as an almost unnecessary and uncontrollable verbal diarrhea, has told you many of these things for a reason. They become elements of the story that actually serve a real purpose for driving the story forwards.
Thirdly, and mostly I found them frustrating. Hugo can write, and he can inflame your imagination, but once he does, he leaves you frustrated, with an almost anticlimactic feeling as he rushes off to talk about something else. He builds up the steam but never really blows the whistle. This has the beneficial result of keeping us wanting more but it is also somewhat unsatisfying. However, his action sequences are excellent, nonetheless.
But fourthly and finally, these excursions also had the strange effect of making the book more intimate. I got the feeling that I was sitting at the table next to Victor Hugo himself as he told me the story in person. These additional notes made me feel like the author was more interested in having a conversation with me than he was in just telling me a story. He's asking, no, maybe he's demanding that you do more than just read the story. He expects more of you and obligates you to do more than just passively read his words. He induces you to be involved, intellectually and emotionally. It reminded me of the quote from the director Quentin Tarantino where he said "You can't just sit there and passively watch my movies. You have to be involved too."
The Girl, Deruchette
Other reviewers have said the the girl, Deruchette, our hero's love interest and motivation for taking on the enormous salvage task,is utterly unworthy of him. They label her as silly and completely undeserving. I don't see that in her, but then, that's because the author doesn't give us much of anything to see in her at all. She does almost nothing and serves no other purpose than to serve two, essential plot devices i.e. the McGuffin that actuates the plot and the apparent cause of our hero's choice of action at the end. In short, she has not been attributed enough substance by Hugo to be either unworthy nor undeserving of Gilliatt's love. She wisps through the story like a shadow, an insubstantial ghost. Given the gargantuan talent of Hugo, I do not believe that this is a mistake, an oversight or a demonstration of "French chauvinism" to quote another reviewer. I suspect that Hugo wrote her exactly as she needed to be written to make his point, which is that the girl is inconsequential to the action of the hero. I'll explain below.
The Hero, Gilliatt
As mentioned above, the girl of our story, the poor damsel, really doesn't get any sympathy from the other reviewers of the book The Toilers Of The Sea by Victor Hugo but I don't see it that way at all. To me, Gilliatt is the person of questionable fiber, even though he performs heroically and behaves gallantly.
He has no prior relationship with the girl so, to me, he almost comes across like a mad man with the deranged belief that he can win her love. Yes, she says that she will wed whomever can successfully perform the dreaded salvage operation but even Gilliatt himself points out that this was a spontaneous declaration that a person would have to be delusional to believe. Her emotional responses are perfectly reasonable and understandable. In contrast, Gilliatt instantly becomes obsessed with her after she writes his name in the snow one day. He becomes her stalker, a fact not unnoticed by her uncle nor another old woman from the village. He is so consumed with her that the moment he sees even the slimmest chance to have her, he unhesitatingly volunteers for a suicide mission.
It's Not A Love Story - SPOILERS
BEWARE, SPOILERS - skip to the next module to avoid spoilers
I don't make these observations to be contrary, I'm simply relating the facts of the story. More importantly I am saying them because, primarily it is not a love story at all. She doesn't love him at all and never said that she did.
The sometimes quite nasty reviewers, are almost on a witch hunt of poor Deruchette, insisting that she is unworthy of such a mighty love but I would remind them that she did not ask for it either. If her character has a flaw it is that she isn't given much to do in the story except sit there and be pretty. I think many readers dislike Deruchette because they see her as the reason that we did not get the happily ever after ending we were all expecting.
Our great admiration and respect for Gilliatt's achievements and his utter selflessness makes us cry out that he be given the comeuppance he as certainly fought so hard to earn. Deruchette's declaration of love for another man offends our sense of fair play and we feel cheated by her. That is the real reason so many reviewers dislike her.
But, as I have stated, The Toilers Of The Sea is not a love story at all and that is why there is no love in it. So what is it then if it is not a love story?
An Epic Sea Story
It's Man vs Nature
Most reviews will tell you that Victor Hugo's novel The Toilers Of The Sea is really a story about man versus nature and that is true, but it's not mother nature i.e. the environment that he is at odds with but, instead, it is his own nature, his character. It is a story of a man's will.
We respect Gilliatt because he continues to strive and overcome insurmountable barriers and we would all like to believe that we have that same invincible strength and courage with ourselves. It has been called a man against nature story but I think it is a man against himself, a man showing his nature, his character by the effort he is prepared to exert and the things he voluntarily endures in order to realize his dreams and achieve his goals. It's a theme repeated over and over again with many characters in the story.
Clubin goes to great lengths to achieves his goals, waiting patiently his entire life for the opportunity to enact his dreams. He suffers terribly but his will power sustains him.
Mess Lethierry, Deruchette's own uncle is nearly utterly destroyed mentally and spiritually by the loss of his beloved steamship that he has worked so hard to get after he is robbed of half his money. He defies convention and forges ahead with his own dream of bringing a steamship to ply trade goods to and from the islands. He uses his will to become successful in this endeavor and his will is nearly annihilated when his dream is stolen from him.
Even Deruchette, who is given short shrift by Victor Hugo faces the same struggle. She wants to please her uncle but she also has a will of her own, her own dreams.
It is the same with Gilliatt. He uses his indomitable will to attempt the unthinkable in pursuit of his desires. He unflinchingly faces the trials of Job in his quest to reach his dreams.
SPOILERS AHEAD - skip to next module to avoid spoilers
Some have said that this is the story of a man who triumphs over the sea but what I see is a man who fails himself. His will is strong but flawed. He tries as hard as he can to achieve his dream but, when it proves impossible, he is a broken man and no longer has the strength to continue living. He kills himself because he cannot master himself. The sea was never his foe but it is easy for the reader to believe that it was because Victor Hugo masterfully brought the sea to live and imbued it with a living personality through his vivid and powerful descriptions.
Victor Hugo's Toilers Of The Sea reminds me of Joseph Conrad's own book, Victory, An Island Tale, which I have read was influenced by Conrad reading The Toilers Of The Sea as a boy. The lessons preached seem to be in unity, i.e. you are strong and alive until you care for another more than your own self. Then you become miserable and weak.
Read this book. It is a unique journey that few authors would have the skill, intellect or courage to even attempt and Victor Hugo pulls it off with skill and mastery. His writing, while it might meander at times, is excellent and his artistic voice is certainly impossible to imitate.