Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Channel Islands

*Channel Islands. Group of islands off the coast of Normandy (known to the French as the Normand Islands) that alternated between British and French control after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Victor Hugo’s vignettes of early nineteenth century maritime life are set primarily on Guernsey and Jersey, the two principal islands in the group. Possessing an unusual microclimate, the islands are legendary for their mild winters and frequent light rainfall, which makes them ideal for cultivating vegetables and fruits, but Hugo’s novel is more concerned with the lives of the islanders who reap their harvests from the sea. Thus, the moderate comforts that might be reflected in the material life of the islanders who dwell ashore year round are not apparent. Rather, the challenges and dangers of the sea, frequently symbolized by the threatening names of spaces separating the islands from the mainland, shape the vignettes that Hugo chooses for the subjects of his stories.


*Douvres (dew-VRUH). Treacherous rocks that jut out of the sea about fifteen miles south of Guernsey. The arduous ordeal of Hugo’s protagonist Gilliatt, who is shipwrecked on one of the rocks, underlines the power of immense forces in nature, such as shattering waves pushed by heavy winds. At the same time, Gilliatt’s entry into the struggle of individual creatures at his feet, where crabs devour helpless tidepool...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Brombert, Victor. “The Toilers of the Sea.” In Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Examines the novel as Hugo’s “glorification of Work,” which Hugo considered an epic theme. Looks at Hugo’s images as they derive from realism and from myth.

Brombert, Victor. “Les Travailleurs de la mer: Hugo’s Poem of Effacement.” New Literary History 9, no. 3 (Spring, 1978): 581-590. Argues that the novel should be treated as a prose poem because of Hugo’s narrative stance. The imagery and structure are built on effacement and dissolution.

Grant, Elliott M. The Career of Victor Hugo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946. Contains a brief but fascinating section on the composition of The Toilers of the Sea. Hugo, Grant explains, had little personal deep sea experience, but relied on encyclopedias, travel books, and his own poetic vision for his startlingly vivid images.

Grant, Richard B. “Les Travailleurs de la mer: Towards an Epic Synthesis.” In Victor Hugo, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Considering the novel as an epic, Grant believes, makes it possible to see disparate elements—two-dimensional heroic characters, the encyclopedic preface, the archetypal quest—as forming a coherent whole.

Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A fine introductory overview of Hugo’s poetry, plays, and novels. The brief section on The Toilers of the Sea discusses structure, theme, and prose style in the context of Hugo’s later novels and poetry. The chronology, and introductory and concluding chapters, also shed light on this novel.