Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436
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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