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5.0 out of 5 stars Hugo stuns and exalts - simply unsurpassable, Dec 20 2002
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars OLD TRANSLATION; NEWER IS AVAILABLE, Dec 14 2002
This visionary novel about a loner who rescues, singled-handedly, the engine of a wrecked steamship far out at sea, is the purest expression of the heroic in man that Hugo ever permitted himself to write. The battle for the steamship's engine takes up about half the book and contains some of the best writing in all of world literature. There's even a hand-to-hand fight with a giant octopus - a scene which, written by the same man who wrote _Notre-Dame de Paris_ ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") thirty years earlier, is a fantastic masterpiece in itself. And don't even count the deep, detailed, and wonderful depiction of nature and of the Channel Islands. Or the tragic love story. Or Hugo's brilliant disquisitions on every topic he could think of.
This is a new translation by James Hogarth (if Amazon has put this review with the right book). The translation is much smoother and more natural than the Hapgood/Artois/et al. translation, which is being sold by Signet as the "mass market paperback edition." That old translation is OK - but you should get the Hogarth; it is worth the extra money to have this novel in 21st Century prose.
So buy this and savor it!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not the best of Hugo, but still timeless, Oct. 9 2002
By 
Lara (Florida, MO USA) - See all my reviews
Please note that, when I rate this 4 stars, it's in comparison to Hugo's other books, otherwise I would rate them all as five stars! Now, if you are a Hugo fan, almost ALL his books are a must-read. But if you've never read Hugo, I suggest you start with this one. It's shorter than Les Miserables and Notre-Dame, the digressions are easy to read and more relevant to the story. There aren't many historical or classical allusions and you don't need to know much about the time or setting of the story to appreciate the book.
The main character of The Toilers of the Sea is Gilliatt; a dreamy, pensive young man, who is generally unpopular in his neighborhood and lives in solitude. He makes his living as a fisherman and has a thing for birds. He's almost the split image of Marius (from Les Mis), if you replace the interest in politics with the interest in nature. He also is shy and withdrawn, is intimidated by women, and has a visionary, contemplative mind. Unfortunately, Gilliat falls in love with Deruchette; a shallow, silly girl, who is wholly underserving of him. This is one of the book's flaws. But the love story is typically Hugoesque, in which the object of Gilliatt's love is only the vague image of a woman and a voice over the garden wall. To win her hand in marriage, Gilliatt must go to rescue the steam engine of a wrecked ship from a forlorn, treacherous reef in the middle of the ocean.
This is what makes the book brilliant. Gilliatt, with hardly any resources, all alone, takes on a superhuman feat that would frighten the most valiant of men, against the ruthless forces of nature. This part is about 35% of the book, and alone makes the whole book worth reading. The solitude of the reef, the blind efforts of the sea and wind, the intrepidity and unshakable will of Gilliatt, makes the story transcend everything mortal. The sea takes on a life of it's own and Gilliatt will seem the only being on earth. This is all tied in with Hugo's fascinating insight on topics such as the mysteries of nature, the glory of perseverance, the deception of the sea, the wind, the night, God, and much more. Hugo's poetic language is captivating. There is also an interesting sub-plot, which adds some suspense, and gives Hugo more material to develop the main themes (think of the octopus and his lair). The ending is tragical and entirely unexpected. It's meant to be very moving, but sadly it isn't, greatly unlike his other books.
The themes and digressions are a real treat for a philosophical palette, but this book is more 'for everyone' than his other books. If you'd like to read Hugo but are a bit intimidated, you can start with this one. There are no lengthy chapters about the Paris sewers or the battle of Waterloo, and the topics are accessible and interesting to all. This is not Hugo at his best, but it's still timeless enough to live up to its author's celebrated name.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Flaws do not mar. An AWESOME read., Aug. 18 2001
This new edition of Victor Hugo's long-overlooked novel about a lone fisherman's heroic struggle to salvage the engine of a wrecked ship is long overdue. Its defects aside, it is an impressive work that deserves to bask in popularity alongside *Les Miserables* and *The Hunchback of Notre Dame*.
What strikes me first is the sheer power of Hugo's mind. In *The Toilers of the Sea* no less than in his two more famous works, he wields his pen like a Zeus-thrown thunderbolt, hurling down his words from the lofty heights of his thought with electrifying intensity, grandeur and drama. Few writers living today, however talented, come close to achieving this effect. Nor have they Hugo's breadth of knowledge and ability to write with it as he can: the effect is one of scope and depth, and more; awesome, but hard for me to put into words.
These qualities are in Hugo's straight narrative as well as his digressions, which are legion; readers who remember his long description of the sewers of Paris--stuck into the middle of *Les Miserables*, a novel about redemption--will know what I mean. The first fifty pages of *The Toilers of the Sea*, for example, are taken up in the geographical, historical and cultural background of the setting; later, several pages each are spent on such subjects as the nature of hypocrisy, the winds at sea, and the myth and mystique of that eight-tentacled demon of the deep, the octopus. Brilliant in themselves as these digressions are, they are seldom integrated seamlessly into the story. But I will not gripe, for they are well-written and give a contemporary readership much-needed context.
Certainly they do not detract from the plot, however much they interrupt it. As always, Hugo tells a powerful tale, as gripping and suspenseful as can be found in today's best popular fiction, and in which wild natural imagery and thrilling action predominate more than in any of his other works. As Hugo states in his preface, "Religion, society, nature: these are the three struggles of man." Religion and society are the chief conflicts in *The Hunchback of Notre Dame* and *Les Miserables*. In *The Toilers of the Sea*, it is man versus nature. Fittingly, much of the action is set at sea, where a gently undulating blue expanse can turn into a dark, crashing tempest on short notice and a single human being is most isolated. When the crunch comes, therefore, the novel's hero has nobody to rely on but himself--a mind with muscles pitted against an immensity of unconscious, inexhaustible forces. To witness his struggle--in which, stoic and determined in the face of obstacles and setbacks that would drive most men to despair, he draws on incredible ingenuity, endurance and willpower ultimately to triumph in his undertaking--is reason enough to read this book. The exalted experience such a tale of heroism gives us of itself needs no justification.
Flaws, however, do, and one reader review here has argued for their presence in this book and slammed it for them. These are chiefly an unnecessary subplot and a bad love interest. The former I will not touch: whether an esthetic crime or not, the subplot is *enjoyable*--which is nine-tenths of what I read for. But I will readily join in lambasting the latter, for the hero loves a girl utterly unworthy of him and, partly because of this, his behavior toward her seems unmotivated. This both stunts his characterization and is offensive in the extreme as, when glory is his due, his love causes him to meet with a wholly undeserved fate in a disturbing twist-ending.
Fortunately, *The Toilers of the Sea* is not primarily a love story--which flaccid, hanging aspect of it is not likely to move many readers, in any case. Rather, it is a story of man's greatness, and should be evaluated as such. A work of such powerful, masterful writing and with such a compelling story deserves no less than my full recommendation of five stars.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Essential., May 28 2001
I own the Collected Works of Victor Hugo, 15 vols. Last summer I found the time to read all of them. I must say that The Toilers of the Sea, in the end, strikes me as the best book Hugo ever wrote. Sure, we have The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Les Miserables. But Toilers of the Sea got to me more, okay? Somehow I identified with Gilliat more than with Quasimodo and Jean Valjean combined. He's a very realistic character, unlike the overly miserable hunchback or the overly saintly Valjean, and his struggles are very realistic, which makes the reader care far more about whether he succeeds or not.
Hugo had spent some years in Jersey/Guernsey, where the book takes place, and I suppose that observing the sea was all there was to do there, since in the book it's clear that he knows every little aspect of it. The sea is just as prominent a character as Gilliat, and just as realistic, and has even more space devoted to it than any of the humans. It's hard to think of it as inanimate after reading this book. The imagery of the storm is certainly unforgettable.
This book is more touching than Hugo's others, maybe because the author focuses more on telling a story rather than a Big Important Social Message About the Plight of the Poor. There's humor, there's tragedy, there's drama, and the result is a very immersive read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Neptune Would Be Proud, Dec 7 2000
By A Customer
Hugo's story of one man's ultimate struggle with the sea illustrates the fantastic wonders, dangers, and joys of the ocean. From the mastermind and writer who borught us Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris, here he takes us out to the Channel Islands and to the forlorn reefs beyond in a story of a triumph of the will, and a sacrifice to fate. It is delightful that Hugo writes of the sea intimately- taking three pages to write of the wind alone, and getting into detail about certain sea-creatures and reef-formations. If the story seems to drag a bit at the beginning- stick with it, for the last 75% of the book is very engaging. Hugo needs to be landlocked at the beginning to set up the story and tie in a driving need of the main character to set out into the unknown. For those who are sailors, surfers, watermen, or people who just like the details of coastal areas, this book is fun to read. For those who like Hugo, here he will take you on quite a different journey away from Paris. The book ends with a moral twist. Did things have to end this way? Gilliat seems to relish in his dramatic ending. Fun, soulful sea-borne reading!
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5.0 out of 5 stars BEST EDITION, Nov. 9 2000
This visionary novel about a loner who rescues, singled-handedly, the engine of a wrecked steamship far out at sea, is the purest expression of the heroic in man that Hugo ever permitted himself to write. The battle for the steamship's engine takes up about half the book and contains some of the best writing in all of world literature. There's even a hand-to-hand fight with a giant octopus - a scene which, written by the same man who wrote _Notre-Dame de Paris_ ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") thirty years earlier, is a fantastic masterpiece in itself. And don't even count the deep, detailed, and wonderful depiction of nature and of the Channel Islands. Or the tragic love story. Or Hugo's brilliant disquisitions on every topic he could think of.
This is a new translation by James Hogarth (if Amazon has put this review with the right book). The translation is much smoother and more natural than the Hapgood/Artois/et al. translation, which is being sold by Signet as the "mass market paperback edition." That old translation is OK - but you should get the Hogarth; it is worth the extra money to have this novel in 21st Century prose.
So buy this and savor it!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Among Greatest of All Time & a Fine Translation, Aug. 21 2003
By 
Toiler (Oregon, USA) - See all my reviews
Hugo was the greatest storyteller of all time: the tightest structures (with some exceptions), most integrated themes, most complicated yet logical plots, almost addictive tempos (leading to breathless resolutions), thoroughly fascinating scenarios...
My three favorites (in order) are: Notre Dame, The Man Who Laughs, and Toilers of the Sea. Of these three, Toilers is the one I most like to read over again. It is tighter than any other work by Hugo. It has the least complication (think Notre Dame, but with less complex characters), yet its climax/resolution displays the same brilliant fireworks of his other works.
I have not read any other translation, but I find Isabel Hapgood's to be radiantly clear and almost poetic in its style.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Study in Hypocrisy, Oct. 22 2000
By 
James M. Dial (Odenton, MD) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This book changed forever my understanding of hypocrisy. Keep a diary while you're reading this book. Under the name of each character you encounter, write down what the character says he wants. Then write down what you see him struggle to earn. Finally, notice what he ends up with. You'll see that the man who says one thing but does another is merely inconsistent. The hypocrite is actually doing what he says he wants to do, but casts it off at the first opportunity to get what he really wants. I now feel more sympathy for the true hypocrite. He's not lying to me as much as he's lying to himself.
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5.0 out of 5 stars My absolute favorite Hugo novel..., Aug. 21 2002
By 
J. Kane "AbleKane" (Balad, Iraq) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Toilers of the Sea (Hardcover)
This is a fantastic story. If you have to choose one Hugo book to read this should be the one. The sheer tenacity and ingenuity of the protagonist will improve your outlook on anything you might want to conquer... no matter how difficult the task.
Beautiful literature!!!
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The Toilers of the Sea: A Novel (1866)
The Toilers of the Sea: A Novel (1866) by Victor Hugo (Hardcover - Dec 1 2008)
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