Places: The Toilers of the Sea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Les Travailleurs de la mer, 1866 (English translation, 1866)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Sentimental

Time of work: 1820’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Channel Islands

*Channel Toilers of the Sea, TheIslands. Group of islands off the coast of Normandy (known to the French as the Normand Islands) that alternated between British and French control after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Victor Hugo’s vignettes of early nineteenth century maritime life are set primarily on Guernsey and Jersey, the two principal islands in the group. Possessing an unusual microclimate, the islands are legendary for their mild winters and frequent light rainfall, which makes them ideal for cultivating vegetables and fruits, but Hugo’s novel is more concerned with the lives of the islanders who reap their harvests from the sea. Thus, the moderate comforts that might be reflected in the material life of the islanders who dwell ashore year round are not apparent. Rather, the challenges and dangers of the sea, frequently symbolized by the threatening names of spaces separating the islands from the mainland, shape the vignettes that Hugo chooses for the subjects of his stories.


*Douvres (dew-VRUH). Treacherous rocks that jut out of the sea about fifteen miles south of Guernsey. The arduous ordeal of Hugo’s protagonist Gilliatt, who is shipwrecked on one of the rocks, underlines the power of immense forces in nature, such as shattering waves pushed by heavy winds. At the same time, Gilliatt’s entry into the struggle of individual creatures at his feet, where crabs devour helpless tidepool victims, helps him restore his own strength as he clings to the rock. Ironically, rocks such as the Douvres and another group, the Hanways, though “guilty of all evil deeds,” offer the most solid hopes for survival in the rough seas.

*Cherbourg Peninsula

*Cherbourg Peninsula (SHAYR-bewrg). French peninsula immediately east of the Channel Islands that projects into the English Channel. Despite the peninsula’s relative closeness to the islands, its long western coastal shores play only a small role in the lives of the island seafarers. The notable absence of safe havens on the peninsula–other than Cherbourg itself, which is inconveniently situated beyond the tip of the peninsula–makes Saint Malo, near the western base of the peninsula, the most practical maritime destination and, for Hugo, the logical setting for extension of his stories and characters to the French mainland.

*Saint Malo

*Saint Malo (sahn mahl-OH). Normandy port city that to Channel islanders represents a microcosm of mainland France itself. Its importance as a port of call for commerce provides a source of livelihood for many islanders. Hugo does not closely focus on the normal commercial or social life of the port, preferring to depict its lowlife in scenes set in a particular rooming house, the Jacressarde. There, an atmosphere of thieves, prostitutes, and general ne’er-do-wells contrasts markedly with the modest but upstanding lives of Hugo’s islanders.


*Weymouth. English port that is closest to the Channel Islands yet seems so distant from the lives of the island seafarers as to be another and unfamiliar world. Because the islanders’ lives depend on serving as shipping intermediaries between England and France, they are always alert to news of ship departures from Weymouth.

BibliographyBrombert, Victor. “The Toilers of the Sea.” In Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Examines the novel as Hugo’s “glorification of Work,” which Hugo considered an epic theme. Looks at Hugo’s images as they derive from realism and from myth.Brombert, Victor. “Les Travailleurs de la mer: Hugo’s Poem of Effacement.” New Literary History 9, no. 3 (Spring, 1978): 581-590. Argues that the novel should be treated as a prose poem because of Hugo’s narrative stance. The imagery and structure are built on effacement and dissolution.Grant, Elliott M. The Career of Victor Hugo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946. Contains a brief but fascinating section on the composition of The Toilers of the Sea. Hugo, Grant explains, had little personal deep sea experience, but relied on encyclopedias, travel books, and his own poetic vision for his startlingly vivid images.Grant, Richard B. “Les Travailleurs de la mer: Towards an Epic Synthesis.” In Victor Hugo, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Considering the novel as an epic, Grant believes, makes it possible to see disparate elements–two-dimensional heroic characters, the encyclopedic preface, the archetypal quest–as forming a coherent whole.Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A fine introductory overview of Hugo’s poetry, plays, and novels. The brief section on The Toilers of the Sea discusses structure, theme, and prose style in the context of Hugo’s later novels and poetry. The chronology, and introductory and concluding chapters, also shed light on this novel.
Categories: Places