Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea can be appreciated in many ways: as a regional novel that celebrates the Channel Islands and the beauty and majesty of the open sea that surrounds them; as a crime story (compare Hugo’s knowledgeable depiction of the unending struggle between the underworld and the police in Les Misérables [1862; English translation, 1862]); as a tragedy of unrequited love; as an allegorical celebration of human material progress; and as the mythic struggle of a hero against the blind natural forces of storms, the raging sea, and a giant octopus.
Most critics are drawn to the novel’s mythic and lyrical dimensions, which inspired some of the greatest French symbolist poets, including Arthur Rimbaud in “La Bateau ivre” (1883; “The Drunken Boat,” 1941) and Stéphane Mallarmé in Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897; A Dice-Throw, 1958). However, these poets often neglect to explain the political and biographical contexts from which Hugo’s inspiration arose.
The Toilers of the Sea mirrors and transposes the three most agonizing personal disasters of Hugo’s life. First, at the age of twenty-five, the precocious Hugo became the unquestioned leader of the French Romantic movement, but his very fame isolated him. His beloved wife, Adèle, became estranged from him, and although the couple remained in the same house, she started a lifelong affair with Hugo’s best friend. Gilliatt’s unrequited love for Déruchette and his flawless, self-sacrificial devotion reflect Hugo’s poignant disappointment in his first and greatest love. Second, open water became Hugo’s worst enemy when his first child, Léopoldine, happily married and pregnant with Hugo’s first grandchild, drowned at the age of...
(The entire section is 739 words.)