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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Off Topic: Victor Hugo's alien vampire

The most famous episode in Victor Hugo's novel Toilers of the Sea (1866) is possibly the one in which the protagonist, Gilliatt, fights against a big octopus. On closer inspection, the "monster" is not very big (its tentacles are only one meter long) and. . . it is not even an octopus. Its description in fact is full of inaccuracies: it has no beak but a normal mouth that also functions as an anus since the animal lacks the siphon, and uses its suckers to actually suck the victim's blood!

It would not work, as a solution, to think that Hugo did not have good scientific sources available. This might be true for a Medieval writer -- see Dante's zoology -- but the octopuses' anatomy had been studied and represented in detail from the Renaissance, not to speak of the developments of Biology in the 18th and 19th centuries, all the more so in the eyes of such a French Enlightenment author as Hugo. Besides, he himself reports that he has seen live specimens.

So, the most likely hypothesis remains that he modified the monster's anatomy on purpose, turning a common octopus into a symbol of the "alien," irrational, and evil side of Nature, as he repeatedly stresses in the book. A foray into science fiction, whose father is often considered to be Hugo's compatriot Jules Verne. On the other hand, a (truly) giant octopus/squid as a harbinger of ill omen had already appeared some fifteen years before in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Last but not least, as in an updated version of Medieval Bestiaries, Hugo also sees the self-camouflaging octopus as a symbol of hypocrisy and simulation; that is precisely the way in which Torquato Tasso described this animal in his long poem Il Mondo Creato.