Book Review: Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

by Warren Ross
Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood
Edited by Patricia LeChevalier
Atlantean Press, 1993, 356 pages

Are you looking for inspiration? Do you sometimes ask: “How can I refuel myself?” For those pursuing productive goals, there are few, if any, books written today that concretize the struggle for values and the virtues required to attain them. Fortunately for those of us who admire Ayn Rand, we have her magnificent novels. But there is a limit to how often we can reread Atlas Shrugged. Isn’t there anything new?

Although Toilers of the Sea is not new — it was written by Victor Hugo 128 years ago — what is new is the recently published English translation. It is not the first such translation, but it is an excellent one, which makes this colossal adventure readily available to modern readers.

Toilers of the Sea portrays one man’s efforts to salvage a shipwrecked steamship’s engine. The hero, Gilliatt, risks his life for ten weeks to achieve what seems impossible: to single-handedly separate the multi-ton engine from the demolished carcass of the ship, then secure and transport it back to its owner. In the course of his efforts, with nothing but simple tools and the detritus from the wreckage, he builds two breakwaters and an ingenious hoist. He fights the ravages of the open sea on an exposed reef – including a twenty hour ocean storm and attack by a terrifying sea creature — suffering starvation, thirst and fatigue.

The story has similarities to the greatest of adventure stories, the main one being that it concretizes the virtue of perseverance and purposeful action [goal pursuits]. Hugo constructs the plot in such a way that Gilliatt is faced with one horror of the sea after another, subjected to the next trial as soon as he has achieved some success in the present one. It is Gilliatt’s tenacity and will that ensures his triumph. “Whatever the goal may be,” Hugo says, “the whole secret lies in proceeding to that goal…The mediocre allow themselves to be dissuaded by a specious obstacle; the strong do not.”

More than that, however, Gilliatt is a proud man who has a self-conscious delight in “snatch[ing] the means of safety from the danger itself,” i.e. using nature’s powers, apparently allied against him, for his own purposes. In a number of cases, Gilliatt saves himself and his mission by thinking of a method of using the wind or the waves to achieve his goals. As Hugo says, “It is an ironical joy for the combating intelligence to prove the vast stupidity of furious forces by making them render service.”

Hugo is a master at plot construction, able to dramatize the perseverance and the resulting pride as few adventure writers have done.

What is truly distinctive in an adventure novel, however, is the emphasis on the “combating intelligence,” specifically the concretization of a rational thought process. Hugo presents essentialized versions of Gilliatt’s actual thought processes in solving the innumerable problems he faces. In so doing, Hugo not only lets the reader experience (and learn from) a proper psycho-epistemology but he also implicitly refutes the view that physical labor is mindless. Those passages that display Gilliatt’s thought processes cannot be presented in a short review, but the reader will recognize them most clearly in the two chapters “A stable for the horse,” and “A room for the traveler” (Part II, Book 1, chapters 6 and 7). The reader will also appreciate Hugo’s wit in giving mundane titles to chapters depicting extraordinary efforts.

A writer who is able to understand rational thinking as well as Hugo will know that it is not automatic. Hence he will dramatize the issue of choice, and admire the practitioners of rational thought. Hugo explicitly expresses the issue of choice and holds a positive moral estimate of Gilliatt for exercising it: “He added to strength, which is physical, energy, which is moral force.” And: “Exhaustion of strength does not exhaust the will. The proverbial mountains faith moves are nothing besides that which the will accomplishes…Will intoxicates. One can become intoxicated with one’s own soul. This intoxication is called heroism.”

Hugo goes even further and emphasizes that Gilliatt does what he does for his own benefit, not as a sacrificial martyr but for a goal he passionately desires. “The overwhelming enterprise, risk, danger, toil multiplied by itself, the possible engulfing of the rescuer by what he was rescuing, starvation, fever, destitution, distress — he had taken all those upon himself alone. Such was his selfishness.” [Emphasis added.]

These characteristics — the dramatization of moral virtue, of intelligence, of problem-solving, of purpose, of choice — are the overriding values of this novel. Sadly, however, there are three flaws that mar the book. The first is an occasional passage of too-lengthy (and hence boring) description. Although Hugo’s descriptive technique is masterful, adding color and richness to the novel, [Part II, Book 3, chapters 2-4 are too long a] these descriptive interludes [, and therefore] retard the plot development.

A more important flaw is Hugo’s lapses into mysticism. The focus on “the mysterious” and “the unknown” forces of nature and “heaven” crops up in a number of places in the novel, starting with Gilliatt’s (mostly excellent) characterization in the early chapters. At one place in the book, [In Part II, Book 2, chapter 5,] the mysticism degenerates into complete unintelligibility. It is especially intolerable at that point because this chapter follows one of the best, most man-worshipping, chapters in the book, and severely attenuates that chapter’s emotional impact.

The third flaw is the tragic ending, which hit me like a gut punch even though I was expecting it. Unfortunately, tragedy is frequent in Hugo’s novels. As Ayn Rand has observed, Hugo’s philosophic errors made him incapable of completely and consistently projecting a hero who is successful. However, unlike Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the nature of the society and the logic of the events make tragedy dramatically inevitable, the tragedy at the end of some of Hugo’s novels seems grafted on, in a way that makes it easily possible to imagine other outcomes. Toilers of the Sea (and also the recently translated The Man Who Laughs) is definitely in this category. Also, although the ending of Toilers is extremely disappointing, Hugo makes the calamity a supreme act of choice, and even planning, on the part of the hero, thus emphasizing in an inverted way the importance of values and the primacy of a heroic will.

Happily, there are the outstanding virtues in Toilers of the Sea, which make the above three flaws worth enduring. Aside from the virtues already mentioned, there is the fully integrated plot (with the exception of the ending). This review has concentrated on the middle third of the book. The entire first third establishes the situation that makes the engine rescue necessary. The first third also presents the crystal-clear, essentialized, characterizations that Hugo is known for, including that of Gilliatt, that of the owner of the ship and that of the captain who wrecked the ship.

What one most fundamentally takes away from the novel is Hugo’s theme: Man, even a rough and ready laboring man like a sailor, is a being who thinks, then acts. Such a being, when he chooses to be, is capable of using his “combating intelligence” to shape events and the forces of nature to his will. For that capacity, when it is exercised, this being deserves to be exalted.

Such a view is rare in all literature, and nonexistent today. The experience of this view via Hugo’s lofty universe is both pleasurable and highly motivating.

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