Toilers of the Sea

The Toilers of the SeaThe Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would not be a stretch to describe this book as an epic tale of bravery, of life, of dreams unfulfilled, and of tragedy. It was the story of the tragic figure named Gilliat, cursed from the beginning, but presented with an opportunity that would require a heroic, Herculean effort to change his fortunes. The picture Victor Hugo paints is as vivid as any artist that holds a brush in their hands.

Hugo lambastes an earlier time, with a humorous mockery that was as revolting as it was amusing. But the amusement is reserved for us modern, cultured types, now able to look down on the progenitors that taught us what and what not to be. Are we better than they? What will the future recall of our own uncouthness in what we would like to believe is modernity?

A single mother, a stranger in town, moves into the devil house on the edge of town with her son. What else could be deduced from that? Probably a witch of some sort, and well-you can imagine what they thought of her offspring. This is what Gilliat lived with his entire life. An outcast in his own community, that for him, was the only community he had ever known. It was what it was; he didn’t have to be happy about it. He had resigned himself to a solitary fishing life, honing his skills as an able seaman and a more than competent smith. Those skills would drive his little community forward into the future in a way he would never realize.

Without giving away the story, there was Gilliat, there was the girl, there was the opportunity for Gilliat to get the girl, the harrowing struggle against all odds, and in the end, the reality of life, that can be soaringly fruitful, or devastatingly cruel. This story isn’t a one way street; the good, the bad, and the ugly were all on display, and Hugo brings it all to life in inimitable style, although there were a few parts where he nearly goes off into a Melvillian type tangent, but winds it back around to coincide with the narrative. The only thing that kept this from being a five star masterpiece was some of the things that Herman Melville did to doom his epic. I was not familiar with the historical references, although if I were, the story would have been even more vivid than it was. European geography was lost on me as well, and the combination made some chapters hard to grasp. Gilliat’s engineering heroics were a little hard to grasp as well. But then, I’m no engineer. The story does not get five stars from me, not because it isn’t worthy of such an honor; it was because I don’t have the knowledge to thoroughly digest the tapestry that Hugo had unfurled.

All in all, an excellent book, and if you can get past the defects in your own education, will still be enthralled with the story. As I said, even with his hyper-descriptive tendencies, Hugo always brought it back around to what was actually happening, unlike Herman Melville, who as a result doomed his masterpiece. When I thought of Victor Hugo, I thought of Hunchback of Notre Dame and that’s it. I think I’ll be looking into some of his other works after this.

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