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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784

First published: Pecheur D’Islande, 1886 (English translation, 1888)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: Brittainy and at sea

Principal Characters:

Sylvester, a young Breton

Yvonne, his grandmother

Gaud, his cousin

Yann, a fisherman

The Story:

In...

(The entire section contains 1784 words.)

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First published: Pecheur D’Islande, 1886 (English translation, 1888)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: Brittainy and at sea

Principal Characters:

Sylvester, a young Breton

Yvonne, his grandmother

Gaud, his cousin

Yann, a fisherman

The Story:

In the foc’s’l head, a hollow, pointed room like the inside of a gigantic sea gull, five men were sitting around the massive table which filled almost all the space between the bulkheads. They were waiting to take their turn on watch, for it was nearly midnight. They had cracked some biscuit with a hammer and had eaten. Now they were drinking water and cider.

Around the room little pigeonholes near the ceiling served as bedchambers, for these fishermen were outside so much they seemed to need no air while they slept. A murky lamp swung back and forth with the gentle swell of the sea.

Sylvester, who was only seventeen years old, was impatient for the appearance of Yann. They were celebrating in honor of their patron, the Virgin Mary, and Yann had to take part in the toasts. Finally Yann opened the little hatch in the deck and came down the narrow ladder. Yann, in his late twenties, and a giant of a man, was a hero to Sylvester. The whole company brightened on his arrival.

It was midnight. The toasts were quickly drunk. Then the watch went on deck for their turn to fish. Outside it was daylight, for in those latitudes it never got dark in summer. It was monotonous and soothing to fish in the daylight.

At the rail, Yann and Sylvester baited their hooks and dropped their lines. William waited behind them with sheath knife and salt. Regularly, in turn, Yann and Sylvester brought up their hooks, passed the plump cod to William, and rebaited. William quickly slit the fish, cleaned them, and packed them in the salt barrel. The pile of kegs in the hold represented the income of whole Breton families for a year. For his share of the catch, Yann would bring home fifteen hundred francs to his mother.

While they were fishing, Sylvester talked of marriage. Although still a boy, he was already engaged to Yann’s sister. He did his best, as he had done all summer, to talk Yann into the idea of marriage with Gaud. Yann always shook his head; he was engaged to the sea, he said, and some day he would celebrate that wedding.

Gentle and serious Gaud, Sylvester’s cousin, was attracted to Yann. She was, however, a mademoiselle with fine hands and good clothes. Her father was rich. Yann could scarcely help knowing that Gaud liked him, but with Breton stubbornness and simplicity he could not think of pretending seriously to a young woman of the upper class.

In September, the fishing boat returned to Paimpol in Brittainy. The return of the Iceland fleet was the signal for quickened life among these simple folk. The women and children and the old men spent the whole spring and summer raising small gardens and waiting. Then in the fall, when the men came back, there were weddings and engagements and feasts and pardons. Too often a ship did not return, and several families would wear black that winter.

That fall there was a big wedding with the traditional procession to the seashore and afterward a ball. Yann went to the ball and danced the whole evening with Gaud. Yann told her of his life at sea and of his big family in Pors-Even. Part of the time Yann watched his little sister, who danced with Sylvester. The seriousness of the engaged children amused Yann. Gaud was greatly pleased, for at last Yann had unbent and his talk seemed to her too gentle for casual conversation.

Gaud waited all that winter in her rich home with its fine furniture, but Yann never came to see her. At length, overcoming her modesty, she went on a business errand for her father to Yann’s house, in the hope of seeing him. She paid a sum of money to Yann’s father and waited longer than she should have, but Yann did not come home. Later, she knew, Yann would come to see her father to conclude the business, and she resolved to talk with him then; but when Yann came to see her father, he prepared to leave without inquiring for her. As he came into the hall, Gaud stopped him. Yann simply told her he could not court her because she was rich and he was poor.

In the spring, Yann and Sylvester sailed again with the Iceland fleet. During that summer, Gaud felt an occasional thrill when she wrote letters to Sylvester for his grandmother, Yvonne. Often the doting old woman would dictate a short message to Yann. So Gaud was not completely out of touch with her simple, stubborn fisherman.

Events were soon to bring Gaud and Yann close together. The next winter, Sylvester had to leave for his military service. His grandmother, Yvonne, visited him once at the barracks just before he left for French Indo-China. He was to be gone five years, and Yvonne was inconsolable.

Sylvester made a brave sailor in the French navy. On shore in the East, he was sent with an armed patrol to reconnoiter. When the small band was surprised and surrounded by a large detachment of Tonkinese, Sylvester led a spirited counterattack, until he was cut down by a sharpshooter. He was buried far from the rocky Breton coast in a green, strange land. An efficient, soulless government sent back his poor effects to Yvonne. She was now really alone, with only a memory growing dimmer as time passed.

Gaud’s father committed one folly after another and lost more money trying to recoup earlier losses. Finally, at his death, he was a ruined man. Gaud, the rich man’s daughter, became a seamstress. With quick sympathy, she went to live with Yvonne, so that the two bereft women could comfort each other.

Infirm of limb and mind, Yvonne was unmercifully teased by a group of small boys who thought she was drunk. Falling into the mud, she vainly tried to regain her footing. Gaud came along to set the old woman on her feet again and brush the mud from her clothes. Just then Yann happened on the scene and chased the tormentors away. He escorted the two women home.

Yann was slowly changing his mind. Now that Gaud was poor, he felt that a barrier between them had been removed. He also felt a great bond of sympathy for Yvonne because of her grandson, and Gaud was part of that sympathy. At the urging of his relatives and Yvonne, he proposed to Gaud. Much of that winter the couple sat by the fire in Yvonne’s poor hut while the old woman slept. Six days before the fleet was to leave in March, Gaud and Yann were married.

When the fishermen departed on their summer cruise, Gaud for the first time was part of the busy, weeping crowd. Yann’s ship was towed out into the harbor to wait a favorable wind. During the delay, Yann came ashore again for a final three hours. Gaud watched the ship disappear in the twilight.

The summer passed uneventfully enough. Gaud made fair wages from her sewing, enough to refurnish Yvonne’s poor cottage. In September the fishing fleet came straggling back. Yann’s ship was not among them. At the end of the month, Gaud still had hope. Each masculine step along the path sent her scurrying to the window. Yann’s father was also worried and called to comfort her. He told her many stories of ships delayed by fog until December. The fall and early winter came and went, and still Gaud waited.

She never saw Yann again. In August his ship had become separated from the others and was blown north. Somewhere off Iceland, Yann had kept a tryst, his wedding with the sea.

Critical Evaluation:

The great popularity of Pierre Loti’s exotic works at the close of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth was in part the result of a reaction to the literary naturalism of Emile Zola, Edmund and Jules Goncourt, and other novelists in France and elsewhere. Loti had himself, in his wide-ranging voyages as a French naval officer, seen the people and places he described in his fiction. Various works by him are set in Turkey, Tahiti, Africa, Japan, and Persia.

The number of translations and editions of AN ICELAND FISHERMAN are indicative of the warmth created by the reading of this beautiful story. Loti, of the French Academy, exemplified in this unadorned tale the virtues of French literature: clarity, simplicity, power. The exotic always appealed to Loti, and AN ICELAND FISHERMAN reflects this appeal in the descriptions of the fishing fleet in Iceland waters. The love interest is well presented and well within bounds. The characters of little Sylvester, big Yann, and serious Gaud are those of real people, whose fortunes are of genuine concern to the reader.

In the novel, Loti combines realism and impressionism in a simple tale of primitive people living in an elemental world filled with occasional beauty and many natural dangers. The story’s theme of love and separation is one frequently repeated by Loti who, in his years at sea, had learned how often a sailor’s farewell to his loved ones is final though he does not wish it so. The sea dominates most of the scenes in the novel, whether the action is on shipboard or on land. The sea is called “the foster mother and destroyer” of generations of Breton fishermen. It shows a “dark and sinister” look before a storm, and when some drunken sailors drown their cares in mirthful song, the sea, “their grave of tomorrow,” sings a booming, dirgelike accompaniment. Such poetic language stems from the author’s own nautical impressions, an aspect of the novel that heightens the reader’s enjoyment of the story.

Loti’s characters are realistic but somehow sentimentalized. Because the author seems to care so much, though, for these doomed people (he mentions that he himself conducted the sad funeral in Singapore of the valiant young Sylvester), the reader does also. One is touched by the handsome young sailor’s death far from home, by the deep grief of his grandmother, and by the desperate, vain longing of Gaud for her drowned husband, taken from her by her cruel rival, the sea, after Yann and Gaud had spent only one week of happiness together.

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