on August 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.