After a steamship founders off the island of Guernsey, a local misfit sailor sets out to save the ship in order to win the heart of the ship owner's niece. Gilliatt has no real place on Guernsey, the small island located between France and England. Since arriving as a child with his mother, he feels like a stranger to the locals, no matter how many years he has been among them. And with his (to them) suspicious reclusiveness and exceptional, almost otherworldly talents as a fisherman and herbalist, the locals shy away from him as they would a witch. His mother soon dies and the young Gilliatt is now completely alone, and he withdraws further into himself.
But there is one local who seems to notice and care for him. Deruchette – the beautiful niece of Lethierry, Guernsey's resident bigwig merchant – defends Gilliatt from the backbiting and false rumors of his neighbors. This Gilliatt might have just dismissed as her simply being kind, but then, later, he sees her writing his name in the snow. He takes these as signs that she might just love him as much as he has come to love her, despite the fact that they've never really spoken to one another. Gilliatt begins playing bagpipes outside her window, without ever quite working up the nerve to knock on the door and speak to her directly.
Meanwhile, Lethierry goes bankrupt when his trusted partner, Rantaine, embezzles everything and flees to France. Lethierry is devastated, but soon devises another plan to recoup his fortune: establish the first steamboat line between England and France. He dumps every last penny he has into his steamboat, La Durande, with its absurdly expensive and state-of-the-art steam engine. But soon, with the help of the ship's honest and well-respected captain, Clubin, Lethierry regains his wealth and appears to forget all about Rantaine.
But Clubin hasn't forgotten about Rantaine. Clubin, it turns out, is only pretending to be an honest man, and once he has Lethierry's complete trust, he learns where Rantaine is hiding out with the stolen money. Clubin tracks him down and robs him, with, of course, no intention of giving it back to his employer. Rantaine is no fool, though, and tells Clubin he will inform Lethierry that Clubin has all the stolen money now. In order to keep the money, Clubin plots to take La Durande out into the Channel (with the ship empty of everything except himself and the money) and sink it on the reefs, feigning his own death. The plan is to swim to shore and sneak off with the money, since nobody will go looking for a dead man. Unfortunately, Clubin miscalculates and the ship founders on a reef miles out to sea. Even so, he just might make it out alive, but at the last second a giant octopus seizes his leg and pulls him to his death.
Lethierry learns of the wreck and fears he is ruined once again. La Durande has foundered in an area too dangerous for normal salvaging operations. The ship itself is beyond saving, but Lethierry is desperate that the most expensive part, the engine, be saved. Deruchette, in a fairly vain move, offers to marry whomever can find the ship and return with the engine. Gilliatt sees his opportunity at last and volunteers. He sets out immediately. The going is difficult. He is hampered by horrible sea conditions, a lack of food and water, the dangers of the reefs themselves, and then when he does at last find the ship, he is forced to fight the giant octopus that killed Clubin.
But Gilliatt succeeds in everything and returns to Guernsey a hero. Lethierry is overjoyed and promises that the marriage to his niece can go ahead immediately. But Gilliatt is crushed to learn that, while he was out battling killer octopi to save her uncle's business, Deruchette has grown attached to a newly-arrived parish priest and has accepted the man's marriage proposal. Lethierry is outraged at his niece. Deruchette offers to back out and honor the promise to Gilliatt, but Gilliatt wants nothing to do with it. He even goes so far as to help Deruchette and the priest marry and flee the island together. But with that self-defeating task done, the novel ends with Gilliatt, perched on a rock out at sea, watching Deruchette's ship sailing away as he waits to drown with the rising tide.
Best part of story, including ending:
It was fairly good. Hugo's treatment of the rising industrial pervasiveness was fascinating, and Gilliatt was a powerful tragic character, but the octopus was just ridiculous.
Best scene in story:
I honestly cringe when I think of Gilliatt's "epic" battle with the octopus, but you know what, for good or bad, that scene certainly sticks in your mind.
Opinion about the main character:
Since it's a Victor Hugo novel, we already know going in that not much can end well for Gilliatt. But life is so unfairly stacked against him, and he's a character you genuinely care for, that you don't feel like his suicide is all that unjustified.