Here’s the premise. A poor, oddball social outcast salvages a steam engine to win a girl who offers herself as a marriage prize in exchange.
And now the summary. Sit tight, it totally gets better. Totally. A poor, oddball outcast is walking to church one day behind the pretty orphaned niece of a shipping entrepreneur, and after she writes his name in the snow along the roadside he falls obsessively in love with her – which is always the best kind of love.
Her uncle’s ship, invaluable because it’s the only steam-powered vessel anywhere and is the source of his wealth, runs into a reef, but with the treacherous conditions and impossibility of the task, nobody wants to lift a finger to go get it for the old coot. The girl, who sure has a high opinion of herself, promises to marry anyone who can salvage the engine. Obviously selling yourself for an engine beats, say, getting a job to help out a bit. Imagine the shot to her ego when the only taker is the village weirdo.
So the young man sets out for the reef determined to win his prize of an insincere but sweetly naive tease.
The bulk of the novel is about his
resolute pig-headed struggle against the sea, starvation and thirst, and the work of trying to jerry-rig a way to remove the engine without destroying it (all without the proper tools) as the ship slowly breaks apart.
All for this totally worthy woman.
[spoiler alert: end of the novel discussed ahead]
superhuman psychotic amount of effort he eventually saves the engine and, half dead, sails back to the village to claim his wife and reward. Now, by this time he has been written off for dead and his beloved has already forgotten about him and fallen in love with someone she just met a moment ago. Upon our hero’s return he overhears the girl accept a marriage proposal from the much better looking, less weirdo-ish Anglican priest from the “in-crowd” – a bit like the head cheerleader throwing over the kindhearted but pimply D&D freak for the football captain. Rather than force her into marriage our friend instead arranges their wedding and helps them board a ship to whisk them away to a happy life together. Then he climbs up into the rocks along the seashore to an indentation at the crest that forms a rock-chair. As he watches their ship disappear into the horizon, the tide rises and he allows himself to drown. The end.
Oh, and plus there’s a haunted house.
And a monster octopus.
And it’s a statement about the Industrial Revolution.
Did I mention the haunted house?
Um … what? Who would read that? More to the point, who would write it? It sounds like some terrible manuscript Elaine Benes would be asked to edit for a job in publishing.
So who wrote it?
Victor Hugo, that’s who. Yes, that guy, the Les Miz guy. It’s Toilers of the Sea, and it’s one of the most taut, harrowing stories you’ll ever read. You will swear at that idiot Gilliat, you will pound your fists against air because of him, you’ll white-knuckle it through gale-force winds and feel rigging lash and snap through the air around you. You will loathe and admire him and curse him and feel for him and cheer for him –
– then on the power of pure adrenaline (because you will, I promise you, be completely, physically wasted) you will stand straight up from wherever you were when he dies in that damned rock-chair and you will make weird chuffing noises like “bu – he – I – he – b – ” then you will lay or sit right back down, hold the book to your chest, stare out into the literary void and say, “Merci, M. Hugo – or should I say mercy.”
When you’re able to stand again on your own, the first thing you’ll have to do is hobble over to see your doctor, who’ll ask, “What brings you here today (you hypochondriac)?”
You’ll say: “I need to see a physiotherapist.”
“Oh?” You’ll get that look, you know, the down-the-nose look that says what now, moron? “Hurt yourself?”
You’ll squinch your shoulders a bit, avoid eye contact. “Uh, yup. Hurt myself.”
“What did you do?”
“I uh – ” (quick, think, do you say you hurt yourself READING?)
“- I pulled something – “ (think, think -)
But the words will just disgorge into the room: “- See, there was this IDIOT, and he was trying to salvage this steam engine off Guernsey and it was so cold and I – sorry, he – didn’t have the proper clothes and there was this storm, and the ship started breaking up on the rocks and there wasn’t enough food or water and I – he – he had to get this engine off the wreck and it was days and weeks and – I don’t know, I lost track of time, it was like war, it was this war with the elements and this octopus monster and my own – his own – stupidity and all I wanted was to get that damned engine off that damned ship – and now my back and muscles are killing me -”
“You did say therapist, right?”
Ahh. That’s what happens when you take a weird, unworkable premise and give it to a master, and he proceeds to PHYSICALLY. HURT. YOU. WITH. IT.
Now, why is it that we all probably have way better premises stashed away somewhere along our writing experience, and all we manage to do is write an awful story?
Well, for one, Victor Marie Hugo knew how to tell a story. We don’t.
What’s interesting is that telling a great story can still go hand-in-hand with some tremendous flaws. We can all agree that ole Victor Marie had a tendency toward the melodramatic. But it’s so delicious! He also frequently just droned on and on and on about background facts in punishing detail but man, it’s so worth powering through to get to the good bits because usually that, together with the big picture and including the droning parts, is so much more important than any flaws.
There is nothing particularly likable about the premise of Toilers of the Sea. The protagonist is the kind of poodley oddball you’d feel burning holes in the back of your head without having to even turn around to see him there. The kind of guy who would make hang-up calls. Lots of them. Every day. Watch you from a parked car down the street. The girl’s a bit of a jerk whom you suspect will never really care for him no matter how good he is because of his position. Almost the whole story is this grueling struggle for some dumb engine. There’s just so much to turn a reader off. It’s not sexy. It’s just sad and exhausting.
And 1000% worth reading. It’s Hugo’s unsung masterpiece, unfairly eclipsed by you-know-what.
So what’s our old pal Vic doing to make it work?
He knows how to break your heart with all the qualities you don’t want to like about it. Gilliat’s life is bleak, and his obsessive love for Deruchette, as wrong-headed as it is, gives him a little hope for something deeply human: to belong – not to the girl herself but to what she represents, and that’s life inside the circle of human connection. Belonging. To be a part of the whole instead of apart from it.
His struggle for the engine becomes a stand-in for the epic human struggle to change the course of a life that otherwise has very little going for it. Little by little the reader goes from wondering why Gilliat would even bother, why he doesn’t give up in the face of so much catastrophe, to understanding that he’s not fighting for an engine at all or for Deruchette’s love, but rather for simple hope and acceptance. We don’t believe in Deruchette’s love or sincerity, but he does. He has to. Nobody can live as an outcast without suffering, and even the risk of death is not too great if it will mean an end to the suffering of exclusion. So when Deruchette goes, Gilliat’s hope goes too. Despite expending all he had, he still loses. There’s nothing left in him to fight again for even a shred more of hope and he can’t live on as an excerpt – so he can’t live on at all.
When Hugo is done with us, we understand how epic the human spirit truly is to create change – for the heart, for the soul, for the body, the family, or the conditions we can no longer endure as they are. There is a bit of Gilliat in all of us. Hugo shows us how much the human spirit can expend of itself and endure for hope and, when Gilliat sits in that rock-chair to slowly die, how easily it can be broken when hope is gone.
In fact, it works because Hugo chooses such an odd premise instead of just vomiting up one more iteration of the same ideas everyone else is kicking around, and because he knows that the story is a stand-in for something much, much more valuable.
Don’t be afraid to offer the reader an unusual premise for an unusual story. But kick it up by making it about way more than what it appears to be at first glance.
It’s that second glance that changes everything.
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