The Toilers of the Sea

by Victor Hugo

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964

The shy, reclusive Gilliatt and his mother arrive on the Isle of Guernsey. From where they came, no one knows. They settle in an isolated house by the shore. The mother dies when Gilliatt is still a young man, and he remains alone. His superstitious neighbors fear him because of his uncanny skills at fishing, farming, and mechanics, and because of his extensive knowledge of medicinal plants. They believe he can communicate with evil spirits and can cure mysterious illness.

Meanwhile, based on Guernsey, the enterprising businessman Mess Lethierry loses his fortune when his partner, Rantaine, absconds with it. To recoup his losses, Lethierry establishes the first steamboat service in the English Channel. Although the local fishermen think the steam engine is an invention of the Devil, Lethierry nevertheless prospers by transporting passengers and goods and by shore-trading along the northern French coast. He loves two things above all else: the steamboat La Durande and Déruchette, the shallow, pretty, orphaned niece who is his ward.

On Christmas Day, Gilliatt sees Déruchette tracing some letters in the snow. When he reaches the spot, he sees his own name. Because she has already publicly defended Gilliatt against the false accusations of his neighbors, he thinks she must care about him, and he falls in love with her. He goes to her garden by night and serenades her with his bagpipes, but he lacks the courage to approach her or her uncle directly.

Meanwhile, a new rector, Ebenezer Caudray, arrives at the local parish. One day, while Gilliatt is fishing from his sloop, he rescues Caudray, who had climbed onto a rock exposed at low tide without realizing he would be trapped and would drown when the tide returned. Caudray then meets Déruchette and falls in love with her.

La Durande’s captain, Sieur Clubin, becomes widely respected as a scrupulously honest man, but he has been hiding behind a mask of virtue to await the opportunity to commit, undetected, a crime that will enrich him. Clubin tracks down Rantaine in France and forces him at gunpoint to return the money he stole from Lethierry. As Rantaine departs in a boat, he shouts to Clubin that he will write to tell Lethierry that the captain now has his employer’s money. To keep it, Clubin will have to stage an accident, during which he will seem to drown and disappear.

On the return to Guernsey, Clubin surreptitiously tempts his alcoholic helmsman with a bottle of brandy so that the man will become intoxicated and steer the boat onto a reef in a heavy fog. In the confusion, Clubin slips away and hides in a cave with the money. He has hired smugglers to meet him there later and to take him to South America. After the passengers of La Durande depart in lifeboats, Clubin looks out to discover that he has accidentally grounded the steamboat on the wrong reef. He still can use his exceptional skills as a swimmer to cover the several miles to Guernsey and hide there until he can escape, but he is confronted by a huge octopus, which seizes him before he can leave the cave. Clubin drowns, with the money box chained to his corpse.

Survivors of the wreck reach Guernsey and tell their story. Clubin is remembered as a hero. Lethierry, however, despairs; his fortune is now gone. The boat itself could be replaced, but the expensive engine must be salvaged and repaired before it is battered to pieces on the isolated, storm-swept reef. Lethierry promises Déruchette as the prize for whoever can rescue the steam engine intact....

(This entire section contains 964 words.)

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Motivated by his secret love, Gilliatt is the only person brave and confident enough to accept the challenge.

At the scene of the wreck, Gilliatt labors tirelessly for weeks, despite the high waves, tides, and dangerous storms. He improvises tools and replacement parts. One day he finds the underwater cave where Clubin had drowned, and is confronted by the same octopus. The creature nearly kills Gilliatt before Gilliatt cuts out its eyes. In the depths of the cave he finds a belt around the skeleton containing Clubin’s name and a fortune in coins. Later, after much effort, he is able to protect the boat’s engine from another violent storm and hoists it onto his sloop. He sails for home.

Once he receives Rantaine’s letter, Lethierry begins to suspect Clubin’s duplicity. Now, no one believes that Clubin went down with his ship. At last, Lethierry sees Gilliatt’s sloop returning to port with the engine aboard. Overjoyed, Lethierry is ready to make good his promise. He also insists that Gilliatt become his new steamboat captain. He feels even deeper gratitude because Gilliatt also found the money recovered from Clubin. Déruchette, however, faints with horror when she sees the haggard, filthy, unkempt Gilliatt, who has just returned from his near-fatal ordeal.

Gilliatt later hears Déruchette and Caudray pledging their mutual love in the garden, so he decides to sacrifice himself to ensure the happiness of the one person he loves. Because the rector and Déruchette cannot marry without Lethierry’s consent, and because Lethierry is adamant in insisting that Déruchette marry Gilliatt, the latter obtains Lethierry’s written consent. Then, Gilliatt secretly convenes the two lovers and a clergyman, produces the letter of consent, and gives the bride away. Caudray and Déruchette are married, too obliviously happy to realize the depth of Gilliatt’s self-sacrifice.

As the newlyweds embark to elope to England, Gilliatt presents Déruchette with the trousseau he had inherited from his mother. He then climbs on the rock from which he had once rescued Caudray and watches the newlyweds sail out of sight until the ocean engulfs him.