“The Toilers of the Sea” by Victor Hugo

Toilers of the Sea

How would you feel if someone you respect were to show you that one of your friends, whom you’ve liked and trusted for many years, is in fact a coward, hypocrite, backstabber, rapist and murderer? Troubled? Offended? Confused? Shocked? Sad? That’s about how I felt when I was reading this book.

That someone is Victor Hugo, and that friend of mine is the Ocean.


Growing up on the coast, the ocean has been my friend since childhood. I have fond memories of  countless hours spent on the beach, swimming, playing with sand castles, collecting shellfish and starfish, or watching the sunset over the distant horizon.

This book by Hugo, Part III of a trilogy which also includes his two best-known works, “Notre-Dame de Paris” and “Les Misérables”, changed my perception to some extent of the ocean, man and the universe.

One of the main reasons why Hugo was and is so popular is that there are so many layers and nuances of his views that people from different walks of life find themselves represented and vindicated by him, and all can enjoy his books on different levels. This book is a prime example.

The Disney Story

The story may be summarized in one sentence printed on the back cover of the book. It “tells of the reclusive Guernsey fisherman Gilliatt, who salvages the engine of a wrecked ship by performing great feats of engineering, matching wits with sea and storm, and doing battle with a great sea monster — all to win the hand of a shipowner’s daughter.” It would make a great sea adventure movie with a music soundtrack (e.g., Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), sound and visual effects and spectacular cinematography.

The One Man Iliad

The epic battle between Gilliatt and the Ocean is portrayed in Homeric style. The Ocean seems to bear a grudge against Gilliatt and fights against him with fury, which reminds one of the battle between Odysseus and the sea god Poseidon in Odyssey, Achilles and the river god Scamander in Iliad.

Hugo endows the Ocean with many human characteristics: how like a hypocrite she hides her secrets in caverns in which dwell man-eating monsters; how she overpowers her victims with bombardments of the waves and the wind like a coward; and if power fails, how she sneaks in on man through leaks, cracks and rusts like a backstabber.

The struggle between Gilliatt and the Ocean is painted as a violent rape. The rapist is the Ocean. In the end, Gilliatt was completely naked and in submission. Many natural phenomena are depicted as either a slaughter or a coitus, even the close encounter between Gilliatt and the man-eating octopus, “You both become one”.

The Sufferer

The battle between Gilliatt and the Ocean is an allegory of man’s battle with Fate, the Unknown, in general, and Hugo’s own life in particular. At the time of writing the novel, Hugo was in political exile on the Guernsey island, his ideal of social progress having suffered a shipwreck. He was alone and forlorn, so downcast that he deemed the island his tomb. Fate was the backstabbing hypocrite, and he was the victim. Nevertheless, he devoted himself to the battle of the pen, naked like Gilliatt.

The Embracer

By assigning human attributes to nature, in a sense, Hugo promoted an amoral worldview, where “Evil is an erasure on the page of creation”. “There are embraces and antagonisms, the magnificent flow and ebb of a universal antithesis.”

Or, as it is written in the Ecclesiastes,

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”

The Ideal Man is one who embraces everything. “We feel the unknown that is within us fraternizing mysteriously with an unknown that is outside of us. … to look at the stars and say, I’m a soul like you! to look at the darkness and say, I’m an abyss like you!”

The ideal man conquers all with his will and intelligence. “Faith is only a secondary power; the will is the first. The mountains,which faith is proverbially said to move, are nothing beside that which the will can accomplish.” This quote reminded me of Nietzsche’s conception of Übermensch.


I went to see my friend the Ocean again. There was a strong wind, and few people were left on the beach that had been crowded with sunbathers only a day before. In the beautiful sunset, the Ocean danced before us.


“A child breaking a toy, seems to be looking for its soul. Man, too, seems to be looking for the soul of the earth.”

“Death, occurring everywhere, involves burial everywhere. The devourers are also gravediggers. All beings enter into one another. Putrefaction is nutriment. A fearful cleansing of the globe. Man, being carnivorous, is also a burier. Our life is made up of death. Such is the terrifying law. We are all sepulchres.”


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