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The Sea Wolf ()

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dryrot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them
I shall use my time.
-Jack London

Here's an interesting, though little considered, thought for you:  with the obvious exception of Karl Marx, whom a Colgate University professor of mine described as a hemorrhoid ridden little failure of a man who assumed that because he could not succeed in a capitalist society that success was impossible, virtually every renowned author of the Left, by definition, disproves his own theories.  I mean, if the capitalist deck is truly stacked against the poor and birth, not ability, determines social position, then how the heck did people like Upton Sinclair and Jack London and H.G. Wells and Richard Wright and their ilk become so stinking rich and famous.  Of course their dirty little secret is that they succeeded because they were more talented than others.  Now if these folks were willing to suck it up and acknowledge that fact and base their philosophy on the intellectually honest basis that some people just don't have what it takes so it's up to society to provide for them, then it would be possible to respect them.  Instead, by steadfastly maintaining that societal inequities are the result of external factors, they make themselves sound kind of silly.  Perhaps no author has ever embodied this contradiction more blatantly that Jack London.  In fact, his own life and his writings stand in such stark contradiction to his militant socialism as to offer the appearance of incipient schizophrenia.

Jack London was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, quit school as a teen and worked at a variety of menial tasks before he became a writer.  So did poverty, fatherlessness, lack of education, etc. trap him in a life of poverty?  Well, actually he became the highest paid writer in the United States and remains one of the most popular American authors to this day.  Oops!  So much for Marx...  While London was an avowed Socialist, his writings are perhaps the supreme literary reflection of Social Darwinism--the theory that people who succeed in society do so not because of privilege but because of superior ability.  In his most famous work, The Call of the Wild (see Orrin's review), a sled dog returns to nature and the thin veneer of domestication is quickly stripped away; he rapidly reverts to savagery, becoming the prototypical Alpha male.  The Sea Wolf recapitulates this story in human terms for anyone who missed the point.

Humphrey van Weyden is an effete young man of privilege who ends up stranded aboard a sealing ship under the tyrannical control of Wolf Larsen (get it?  Wolf).  Humphrey represents civilized man:

    As I lay there thinking, I naturally dwelt upon myself and my situation. It was unparalleled,
    undreamed-of, that I, Humphrey Van Weyden, a scholar and a dilettante, if you please, in things
    artistic and literary, should be lying here on a Bering Sea seal-hunting schooner. Cabin-boy! I had
    never done any hard manual labor, or scullion labor, in my life. I had lived a placid, uneventful,
    sedentary existence all my days -- the life of a scholar and a recluse on an assured and comfortable
    income. Violent life and athletic sports had never appealed to me. I had always been a book-worm;
    so my sisters and father had called me during my childhood. I had gone camping but once in my
    life, and then I left the party almost at its start and returned to the comforts and conveniences of a
    roof. And here I was, with dreary and endless vistas before me of table-setting, potato-peeling, and
    dish-washing. And I was not strong. The doctors had always said that I had a remarkable
    constitution, but I had never developed it or my body through exercise. My muscles were small and
    soft, like a woman's, or so the doctors had said time and again in the course of their attempts to
    persuade me to go in for physical-culture fads. But I had preferred to use my head, rather than my
    body; and here I was, in no fit condition for the rough life in prospect.

Larsen is the very embodiment of man in the state of nature--brutal, virile, amoral:

    Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchway, and savagely chewing the end of a cigar, was
    the man whose casual glance had rescued me from the sea. His height was probably five feet ten
    inches, or ten and a half; but my first impression, or feel of the man, was not of this, but of his
    strength. And yet, while he was of massive build, with broad shoulders and deep chest, I could not
    characterize his strength as massive. It was what might be termed a sinewy, knotty strength, of the
    kind we ascribe to lean and wiry men, but which, in him, because of his heavy build, partook more
    of the enlarged gorilla order. Not that in appearance he seemed in the least gorilla-like. What I am
    striving to express is this strength itself, more as a thing apart from his physical semblance. It was
    a strength we are wont to associate with things primitive, with wild animals, and the creatures we
    imagine our tree- dwelling prototypes to have been -- a strength savage, ferocious, alive in itself,
    the essence of life in that it is the potency of motion, the elemental stuff itself out of which the
    many forms of life have been molded; in short, that which writhes in the body of a snake when the
    head is cut off, and the snake, as a snake, is dead, or which lingers in a shapeless lump of
    turtle-meat and recoils and quivers from the prod of a finger.

Larsen challenges Humphrey's artificial world view with an elemental philosophy of survival of the fittest:

    "What do you believe, then?" I countered.

    "I believe that life is a mess," he answered promptly. "It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves
    and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to
    move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may
    retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of
    those things?"

    He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on
    some kind of rope stuff amidships.

    "They move; so does the jellyfish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep
    moving. There you have it. They live for their belly's sake, and the belly is for their sake. It's a
    circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more.
    They are dead."

    "They have dreams," I interrupted, "radiant, flashing dreams -- "

    "Of grub," he concluded sententiously.

    "And of more -- "

    "Grub. Of a larger appetite and more luck in satisfying it." His voice sounded harsh. There was no
    levity in it. "For look you, they dream of making lucky voyages which will bring them more
    money, of becoming the mates of ships, of finding fortunes -- in short, of being in a better position
    for preying on their fellows, of having all night in, good grub, and somebody else to do the dirty
    work.  You and I are just like them. There is no difference, except that we have eaten more and
    better. I am eating them now, and you, too. But in the past you have eaten more than I have. You
    have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? and
    those clothes? and those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on
    an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies
    and robbing them of the fish they have caught. You are one with a crowd of men who have made
    what they call a government, who are masters of all the other men, and who eat the food the other
    men get and would like to eat themselves. You wear the warm clothes. They made the clothes, but
    they shiver in rags and ask you, the lawyer, or business agent who handles your money, for a job."

    "But that is beside the matter," I cried.

    "Not at all." He was speaking rapidly, now, and his eyes were flashing. "It is piggishness, and it is
    life. Of what use or sense is an immortality of piggishness? What is the end? What is it all about?
    You have made no food. Yet the food you have eaten or wasted might have saved the lives of a
    score of wretches who made the food but did not eat it. What immortal end did you serve? Or did
    they? Consider yourself and me. What does your boasted immortality amount to when your life
    runs foul of mine? You would like to go back to the land, which is a favorable place for your kind
    of piggishness. It is a whim of mine to keep you aboard this ship, where my piggishness flourishes.
    And keep you I will. I may make or break you. You may die to-day, this week, or next month. I
    could kill you now, with a blow of my fist, for you are a miserable weakling. But if we are
    immortal, what is the reason for this? To be piggish as you and I have been all our lives does not
    seem to be just the thing for immortals to be doing. Again, what's it all about? Why have I kept you

    "Because you are stronger," I managed to blurt out.

    "But why stronger?" he went on at once with his perpetual queries. "Because I am a bigger bit of
    the ferment than you? Don't you see? Don't you see?"

    "But the hopelessness of it," I protested.

    "I agree with you," he answered. "Then why move at all, since moving is living? Without moving
    and being part of the yeast there would be no hopelessness. But, -- and there it is, -- we want to
    live and move, though we have no reason to, because it happens that it is the nature of life to live
    and move, to want to live and move. If it were not for this, life would be dead. It is because of this
    life that is in you that you dream of your immortality. The life that is in you is alive and wants to
    go on being alive forever. Bah! An eternity of piggishness!"

So does London condemn Larsen's atavistic beliefs?  He does present him as a beastly creature, but he is also a heroic figure, to be admired in many ways.  As when he analyzes Milton's Paradise Lost:

    If ever Wolf Larsen attained the summit of living, he attained it then. From time to time I forsook
    my own thoughts to follow him, and I followed in amaze, mastered for the moment by his
    remarkable intellect, under the spell of his passion, for he was preaching the passion of revolt. It
    was inevitable that Milton's Lucifer should be instanced, and the keenness with which Wolf Larsen
    analyzed and depicted the character was a revelation of his stifled genius. It reminded me of Taine,
    yet I knew the man had never heard of that brilliant though dangerous thinker.

    "He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God's thunderbolts," Wolf Larsen was saying.
    "Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten. A third of God's angels he had led with him, and straightway he
    incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the
    generations of man. Why was he beaten out of heaven? Because he was less brave than God? less
    proud? less aspiring? No! A thousand times no! God was more powerful, as he said, Whom
    thunder hath made greater. But Lucifer was a free spirit. To serve was to suffocate. He preferred
    suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility. He did not care to serve God.
    He cared to serve nothing. He was no figurehead. He stood on his own legs. He was an individual."

    "The first anarchist," Maud laughed, rising and preparing to withdraw to her state-room.

    "Then it is good to be an anarchist!" he cried. He, too, had risen, and he stood facing her, where
    she had paused at the door of her room, as he went on:

                                        "`Here at least
                          We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
                           Here for his envy; will not drive us hence;
                          Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
                          To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
                         Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.'"

    It was the defiant cry of a mighty spirit. The cabin still rang with his voice, as he stood there,
    swaying, his bronzed face shining, his head up and dominant, and his eyes, golden and masculine,
    intensely masculine and insistently soft, flashing upon Maud at the door.

    Again that unnamable and unmistakable terror was in her eyes, and she said, almost in a whisper,
    "You are Lucifer."

London is at least ambivalent about Larsen, perhaps even admiring.

And does Humphrey survive by forcing Larsen to become more civilized, more of a social creature?  Not!  Humphrey himself becomes more of a primal man.  After he and Maud, a woman likewise stranded with Larsen, escape to an island with a seal rookery, they are forced to survive by their own wits and will.  At one point, they determine to roof their hut with sealskins and face the daunting task of killing a seal, fending off repeated attacks by enormous bulls.  When Maud confesses her fear, Humphrey feels the beast surge within himself:

    "I'm dreadfully afraid!"

    And I was not. Though the novelty had not yet worn off, the peaceful comportment of the seals
    had quieted my alarm. Maud was trembling.

    "I'm afraid, and I'm not afraid," she chattered with shaking jaws. "It's my miserable body, not I."

    "It's all right, it's all right," I reassured her, my arm passing instinctively and protectingly around

    I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious became of my manhood. The
    primitive deeps of my nature stirred. I felt myself masculine, the protector of the weak, the fighting
    male. And, best of all, I felt myself the protector of my loved one. She leaned against me, so light
    and lily-frail, and as her trembling eased away it seemed as though I became aware of prodigious
    strength. I felt myself a match for the most ferocious bull in the herd, and I know, had such a bull
    charged upon me, that I should have met it unflinchingly and quite coolly, and I know that I should
    have killed it.

    "I am all right, now," she said, looking up at me gratefully. "Let us go on."

    And that the strength in me had quieted her and given her confidence, filled me with an exultant
    joy.  The youth of the race seemed burgeoning in me, over-civilized man that I was, and I lived for
    myself the old hunting days and forest nights of my remote and forgotten ancestry. I had much for
    which to thank Wolf Larsen, was my thought as we went along the path between the jostling

Thrust back into the maw of Nature, the milquetoasty Humphrey of yore disappears.  When Larsen's wrecked ship washes up on the shore, the new Humphrey boldly sets out on a course which would have been unimaginable months earlier:

    "It's too bad the Ghost has lost her masts. Why, we could sail away in her. Don't you think we
    could, Humphrey?"

    I sprang excitedly to my feet.

    "I wonder, I wonder," I repeated, pacing up and down.

    Maud's eyes were shining with anticipation as they followed me. She had such faith in me! And the
    thought of it was so much added power. I remembered Michelet's "To man, woman is as the earth
    was to her legendary son; he has but to fall down and kiss her breast and he is strong again." For
    the first time I knew the wonderful truth of his words. Why, I was living them. Maud was all this
    to me, an unfailing source of strength and courage. I had but to look at her, or think of her, and be
    strong again.

    "It can be done, it can be done," I was thinking and asserting aloud. "What men have done, I can
    do; and if they have never done this before, still I can do it."

This assertion of confidence in his own ability, an ability equal to or superior to that of any other man is pretty hard to square with the Socialist politics of doing for others because societal impediments prevent them from doing for themselves.  It is instead consistent with the conservative belief that man requires freedom in order that all men achieve their full potential, even recognizing the uncomfortable fact that many men will achieve little because they are simply less talented than their fellow men.

In the end, as Humphrey takes over from Wolf Larsen--as he becomes the Alpha male and takes over the pack--it is impossible to interpret this as anything less than a triumph and it is hard to read anything other than admiration in London's tone:

    "What are you doing down there?" he demanded. "Trying to scuttle my ship for me?"

    "Quite the opposite; I'm repairing her," was my answer.

    "But what in thunder are you repairing?" There was puzzlement in his voice.

    "Why, I'm getting everything ready for restepping the masts," replied easily, as though it were the
    simplest project imaginable.

    "It seems as though you're standing on your own legs at last, Hump," we heard him say; and then
    for some time he was silent.

    "But I say, Hump," he called down, "you can't do it."

    "Oh, yes, I can," I retorted. "I'm doing it now."

    "But this is my vessel, my particular property. What if forbid you?"

    "You forget," I replied. "You are no longer the biggest bit of the ferment. You were, once, and able
    to eat me, as you were pleased to phrase it; but there has been a diminishing, and I am now able to
    eat you. The yeast has grown stale."

The Socialism that London espoused in the political arena is little more than the belief that Man would be best served if all the yeast was stale, in order that no man rise above another.  It would allow the State to make motzah of the species, leveling unequal peoples into a flat, bland Saltine of humanity.  It is impossible to believe that the Jack London who lived and wrote as he did, truly hoped for this vision to become reality.  Regardless, his novels make a compelling case for the opposite position, for individual greatness and excellence.  By cleverly cloaking his conservative message in a liberal wrapper, he has virtually guaranteed himself a permanent place in the Western Canon.  Survival of the fittest indeed…


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Jack London (3 books reviewed)
Sea Stories
Jack London Links:
-Jack London's Ranch Album

Book-related and General Links:
    -London, Jack (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -The Jack London Collection
    -Jack London, his life and books (Jack London State Historic Park)
    -Jack London's Ranch Album
    -Jack London  Main Page
    -Jack London at Cetenary College of LA
    -PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide Chapter 6: Late Nineteenth Century - Jack London (1876-1916)
    -BIO: Jack London (1876-1916)  original name John Griffith Chaney (kirjasto)
    -ETEXT: Archives of many works including journalism
    -ETEXT: The Call of the Wild (1903)
    -ETEXT: The Sea Wolf
    -ANNOTATED ETEXTS: (Self Knowledge)
    -ESSAY: THE PHILOSOPHY OF JACK LONDON (Joseph Sciambra, Sonoma State University)
    -ESSAY: Call of the Wild (Henry Veggian)
    -ESSAY: Jack London on the Great War (Michael E. Hanlon, Trenches on the Web)
    -ESSAY: Jack London: Superman unmasked (Bridgman, Joan, Contemporary Review; March 1998)
    -BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: A short life intensely lived: The adventure of Jack London (Harmon, BIOGRAPHY Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON Volume One:1896-1905. Volume Two: 1906-1912. Volume Three: 1913-1916  (E.L. Doctorow, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution Selected Essays, 1977-1992 By E. L. Doctorow (CHRISTOPHER LEHMAN-HAUPT, NY Times)

    -ESSAY: The Politics and Aesthetics of Art (Berdichevsky, Norman, Contemporary Review)
    -REVIEW: INVENTING THE DREAM California Through the Progressive Era. By Kevin Starr (Wallace Stegner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: ONE TOO MANY FOR THE MUSE  (J. Anthony Lukas, NY Times Book Review)


I enjoyed the review, it is better than most that I have encountered. It is a shame that the writer, perhaps still too deeply in the shadow of a former professor, chooses to weave Jack London's socialist leanings into what teetered on a real understanding of the richly developed characters in one of the few high points of American popular literature. The Sea Wolf has an almost Dantesque quality that the reviewer missed - I am convinced - because of his narrow focus on politics. This quality is twisted by London's deification of man, and therefore it lacks a theologically convicing ascent to paradise. Dante's engine of ascent was divine grace. London's is conspicuous by its absence. This is the great flaw of Humanism and even a writer of London's caliber cannot escape it. Romance then becomes the window dressing to cover his flawed "OZ"

Jack London shows a grasp of the nature of evil and its personification in the figure of Lucifer. Nearly tripping over this he quotes the passage where Maude speaks the obvious:"You are Lucifer". But Maude has no grasp of what this means, this is why she is the perfect vehicle to deliver this line. Humphrey has already confronted this truth and from it given us the brilliant image of the rage of a creature of vast intellect and enormous strength who has no one to compare himself to. no mirror to show him the greatness he is sure he possesses. This is the rage with which Lucifer terrorizes Hell (Milton's rather milquetoast fallen angel aside) Despising the fawning servitude of his minions, Growing wild with rage at the fear he inspires, and even when he encounters resistance, rather than respect, it fires his wrath and he consumes it like the demons of Lewis's "Screwtape Letters". Searching for that vintage which satisfies, yet doomed to hunger again. In the end, Jagger's "man of wealth and taste" is consumed by the brute physical rage of his nature. The flaw that renders him unable to defeat his brother death which cocoons whatever was of the higher order and smothers it.

Humphrey does not become the animal that is part of Wolf Larsen's nature, rather he uses this energy, inspired by the Beatrice like figure of Maude, who is in reality his original nature, now seperated to be contrasted against his new strength and the ever dangerous possibility of succombing to its corrupting power represented by the reappearence of the Ghost and its occupant, now physically alone, as his spirit has been on the Ghost all along.

Humphrey represents the triumph of man. Secular Humanism which is not at all at varience with London's Socialism. The power that man wields as civilization develops is guided by his intellect and emerges as the great end.

- Matthew Brooks

- Dec-06-2002, 19:07