The Toilers of the Sea

Choose a literary character who experienced a great personal struggle or challenge. Briefly describe this challenge and how the character overcame it. Why did this have an impact on you? Are there ways in which you identify with this character?

One hundred and forty-eight years ago, in the midst of exile on the island of Guernsey, Victor Hugo narrated these words – “Whatever the goal may be, in earth or in heaven, the whole secret lies in proceeding to that goal” – in his novel The Toilers of the Sea. Hugo was well aware of the struggle to achieve goals and overcome challenges; he spent much of his life dedicated to advocating for social and political reform, as well as enduring the consequences of his words and actions. Portraying such perseverance and fortitude is the character Gilliatt, protagonist of The Toilers of the Sea.

Gilliatt is a societal pariah, desperately attempting to win the affections of Deruchette, the beautiful yet shallow niece of the first steamboat owner on the island. When Deruchette’s uncle Mess. Lethierry promises his niece’s hand in marriage to any man able to retrieve the valuable engine belonging to his steamboat the Durande, which has been destroyed against the cliffs in a storm, Gilliatt’s fixation with Deruchette consumes him, and he embarks on the hazardous journey full of hope. Living in the cliffs for weeks, Gilliatt survives terrible thirst and hunger, vicious weather, and a horrifying sea monster with only his fathomless love of Deruchette to ease his many pains. Eventually, Gilliatt manages the impossible; he salvages the massive engine, escapes the tortures of the sea, and travels home to the island. Upon returning his acquisition to Mess. Lethierry, Gilliatt finds that his beloved Deruchette has secretly accepted a marriage proposal from a young priest that he once saved from drowning. In an act of compassion, Gilliatt arranges their wedding and their furtive departure for the mainland. Utterly heartbroken, Gilliatt watches the ship carrying his only love disappear on the horizon and waits for the tide to sweep him away into the sea.

The impact of this character on me was not implemented by his tragedy, which nonetheless left me tearful at the last page, but rather by his determination, a quality I find most admirable. Gilliatt is inspirational to me because his courage never wavers, his conviction never fails him, and he ceaselessly pursues his goals, no matter how daunting they may seem. Most of all, I am affected by the way Gilliatt uses his intelligence and fortitude to fulfill his aspirations. He influences me because while “never give up” is one of the most cliché motifs of human life, it is sometimes a necessary reminder that proves motivating when it comes encapsulated in a beautiful story. Although Gilliatt is not necessarily a character I can identify with, he is a character whose qualities I hope to emulate in the wake of a great personal struggle or challenge. The sentiments invoked by Gilliat’s tale are complex; somehow they have provided me with both an unsettling comprehension of the harshness of reality and a resolute ambition for the future. The story of Gilliatt is the quintessential display of struggles fought by means of strength and virtue.

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