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 whoever 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.
- 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 minister, recently arrived in the island
The novel is credited with introducing the Dgèrnésiais word for octopus pieuvre into the French language (standard French for octopus is poulpe).
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.)
The novel was first published in Brussels in 1866 (Hugo was in exile from France). The first English translation did not appear until 1887, when Ward Lock published Sir G Campbell's translation under the title Workers of the Sea. It was first published under the title Toilers of the Sea in 1896 by Routledge.
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.
There have been four film adaptations of the novel:
- 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