Toilers of the Sea

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Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer), is a novel by Victor Hugo.

Octopus that Gilliatt faces (painting by author) (1866)

The book is dedicated to the island of Guernsey, where Hugo spent 15 years in exile.

The story concerns a Guernseyman named Gilliatt, a social outcast who falls in love with Deruchette, the niece of a local shipowner, Mess Lethierry. When Lethierry's ship is wrecked on the Roches Douvres, a perilous reef, Deruchette promises to marry whomever can salvage the ship's steam engine.

Gilliatt eagerly volunteers, and the story follows both his physical trials and tribulations (which includes a battle with an octopus), as well as the undeserved opprobrium of his neighbours.

Like The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards, the author uses the setting of a small island community to transmute seemingly mundane events into drama of the highest calibre. Les Travailleurs de la Mer is set just after the Napoleonic Wars, and also deals with the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the Island.


Plot summary

A woman arrives in Guernsey, with her son Gilliat,. They buy a house that people said was haunted. The boy grows up, the woman dies. Gilliat becomes a good fisherman and a good sailor. People believed him to be a wizard.

In Guernsey also lived a former sailor, mess Lethierry, the owner of the first steam ship of the island -Durande- and his niece Deruchette. One day, near Christmas, when she was going to church, she sees Gillliat on the road behind her and she writes his name on the snow with her finger. He sees what she did and becomes obsessed with this happening. In time he falls in love with her and goes to play the bagpipes near her house.

Sieur Clubin, the trusted captain of Durande, sets up a plan to sink the ship in the Hanois cilffs and flee with a ship of Spanish smugglers, Tamaulipas. He gets in touch with Rantaine, a swindler who had stolen a large sum of money from mess Lethierry many years ago, which he gives to Clubin.

He decides to leave with the ship one day when the fog was thick planning to take it to the Hanois cliffs from where he could easily swim to the shore, meet the smugglers and disappear, people believieng that he was dead. He loses the way and sails to the Douvres cliffs which were much further from the shore. Left alone on the ship he is terrified but he sees a cuter and leaps into the water to catch it. In that moment he feels grabbed by the leg and pulled down to the bottom.

Everybody in Guernesey finds about the shipwreck. Mess Lethierry, desperate to get the engine back, promises that his niece will marry the man who brings it back. Gilliat leaves immediately in this mission with his boat. He bears hunger, thirst and cold trying to free the engine from the wreck.

He fights an octopus and finds the skeleton of Clubin on the bottom of the sea along with the stolen money.

He brings back the engine to Guernesey in perfect shape. Mess Lethierry is very happy and ready to honour his promise. Gilliat appears in front of the people as the rescuer but he refuses to marry Deruchette because he had seen her accepting the marriage proposal made by Ebenezer Caudry, the young priest recently arrived on the island. He attends their wedding and helps them to run away with Cashmere. In the end, with all his dreams shattered, he decides to wait for the tide sitting on the Gild Holm'Ur chair(a rock in the sea) and he drowns.


Gilliatt and the octopus
  • Gilliatt: a fisherman
  • Mess Lethierry: owner of the ship Durande, the island's first steam ship
  • Déruchette: Mess Lethierry's young niece
  • Sieur Clubin: captain of the Durande
  • Ebenezer Caudray: young Anglican priest, recently arrived on the island


The novel is credited with introducing the Guernésiais word for octopus pieuvre into the French language (standard French for octopus is poulpe) [1].


The following dedication appears at the front of the book:

Je dédie ce livre au rocher d'hospitalité et de liberté, à ce coin de vieille terre normande où vit le noble petit peuple de la mer, à l'île de Guernesey, sévère et douce, mon asile actuel, mon tombeau probable.
(I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality and freedom, in the corner of the ancient Norman lands where the noble little people of the sea live, to the island of Guernsey, harsh and sweet, my current refuge, my likely resting place.)

Publishing history

The novel was first published in Brussels in 1866, due to Hugo's exile from France. An English translation quickly appeared in New York later that year, under the title The Toilers of the Sea.[2] A UK edition followed in 1887, with Ward Lock publishing Sir G Campbell's translation under the title Workers of the Sea[3], followed by an 1896 Routledge edition under the title Toilers of the Sea.

Hugo had originally intended his essay L'Archipel de la Manche (The Archipelago of the [English] Channel) as an introduction to this novel, although it was not published until 1883, and the two have only been published together in the 20th century.

Film adaptations

There have been five film British or American adaptations of the novel [1]:

  • Toilers of the Sea (1914 film) - director unknown (silent)
  • Toilers of the Sea (1915 film) - director unknown (silent)
  • Toilers of the Sea (1923 film) - director Roy William Neill (silent)
  • Toilers of the Sea (1936 film) - director Selwyn Jepson
  • Sea Devils (1953 film) - director Raoul Walsh

There have also been two French adaptations for the screen:

  • Les Travailleurs de la mer (1918 film) - André & Léonard Antoine (silent)
  • Les Travailleurs de la mer (1986 TV film) - directed by Edmond Séchan and adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière, starring Aurélien Recoing (Gilliat).


  2. Josephson, Matthew, The Toilers of the Sea, Heritage Press, 1961, page xvi
  3. British Library Catalogue

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