The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You hear that? The earth just shook a little because Ernest Hemingway, after vomiting on himself, shook his fist in disgust as one more reader found The Toilers of the Sea.
Victor Hugo, the modern era’s poet philosopher, ponders Man’s relationship with nature. He musters every ounce of his romantic emotion and universal sooth-saying while still dictating precise details regarding the actions, jargon and sciences of the cultural entity in the Norman archipelago. But, of course, a social dissentor like Hugo can’t ignore the naggging urge to satirically bash superstitious nonsense and ignorant judgements rampant through the towns on Guernsey and Jersey. Neither can he ignore another ever-present urge to execute long-winded diatribes about his setting. Alas, as with Hemingway, one endures tortures in order to experience the feeling of ethereal satisfaction upon closing their book.
Because Hugo wrote The Toilers of the Sea while in exile on the Channel, I thought his ideas about the conflict between man and nature might resemble the social conflicts between man and society. As I progressed through the book, I felt Hugo’s hand paternally patting my shoulder as if to say, “It would have been a nice idea, but let’s go a little deeper.” And deeper we went.
My perspective on Man’s role and place within nature broadened immensely as I read about Gilliatt’s struggles in the Douvre reef as he attempts to save the engines from the successful sea merchants innovative steam ship, the Durande. Symbolically, of course, the steam ship, like any other industrial development, stands as an afront to nature and, as Hugo so sarcastically insinuats, to God. In saving the engines from a ruined Durande, held captive in the Douvre rocks, battered by nature, Man asserts his dominance over nature, even when it volleys its harshest artilery at him.
But something actually bothers me about Hugo’s story. I found his personification of nature, his description of the sea and her power, embittered with human emotions like a formidable foe on a battlefield, excessive and tiresome. Hemingway high-five. Yet this distaste, to my surprise, led me down a path which Hugo may or may not have intended. At first, I noticed how Gilliatt derived meaning for his own life and struggles from viewing nature as a personified entity. Do men really struggle against nature, or themselves? Perhaps this perspective on nature derives from an emotional or conditional projection of ones own existence, therefore injecting value into one’s ego. We view nature as an adversary because it bolsters our sense of cosmic importance, much like actual wars, which we wage oftentimes for principle, would solidy our place in a civilization and add credence to our ways of life.
But then I wondered how Gilliatt could curse nature but subsist on its bounty for survival simultaneously. Why chastise a rock as a malicious adversary, part of a sea trying to destroy him, then watch that same sea indifferently smash and batter that same rock? Then I finally wondered why, at the end of it all, Gilliatt did not display any pride, any triumphant celebrations. What did he learn? What does he know now that I do not?
Hugo revealed his philosophy on Man’s relationship with nature – not against nature, not versus nature. As in so many other cases, especially with God, Man thinks of his foe only when he notices it blocking his own profit or prosperity. We think of ourselves at odds with nature only when the storm comes. We feel a peace, a happiness, even, I daresay, a unity with nature when Spring comes, the flowers bloom, the scented breeze sooths and the trees shade. Can we exist united with nature in these cases but then sever the treaty when the storm comes? Or ought we to be like the rock and endure the pleasant and the storm in the same fashion? Similary, Mess Lethierry, the Durande’s owner who rises to immense profits and, after the shipwreck, dives into deep depressions and social ruin, must weather the calm and the storm. His daughter, who must marry one man while loving another, must endure such a calamity as she endured the bliss of riches and innocence before coming of age.
But, again, what did Gilliatt learn? Why did he not return home as a triumphant war hero, happy in his newfound valued ego? Hugo will not tell us, but one might infer it from Gilliatt’s actions – another Hemingway high-five. Without disclosing the final events of the novel, consider whether man himself exists as a benign part of the natural cycle. Man need not fight nature, except in his own ignorant egoism, but at a high level of understanding knows that, like nature, he is responsible to bring the calm, raise the flowers and provide the shade for others while enduring the destructive powers which the same nature brings. Man can end the storms in others’ lives. He can endure the violence of the tempest and act out the beauty of Eden. He needs not stop one any more than the other. He exists as a part of the cycle, ready to pass on as easily as promote the well-being of his fellow man.
Man ebbs and flows with nature no matter the contrary efforts and arguments for which he toils. He enjoys the ethereal quality of creation while respecting the power of destruction – embracing life and death both in their might and beauty. He cannot alter either and in fighting one he severs himself from the other in an ignorant display of fical egoism, benefitting only to himself, and loses before his adversary ever breaks a sweat.
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