The Toilers of the Sea

by Victor Hugo

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Critical Evaluation

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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 nineteen (in 1843) in a sailing accident near the mouth of the Seine River. Finally, Hugo had to flee from the police of Emperor Napoleon III, owing to the poet’s principled support of a constitutional republic. He ended up on the British Isle of Guernsey, in the English Channel.

Almost alone among prominent French figures, Hugo remained in exile for nineteen years (1851-1870), until Napoleon III was overthrown. He refused amnesty, but starting in 1861, his wife—who did not risk arrest—began spending the winters in Paris. Lonely, but grateful to the island that sheltered him, he embodied his appreciation for the place and its people in loving descriptions of the local landscape and customs of those who earned their living from the sea. This dimension of the work is concentrated in the forty-page first chapter, which had been withheld from the 1866 edition and was published only in 1883.

In his political role as a humanitarian socialist, not conventionally religious but inspired by Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, Hugo wrote The Toilers of the Sea to glorify manual labor performed by skilled, dedicated craftspersons and seafarers. (Compare his admiring depiction of the Flemish shoemaker, guild leader, and ambassador in Notre-Dame de Paris [1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833]). After diligent research, Hugo records the details of work or its social meaning and function. At the same time, and unknown to the protagonist Gilliatt himself, Hugo’s toil is metaphysical and transcendent. Many critics see Gilliatt as Promethean, a demigod who brings fire—in this instance, the steamboat engine—to humanity.

Finally, with The Toilers of the Sea, Hugo completes the novelistic trilogy that depicts humanity’s epic struggle against various oppressive external forces. The Hunchback of Notre Dame treats individual resistance to metaphysical misfortune arbitrarily inflicted by an apparently cruel god, raising the philosophical puzzle of permissive evil: How can a loving, all-powerful deity allow gratuitous human suffering to exist? What providential purpose could it serve? Hugo leaves...

(This entire section contains 739 words.)

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those questions unanswered.Les Misérables analyzes social fatality rooted in the class system; in wage slavery; in the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, excessive punishment, resentment, and retaliation; and in the unequal distribution of wealth, while driving home the distinction between two forms of la misère: extreme poverty and moral degeneration, and while multiplying examples of the innocent child victims of dysfunctional families. The Toilers of the Sea dramatizes the destructive fatality of nature: the elements and wild beasts. In each situation, Hugo affirms, the best recourse for humanity is the divine guidance offered by human conscience and a loving concern for fellow human beings. The most virtuous life, however, provides no protection from loss and pain; God’s purposes will be revealed only in the afterlife.