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Sunday, December 01, 2013

Book Review: Toilers Of The Sea

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Even though Victor Hugo wrote a lot of novels, plays, essays, reviews, etc, etc, there are only three novels of his that are widely known.  In order of widely-knownness, they are as follows.  Les Miserables, Notre Dame de Paris, and The Toilers Of The Sea.  I've read the first several times, of course, but when I tried reading Notre Dame, I couldn't quite get 'into' it and understand the plot fully.  I didn't have any map to go by, so to speak, whereas in the case of Les Mis, I had the musical.  Toilers Of The Sea doesn't have a major movie, a musical, or anything of that ilk, but as I saw it was shorter than the other two of Hugo's novels, I decided to give it a go.  I had a vague sense of the plot after reading a really, really short summary in a biography of Victor Hugo's life, and it sounded interesting.  A man battles the sea/a sea monster to win the hand of the woman he loves.

When I opened up the book on my Kindle and started reading, I immediately remembered everything about Hugo's writing style (it's been a while since I've dipped into Les Mis, and I'd somewhat forgotten).  He spends fifteen pages (on a Kindle, that is) talking about how people seem to imagine that there's someone watching them in the dark, and even though there usually isn't anyone, they can't shake the feeling.  When the hero is grabbed by an octopus, he spends an entire chapter talking about the octopus' habits and way of life before getting back to the predicament.  And he tells the whole life story, motives, and little peculiarities of every character, as well as all their ancestors (okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much).  But, honestly, I don't mind it that much.  It makes for a very rich book and that's something I love, even if it did get tiring at times.  Anyway, I'll give a summary of the plot (be forewarned...here be spoilers) with remarks on the characters and plot points as I go along.

The story takes place on one of the islands in the English Channel, but the whole thing feels like it's in France.  French names (of both people and places), French customs, and French people (all the primary characters are either French, or have French ancestry).  A man named Mess Lethierry ('Mess' is a title like 'Mr') built a steamship when he was young, and now he has a thriving business ferrying people from the islands (along with their produce and animals) back and forth between the islands and France for trading and such.  I think he gets about one thousand pounds a year, and that's his whole livelihood.  He has a niece called Deruchette, who he treats like his daughter (and she calls him 'father').  I quite like her.  She reminds me of Cosette (beautiful, a little uncomprehending at times, but very sweet for all that and devoted to her father-figure).

File:Victor Hugo-Octopus.jpg
Victor Hugo's illustration of the octopus
Lethierry is in a partnership with this guy called Sieur Clubin ('Sieur is another one of those titles).  Everyone thinks he's honest, but really he's in league with smugglers and murderers.  All his life he's wanted to be rich, so he robs a robber and then crashes his partner's boat against the Douvres cliffs.  All the passengers leave the boat, and he is now free to do what he wants with the money.  However, when he tries to escape the ship, an octopus grabs him and kills him (that's not the instance I was talking about above, by the way).  Now, a word on Gilliatt, since he's the hero of the book.  All the townspeople are afraid of him, because they think he's demon-possessed or something (he's not).  He fell in love with Deruchette four years before the boat crashed, and he never stopped loving her.  However, she says she'll never marry, so he watches her from afar.  He's very strong and brave, an excellent sailor and swimmer and very hero-like all around.  He's my favorite character in the whole thing.

So, anyway, Lethierry is in despair over his boat crashing, because now he has no more money.  The engine of the boat is still intact, and if someone was brave enough to rescue it, he could build another boat because the engine is one-of-a-kind.  No one is willing to risk it until Deruchette says she'll marry whoever gets it back.  Gilliatt instantly volunteers his services, and off he goes.  I loved him at this point.  He was so courageous and heroic and just...it was awesome.  After a long string of difficulties which I won't go into here, he manages to get the engine out and onto his sloop.  Then, he goes exploring the caves under the cliffs because it's too dark to sail out.  He's almost eaten by an octopus (probably one of the most nerve-wracking parts in the book) but he kills it with his knife.  Bad luck still plagues him, as once the boat is on the open sea, a terrible storm comes up that lasts over twenty hours and he barely makes it out alive.

Now, before he went off to get the engine (before the boat even crashed), Gilliatt saved the life of a young priest.  He was sitting on a little seat of rock, carved out naturally by the sea, and Gilliatt came along in his boat and warned him that if he sat there too much longer, the tide would strand, and then drown him.  The priest's name was Caudrey and while Gilliatt was gone for two months, getting the engine, he fell in love with Deruchette.  When Gilliatt returned, he witnessed Caudrey's proposal to her (by this time, I knew what was going to happen).  When Lethierry comes and tells him he shall marry Deruchette, he refuses to (even though he still loves her with all his heart), and the next day helps the couple to secretly marry by standing in as the bride's witness and producing a forged note, giving the consent of Mess Lethierry (I knew he would do that...he's very much like a younger version of Valjean).

The ending made me cry.  He sees the couple safely off on the boat that will take them away on their honeymoon and then goes and sits in that little seat and watches the boat slip out of sight, and then drowns (eerily reminiscent of Javert, in a way).  It doesn't sound all that sad but, believe me, it was.  I have a love-hate relationship with stories like that.  Mostly love, but a bit of hate as well.  Oh, and just before Deruchette left, he gave her a trunk full of clothes that his mother had bequeathed to him to give to his bride.  That's just...SADNESS.  But really, really sweet at the same time (like I said...love/hate).

Have you read Toilers Of The Sea?

1 comment:

Miss Jane Bennet said...

Victor Hugo wrote other books? ;P
Well, I knew that he'd written other books, but I'd never really heard of them other than Hunchback. I shall have to read this book; it sounds interesting! And really sad. ;)

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