Toilers of the Sea
To say that "Toilers..." is about Man's struggle with the sea would be an understatement of the actual theme of this beautiful work of unsurpassed literary craftsmanship.
Such is the theme of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" too; but Hemingway depicts a revolting pessimism, showing that despite Man's heroic stature, all human will and effort is doomed to frustration and failure.
"Toilers..." goes beyond Man's struggle against the forces of nature which are uncontrollable and in purely physical terms, immeasurably more powerful than him.
The actual theme is this: Glorification of man's capacity to cross all possible barriers, surmount every obstacle - however difficult - and achieve a tough, rational goal.
Hugo glorifies intelligence, inventiveness, efficaciousness, will power, perseverance and endurance.
Gilliat, the hero, doesn't have to just fight the tempest and the wind; the paucity of resources or the aid of combined human effort; hunger and fever; the sea monster or the impossibility of any succor from land...
He has to struggle against lies and slander; against loneliness and rejection; against social prejudice, pointless hatred and meanness...
On the other hand, the adorable Mess Lethierry too has to fight against dogma and superstition, the upholders of a meaningless tradition and the destroyers of the human spirit; blind, stark irrationality and lack of appreciation for human ability; treachery, hypocrisy and deception...
The 19th century saw a plethora of writers - many of them great literary geniuses - who condemned the growth of science, technology and industry; fearing that it would lead to a "materialistic" world without a soul; a world where human emotions like love, humanity and compassion would be lost to men.
At such a time Hugo wrote a novel which upholds science and technology in the name of the advancement of the human race; which held up loudly and proudly the great human mind and spirit - showing what all it could accomplish; which projected that SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ARE THE PRODUCTS OF THE BEST AND HIGHEST IN MAN; and above all, that the men who are the exponents of science and technology are capable of passionate, intense emotions of love and devotion; and of friendship and humanity.
In this context, this is, in the true sense, the first great MODERN novel: it captures the spirit of the modern man and the modern era perfectly.
The literary merits of "Toilers..." are numerous: in the context of Hugo's literary errors, it is the least flawed of Hugo's novels.
The digressions are minimal; the descriptions aren't unnecessarily meticulous; the plot is simply perfect and the novel itself isn't too long and winding.
The coincidences could almost be termed logical and inevitable.
The characters are presented with sharp focus, in terms of essentials.
One aspect of the novel, which often tantalizes and disappoints readers, is the ending. To say that it was unnecessary or illogical would be foolishness.
If you want to gain an extremely intelligent insight into the reasons why Hugo chose such an ending, read the Afterword by Shoshana Milgram Knapp which is available in the Paper Tiger Publication of the novel.
It is a highly perceptive and convincing analysis.
In the end, I shall say that "Toilers..." is my top favorite of all of Hugo's novels; though each is a masterpiece in its own respect.
It is one of the most emotionally intense novels I've ever read -it shall give you an exalted sense of uplift as well as break your heart.